May 2011 Updates
Anticipating Shavuot ("Pentecost")
[ Last Sunday marked the 40th day of the Omer count, which means we are about a week away from the holiday of Shavuot ("Pentecost")... ]
05.31.11 (Iyyar 27, 5771) We are nearing the end of Sefirat Ha-Omer (the "Counting of the Omer"), a 49 day countdown that runs from Nisan 16 through Sivan 5. On the traditional Jewish calendar, the first day of the omer count began on the second day of Passover, and the last day occurs the day before Shavuot (i.e.,"Pentecost"). On our Gregorian calendars, these dates run from April 19 until June 7th this year. This is a countdown period leading to the giving of the Torah at Sinai and the giving of the Holy Spirit to Yeshua's disciples.
For traditional Judaism, Shavuot (or "Weeks" or "Pentecost") commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Jewish confirmation ceremonies are often held at the synagogue for young adults to recommit themselves to Talmud Torah (the study of Torah) and the decision to live as a Jew.
According to the sages, the festival of Shavuot marks the culmination of the experience of redemption, sometimes called Atzaret Pesach, the "conclusion" of Passover. Since the Exodus from Egypt was intended to lead to the revelation given at Sinai, the goal of Passover was the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. God took the Jews out of Egypt so that they would be His own treasured people, holy and separated from the pagan cultures around them. Indeed, all of the mo'edim (holidays) are connected with this event, including the fall festivals of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.
Some additional Shavuot customs include decorating the home and synagogue with greenery, eating dairy foods and sweets (as samples of "milk and honey"), and staying up the entire night before Shavuot to read selections from the entire Torah (this custom is called tikkun leil shavu'ot: תִּקּוּן לֵיל שָׁבוּעוֹת, "Rectification for Shavuot Night"). For the Messianic Jew, Shavuot is the time of celebrating the birth of kallat Mashiach - the Bride of the Messiah (or Church), since the Ruach HaKodesh was poured out to the believers in Jerusalem during this festival.
Note: The holiday of Shavuot begins on Tuesday, June 7th (after sundown) and runs through Thursday, June 9th this year. For additional insight into the portions of Torah read during the festival of Shavuot, please click here. To read a brief Shavuot meditation, please see the heart of Torah. For further information about all this, see the Shavuot pages.
About Mem B'Omer...
Last Sunday marked the 40th day of the Omer Count, the time associated with the ascension of Yeshua (called Mem B'Omer). Recall that Yeshua told His followers that it was good that he would leave them, so that the Holy Spirit (רוּחַ הַקּדֶשׁ), the "Comforter" or "Advocate" (παράκλητος), would be given to them. "But I tell you the truth, it is for your advantage that I am going away. For if I do not go away, the Advocate (ὁ παράκλητος) will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you" (John 16:7). Notice that the word translated as "advantage" here is the Greek word συμφέρω (from σύν, "with" and φέρω, "to carry"), which suggests that we would be given power that "carries us" with the Lord during the trials of this life... Bo, Ruach Elohim: "Come, Holy Spirit..."
The Month of Sivan
[ The month of Sivan begins Thursday, June 2nd at sundown (Jerusalem time) this year... ]
05.31.11 (Iyyar 27, 5771) The third month of the traditional Jewish calendar (as reckoned from the month of Nisan) is called Sivan (סִיוָן), which corresponds approximately to the Gregorian month of June. In the Torah this month is simply called "the third month" (i.e., chodesh ha-shlishi: חדֶשׁ הַשְּׁלִישִׁי), though some time after the Babylonian Captivity it assumed its present name. Sivan is mentioned only once in the Jewish Scriptures, in post-Exillic Book of Esther (Esther 8:9).
Since Sivan always has 30 full days, Rosh Chodesh Sivan (i.e., the celebration of the new month) is observed for only one day. Among the Orthodox, the second day of Sivan is called "yom hameyuchas" (the "day of distinction"), since on this day the people agreed to accept the Torah, and upon thier ratification Moses instructed the people to prepare themselves to become "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exod. 19:6-8). In some circles this "day of distinction" is celebrated as a minor festival. On the third day of month the LORD instructed Moses to "set a boundary" (hagbalah) for the people around the mountain in preparation for the coming revelation to be given three days later (Exod. 19:9-15). These three days are called the "Three Days of Separation" (i.e., Sheloshet Yemei Hagbalah: שְׁלשֶׁת יְמֵי הַגְּבָּלָה) during which the people prepared for the revelation to come on Sivan 6th: "Make yourselves ready by the third day" (Exod. 19:11,15). The Talmud comments: "Blessed be our God who has given a threefold Torah (Torah, Prophets, Writings) to a threefold nation (Kohanim, Levites, and Israelites) through one who was third (Moses, the third child after Aaron and Miriam) in the third month."
The first five days of the month of Sivan anticipate the day that the Torah was revealed to Israel at Sinai, namely, on the sixth of Sivan, a date which the rabbis later associated with the holiday of Shavuot ("Weeks" or "Pentecost"), which occured exactly 7 weeks after the Exodus from Egypt. As mentioned above, on the night before Shavuot itself it is customary to read selections from the entire Torah throughout until sunrise. This custom is called tikkun leil shavu'ot: תִּקּוּן לֵיל שָׁבוּעוֹת, "Rectification for Shavuot Night," and was instituted as a "remedy" for Israel's failure to be awake on the morning of the revelation (the midrash scolds the Jewish people for sleeping the night before they received the Torah, and that is why God had to sound a shofar blast and bring thunder and lightning to wake them up). Spiritually speaking, then, the month of Sivan represents the giving of the Torah to Israel (i.e., z'man mattan Toratenu: זְמַן מַתַּן תּוֹרָתֵינוּ), when the drama which began with the Exodus from Egypt culminated with the giving of the Torah. For Messianic believers, the month of Sivan also commemorates the giving of the Ruach Ha-Kodesh (Holy Spirit) to the followers of Yeshua after His ascension into heaven 40 days after His resurrection (i.e., on Mem B'Omer).
The commandment to sanctify the new moon of Sivan reveals that it is our responsibility to sanctify (i.e., observe) Biblical time in general. In other words, when we observe the month in which the Torah was revealed to Israel, we are acknowledging that time itself is rooted in the Biblical calendar with its divinely inspired cycle of festivals (i.e., the moedim).
Rosh Chodesh Blessing:
Since Rosh Chodesh Sivan marks the new beginning of the month of revelation, we humbly ask the LORD to help us prepare for the coming season of Shavuot:
יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֵיךָ יהוה אֱלהֵינוּ וֵאלהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ
שֶׁתְּחַדֵּשׁ עָלֵינוּ חדֶשׁ טוֹב בַּאֲדנֵינוּ יֵשׁוּעַ הַמָּשִׁיחַ אָמֵן
ye·hi ra·tzon mil·fa·ne·kha Adonai E·lo·hey·nu ve·lo·hey a·vo·tey·nu
she·te·cha·desh a·ley·nu cho·desh tov, ba'a·do·ney·nu Ye·shu·a ha·ma·shi·ach, a·men
"May it be Your will, LORD our God and God of our fathers,
that you renew for us a good month in our Lord Yeshua the Messiah. Amen."
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The Priestly Blessing
[ The following is related to this week's Torah reading, parashat Naso ("lift up!"). Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
05.30.11 (Iyyar 26, 5771) Our Torah portion this week (Naso) includes the famous blessing that Aaron and his sons (i.e., the priests) were instructed to recite over the people of Israel during times of holy convocation at the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Many of you are familiar with this blessing, but for those who are not, I will repeat it here, along with the Hebrew audio:
יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ
יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָּ
יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם
ye·va·re·khe·kha Adonai ve·yish·me·re·kha;
ya·eir Adonai pa·nav e·ley·kha vi·chun·ne·ka;
yis·sa Adonai panav e·ley·kha ve·ya·sem le·kha sha·lom
"The LORD bless you and guard you;
The LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
The LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace."
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The Torah prescribed that only the descendants of Aaron (i.e., the kohanim) were allowed to convey this blessing upon the people of Israel, and indeed this practice continues in synagogue services today. During an (Orthodox) service, for example, the priests first remove their shoes and have their hands ritually washed by Levites (if any are present). This custom is apparently based on the verse, "Lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the LORD!" (Psalm 134:2). They then ascend to stand before the Ark and each one covers his head and arms with a tallit (prayer shawl) while privately reciting the blessing: "Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe, Who makes us holy with the holiness of Aaron, and has commanded us to bless His people Israel with love." When they have finished, the cantor will say, "Kohanim..." as a signal for the priests to begin.
Each priest then raises his hands, with the palms facing downward and the thumbs of his outspread hands touching. The four fingers on each hand are sometimes split into two sets of two fingers each (thus forming the letter Shin (שׁ), an emblem for Shaddai), or sometimes they are arranged to form an overlapping lattice of 'windows.' As the priest(s) chant the melody of the blessing, the cantor recites each word. This ceremony is sometimes called Nesiat Kapayim, the "lifting of the hands." According to Jewish tradition, the Divine Presence would shine through the fingers of the priests as they blessed the people, and no one was allowed to look at this out of respect for God.
The "Three-in-One" Blessing
The text of the blessing (Num. 6:24-26) begins with three words, is comprised of three parts, invokes the divine Name three times, and is therefore appropriately called "the three-in-one blessing." Notice that it is phrased in the singular rather than plural because it is meant to have personal application, not to be a general benediction over a crowd of people. It has been sometimes noted that the first section consists of three words, the second of five, and the third of seven, and various speculations have been offered as to why the blessing is structured this way (e.g., 3+5 is the number of grace, 7 marks completion, etc.). Notice that the phrase, "The LORD lift up His face toward you..." (יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ) pictures the beaming face of a parent as he lifts up his beloved child in joy... The repetitive construction of God "lifting up His face" (יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיך) suggests that God's justice has been fully satisfied and His compassion now flows outward to the child in loving grace.
Under the terms of the older covenant (הַבְּרִית הַיְשָׁנָה), only the descendants of Aaron were chosen to convey the blessing of God to the people of God, but under the terms of the greater New Covenant (הַבְּרִית הַחֲדָשָׁה), all followers of Yeshua are made part of "a chosen people, a priesthood of King Messiah, a holy nation, a people for his own possession," so that we may proclaim the glory of Him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 1:5-6). "Through Yeshua, then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his Name" (Heb. 13:15). It must be remembered that the subject of the priestly blessing is the LORD (יהוה); He (alone) is the One who does the blessing, and even under the older covenant the sons of Aaron merely transmitted or conveyed God's blessing to the people. Since the LORD God Almighty is the only true Blessor, undoubtedly Yeshua recited the "priestly blessing" over his disciples when he ascended back to heaven, though of course He would have spoken it in the first person: "I bless you and keep you; I shine upon you and am gracious to you; I lift up my countenance upon you, and give you my peace" (Luke 24:50-51). As Yeshua said to his followers, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you" (John 14:27; 20:19). After all, who but the Prince of Peace (שַׂר שָׁלוֹם) could speak these words in the truth? This Prince was promised by the prophet to be God's Son, the anointed King of Israel Himself:
כִּי־יֶלֶד יֻלַּד־לָנוּ בֵּן נִתַּן־לָנוּ וַתְּהִי הַמִּשְׂרָה עַל־שִׁכְמוֹ
וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ פֶּלֶא יוֹעֵץ אֵל גִּבּוֹר אֲבִיעַד שַׂר־שָׁלוֹם
ki ye·led yu·lad la·nu, ben nit·tan la·nu, va·te·hi ha-mis·rah al shikh·mo,
va·yik·ra she·mo: pe·leh, yo·etz el gib·bor, a·vi·ad, sar sha·lom.
"For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his Name shall be called 'Wonderful One,' 'Counselor of the Mighty God,'
'the Father of Eternity,' 'the Prince of Peace.'" (Isa. 9:5[h])
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Indeed to receive Yeshua is to receive the Blessing of God. "Whoever has the Son has life (חַיִּים); whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life" (1 John 5:12).
Some people object the truth that Yeshua is God Himself because they have a problem with the idea of the "Trinity." However, the idea that God is "transpersonal" has always been a stumbling block to those who carnally reason (i.e., rely on human logic to understand the divine), and the idea of a "trinity" or "tru-iune" nature of God is only known through direct revelation (i.e., what the Scriptures reveal), despite the hardship this might pose for human rationality.... Yeshua Himself is the "Absolute Paradox," the intersection of the eternal and finite - God in Messiah; God on the Cross. Monotheistic systems that attempt to reduce God to absolute monism are not unlike the ancient Greek pagan philosophers who said things like, "Everything is Water" or "Everything is Number." These systems attempt to be "rational" but end up limiting the power of God Himself... God is LORD over all possible worlds - the great cosmos as well as the subatomic realms - and He can surely do whatever He wills with creation. The triune nature of the Godhead implies that what is most real and true about ultimate reality is community and love. God is love - but love is not self-absorbed, like Aristotle's "Unmoved Mover."
Various "scandals" surrounding the identity and authority of Yeshua are found in the New Testament, such as innuendos raised regarding his miraculous birth, his claim to be "Lord of the Sabbath," his statement to be able to forgive other people's sins, his restatement of the true the intent of the Torah (the Voice of YHVH on the mountain), his claim that he is the Judge of the world and to be honored as God, the Savior of the world, the Redeemer of Israel, the Holy One of God, the Good Shepherd, the Way and the Truth and the Life, the First and the Last, the true Light, the Great I AM, the LORD of Glory, and on and on...
05.30.11 (Iyyar 26, 5771) In the United States, Memorial Day is a national holiday observed on the last Monday of May, commemorating all the men and women who have died in military service for their country. For those who have lost a loved one during their military service, please accept our heartfelt condolences and appreciation for your great sacrifice...
Jerusalem Day - יום ירושלים
[ "Jerusalem Day" is an Israeli national holiday that celebrates the reunification of Jerusalem on June 7th, 1967. This year the holiday is observed on Tuesday May 31st and June 1st. ]
05.29.11 (Iyyar 25, 5771) In Israel, "Jerusalem Day" (Yom Yerushalayim) commemorates the reunification of old city of Jerusalem on June 7th, 1967 during the Six Day War. In 1968 the Chief Rabbinate of Israel declared Iyyar 28 to be a holiday to thank God for answering the 2,000-year-old prayer of "Next Year in Jerusalem" (לַשָּׁנָה הַבָּאָה בִּיְרוּשָׁלַיִם). On March 23, 1998, the Knesset passed the "Jerusalem Day" law, assigning Iyyar 28 (the date of the reunification) as a national holiday in Israel. This year, Iyyar 28 runs from Tuesday, May 31st (after sundown) through Wednesday, June 1st (until sundown).
Yeshua called Jerusalem the "City of the great King" (Psalm 48:2; Matt 5:35).... It is the place where He was crucified, buried, resurrected, and from where He ascended to heaven. It is also the birthplace of kehilat Mashiach (i.e., the "church," or those called out to follow the Jewish Messiah) and represents focal point of humanity's eschatological future. One day (soon) Yeshua will physically return to Jerusalem (not Rome, Geneva, or any other place) as Mashiach ben David to establish the throne of King David. At that time, all the New Covenant promises given to ethnic Israel will be literally fulfilled as the Kingdom of God is manifest upon the earth. May that day come speedily, and in our day...
Note: Click here to learn 25 reasons why Jerusalem matters to followers of the Messiah. Please also see the meditation, "The Lost Passion of Zion." And for information about the institutionalized prejudice against the Jewish people by the theologians of the church, see "Is Christianity anit-Jewish?"
Parashat Naso - נשא
05.29.11 (Iyyar 25, 5771) Our Torah portion for this coming Shabbat is parashat Naso ("lift up!"), the second portion of Book of Numbers (i.e., Sefer Bamidbar). Naso is the longest of the 54 weekly Torah portions, with 176 verses. Among other things, this portion gives the commandment for Aaron and his sons to bless the people of Israel (Num. 6:23-27) which later came to be known as the "priestly blessing" (birkat kohanim). To learn more about this wonderful blessing, click here (you can also listen to it chanted by clicking here).
Note: If it pleases God, I will add some additional commentary to this Torah portion later this week, chaverim. Meanwhile, I earnestly solicit your prayers for my health and for the grace of God to continue doing this work. Thank you, and shalom.
Haftarah for Bamidbar
[ The following is related to this week's amazing Haftarah reading (for parashat Bamidbar). Please read the Book of Hosea (chapters 1-3) to "find your place" here. ]
05.27.11 (Iyyar 23, 5771) The prophet Hosea (הוֹשֵׁעַ) was to the northern kingdom of Israel what the prophet Jeremiah would later be to the southern kingdom of Judah - a man of sorrows, vexed and oppressed by the waywardness of his people, a voice crying out in the wasteland of sin, a prophet raised up by God first to warn and then to finally witness the destruction and captivity of his people. In the case of Hosea, however, God made the prophet's most intimate family life into a "metaphor" of His troubled relationship with his people, and therefore the LORD commanded him marry a prostitute so that the people would understand God's profound heartache and outrage over Israel's infidelity: "Go, take to yourself a prostitute (אֵשֶׁת זְנוּנִים) who will bear children conceived through prostitution, for the land commits great prostitution by forsaking the LORD" (Hos. 1:2). Hosea obeyed and married a woman named Gomer, who bore him a son named Jezreel (i.e., Yizra'el: יִזְרְעֶאל, "God sows"), so named because judgment would soon befall the dynasty of Jehu (i.e., the of kingdom of Israel). Israel would soon face judgment in the "Valley of Jezreel."
Sometime later Gomer conceived again, but not by means of Hosea, and therefore the daughter who was born was to be called "No Mercy" (i.e., lo ruchamah: לא רֻחָמָה), so named because Israel would be shown no mercy when the Assyrian army would arrive to carry the people away. Gomer later conceived and bore a son, again not by Hosea, who was to be called "Not my people" (i.e., lo ammi: לא עַמִּי), so named to proclaim that the people had separated themselves from the LORD because of their incorrigible idolatry.
Nonetheless, God is forever faithful and His chesed endures forever, and therefore He promised that in the "latter days" (בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים), Gomer (Israel) and her children would be restored to Him. Regarding the future of both Israel and Judah, the LORD says, "Although it was said to them, "You are not my people," it will be said to them, "You are children of the living God (בְּנֵי אֵל־חָי). Then the people of Judah and the people of Israel will be gathered together, and they will appoint for themselves one leader, and will flourish in the land. Certainly, the day of Jezreel will be great! Then you will call your brother, "My People" (i.e., ammi: עַמִּי), and you will call your sister, "Mercy" (i.e., ruchamah: רֻחָמָה)." (Hos. 1:10-2:1).
The prophet then returned to the imminent hour of judgment that would soon befall faithless Israel, using the painful (and prophetic) experience of his own desecrated marriage with Gomer to make God's case. "Plead with your mother, plead - for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband - that she put away her fornication from her face, and her adultery from between her breasts. Otherwise, I will strip her naked, and expose her like she was when she was born. I will turn her land into a wilderness and make her country a parched land, so that I might kill her with thirst." Israel's spiritual adultery will not go unpunished, and God's love will not be unrequited. "I will have no mercy (לא אֲרַחֵם) on her children, because they are children conceived in prostitution" (Hos. 2:4).
Despite the coming judgment, however, the prophet repeats the promise that faithless Israel will one day be fully reconciled with the LORD. "At that time," declares the LORD, "you will call out, 'My husband!' (i.e., ishi: אִישִׁי); you will never again call me, 'My master' (i.e., baali: בַּעְלִי, a name associated with the pagan god "Baal"). For I will remove the names of the Baal idols from your lips, so that you will never again utter their names." Just as Hosea redeemed Gomer from her life of prostitution (Hos. 3:1-5), so God will redeem Israel and betroth her to Himself forever:
וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי לְעוֹלָם
וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בְּצֶדֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּט וּבְחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים
וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בֶּאֱמוּנָה וְיָדַעַתְּ אֶת־יְהוָה
ve·ei·ra·stikh li le·o·lam
ve·ei·ra·stikh li b·tze·dek uv·mish·pat uv·che·sed uv·ra·cha·mim
ve·ei·ra·stikh li be·e·mu·nah ve·ya·da·at et Adonai
"And I will betroth you to me forever.
I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice,
in steadfast love and in mercy.
I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the LORD"
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These precious words are an "echo from the future" that foretell Israel's future restoration and salvation as the beloved of the LORD. These words of love portend the great day when "all Israel shall be saved" (Rom. 11:26). (Today these verses are often recited in traditional betrothal ceremonies (i.e., erusin: אֵרוּסִין), and every day when tefillin (תפילין) are put on during morning services by Orthodox Jews.)
This is yet another amazing story of God's passionate love revealed in the Scriptures.... God is like a "jilted lover" who refuses to give up on us. He loves us even in the filth of our depravity and redeems us from a life of shame. He zealously seeks us, takes us back, and restores us to a place of honor and joy...
God is our Creator, our King, our Judge, our Redeemer - but most importantly He is our Father who profoundly loves us as his children... We are like prodigal sons for whom his heart yearns... But, as the prophet Hosea reveals, the LORD is even likened to our faithful husband, indeed, even our lover! "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth" (Song. 1:2). Yesh ohev davek me'ach (יֵשׁ אהֵב דָּבֵק מֵאָח): "There is a lover who sticks closer than a brother" (Prov. 18:24). It is vital to understand that sin does not mean breaking God's law as much as it means breaking God's heart... Of the various metaphors of our relationship with God, "Father," "Husband," "Lover" and "Friend" are surely ultimate... God created and redeemed us for the sake of His love to be expressed to us. Like Gomer, we cannot let the power of shame overwhelm our gratitude for the cross. May we open our hearts to Him!
Shabbat Shalom, chaverim! Please remember this ministry in your prayers...
Reading in Context...
05.26.11 (Iyyar 22, 5771) It is vital to read the Bible in context to understand what it is saying. We must use clear thinking, since God Himself calls us to walk in wisdom and understanding (Prov. 4:7). For example, the phrase "no weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper" (Isa. 54:17), does not mean that we should affect a sense of spiritual bravado and walk through life like some sort of "Rambo" character. True, we must walk in bold courage and trust in God's powerful protection (Prov 28:1), but we cannot rightly claim that this verse promises a spiritual "force field" to protect us from all harm... Sadly, there are many cases of violence and persecution against God's people in this world, but this in no way impugns the great promises of God. Understanding this phrase as a blanket of protection from harm misses the point of the prophet's message.
כָּל־כְּלִי יוּצַר עָלַיִךְ לא יִצְלָח
וְכָל־לָשׁוֹן תָּקוּם־אִתָּךְ לַמִּשְׁפָּט תַּרְשִׁיעִי
kol ke·li yu·tzar a·la·yikh lo yitz·lach,
ve·khol la·shon ta·kum it·takh, la·mish·pat tar·shi·'i
"No weapon formed against you will succeed;
and every tongue that rises against you in judgment, you will condemn"
Now while it is true that "the Angel of the LORD (Malakh Adonai) camps around those who fear Him to deliver them" (Psalm 34:8), the context of the verse given above concerns the prophet's message of consolation to Israel. One day Israel's complete restoration and glory will come, even if presently she suffers exile. God's eternal covenant of peace with Israel will never be revoked, and in the future all the promises given to ethnic Israel will be literally fulfilled. In the coming kingdom, Israel will finally inherit the blessing of the LORD, and God will establish Zion as a praise in all the earth. If we disregard the context of this verse, then, we will miss the awesome message of God's faithful love for the Jewish people...
Along these lines, it's been said that we should "never read a bible verse," but always read its surrounding context, since the meaning of any particular verse is necessarily determined through its general context. We first read from the general to the specific, not the other way around. A fancy way to say all this is to simply recite the rule: "A text taken out of context becomes a pretext." A humorous example of violating this principle is given in the story of a man who desperately wanted to hear from God, so he opened his Bible, glanced down and read, "he departed, and he went and hanged himself" (Matt. 27:5). Alarmed at what he thought might be a "message" from God, the man then flipped ahead to verse and read, "Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:37). This is story is funny preciely because it is preposterous to read verses from Scriptures while ignoring their context. We are not to read the Scriptures using "divination," like some people read the I Ching or others use Tarot cards...
We must carefully study the surrounding context of a particular text before we attempt to understand its significance and application for our lives. And of course this "first principle" applies to our study of the New Testament itself. We must first understand Torah before we can hope to truly understand the language of the gospel. Failure to do just this leads to various exegetical errors, including the great exegetical error of "replacement theology." As I have stated elsewhere, many Christian pastors and teachers assume a "New Testament priority" when reading the "Old Testament," which means that they implicitly apply terms of the Greek New Testament and then "read backwards" to the Old. As I have said elsewhere, however, while it's possible that the Old Testament is true and the New Testament is not, it's impossible for the New Testament to be true if the Old Testament is not. In other words, we must first take the time to study the meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures - and especially the Hebraic mindset - before we draw our conclusions about the meaning of the New Testament. Yeshua used this approach as did the Apostles (Luke 24:27; 44-45; John 5:46). "when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons" (Gal. 4:4-5). It is just common sense to read things in context; otherwise how will we begin to understand how Yeshua fulfills the message of the Torah?
Some other examples of wrenching verses out of context include various phrases such as, "touch not my anointed..." "judge not, lest ye be judged," "quench not the Spirit," "out of the mouth of babes and sucklings you have perfected praise," "the Father is greater than I," and so on. When Yeshua said, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me," it is vital to understand that he was speaking to believers, not to unbelievers!
My point here is not to question the power of God to deliver us, of course, since there are great promises about this for believers in Yeshua. But we need to exercise caution and endeavor to understand what we are reading. We need both Spirit and truth to properly understand the Scriptures. That's part of the reason why we don't offer goats upon our altars during worship services these days. We are commanded to "rightly divide" (ὀρθοτομέω, lit. "cut straight") the "word of truth" (דְּבַר הָאֱמֶת, see 2 Tim. 2:15). Being conscious of the type of literature you are reading (e.g., narratives, histories, genealogies, commandments, poems, maxims, prophecies, parables, letters, and so on) is a first step in learning to read the Scriptures with real wisdom...
חנֶה מַלְאַךְ־יְהוָה סָבִיב לִירֵאָיו וַיְחַלְּצֵם
cho·neh Ma·lakh Adonai sa·viv lir·ei·av, va·ya·chal·le·tzem
"The Angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him,
and rescues them" (Psalm 34:7)
On the other hand...
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 multiple "aspects" of the Torah, each of which may separately discerned. "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 or point of view of the other person. When insoluble disagreements arise, Jewish tradition settles the issue by saying: "These and these are the words of the Living God" (אֵלּוּ וְאֵלּוּ דִּבְרֵי אֱלהִים חַיִּים). Humility is the key here.
Of course there are other ways to interpret the Scriptures than strictly using logic and the "grammatical-historical" method. These alternative (or "non-linear") ways of interpretation include the use of analogies, foreshadowing, metaphors, similes, midrash, gematria, and so on. Indeed, in some cases the New Testament writers quote the Tanakh (Jewish Scriptures) in ways that appear to defy the standard "grammatical-historical" method. For example, Matthew quotes the prophet Hosea ("out of Egypt I have called my son") as being fulfilled when the family of Yeshua returned to Egypt after they fled from evil King Herod (Matt. 2:15; Hos. 11:1). Matthew seems to be saying that the prophet Hosea was actually prophesying about the Messiah, when the plain sense of Hosea's message refers to the nation of Israel and the Exodus from Egypt... Moreover, Yeshua himself sometimes quoted things in a partial way, or took things apparently out of context. For example, during his early Passover Seder with the disciples, Yeshua foretold his betrayal by Judas by quoting a phrase from Psalm 41, "so the Scripture may be fulfilled, 'He who eats my bread has lifted up his heel against me'" (John 13:18). When we read Psalm 41, however, we hear a plea of David for healing and deliverance from the slander of his enemies. And although David alludes to being "raised up" in vindication, it is clear the Psalm is not entirely Messianic, especially since he appeals to God's grace for healing from his sin (Psalm 41:4).
One way to reconcile how such quotes are used is to recall the fourfold layering of Biblical interpretation (p'shat, remez, drash, and sod) that is part of traditional Jewish exegesis:
- P'shat (פְּשָׁט) - Study the plain (historical/grammatical) meaning of the text. Examine the grammar of the texts and the historical setting as background for deciding what a passage means. This is the "default mode" for reading the Scriptures.
- Remez (רֶמֶז) - Discover meaning which is hinted at by the text. This implies, of course, that the Holy Spirit can allude to things of which the writers or speakers themselves were unaware. Example: Matthew's interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 (referring to the prophecy given to Ahaz) as hinting to the birth of the Messiah...
- D'rash (דְרָשׁ) - Expand the implicit meaning of the text (midrash). Find the allegorical or homiletical application of a text. This implies that the Holy Spirit can inspire the reader or listener just as He inspired the writer or speaker... Examples: Paul's use of allegory regarding Sarah and Hagar, or his identification of the "Rock" in the desert (Miriam's Well) with the Messiah; Yeshua's use of parables, etc.
- Sod (סוֹד) - Reveal the esoteric meaning of the text. This can mean using gematria (i.e., numerical values for words/phrases that are correlated to equivalences), noting unusual spellings of words, studying the symbolism of individual letters, performing Equidistant letter sequences (ELS), noting patterns of biblical numerology, observing scribal notes or embellishments, and so on, all intended to reveal hidden truth. A New Testament use of "sod" is John's statement that Yeshua is the Logos, or Divine Word (memra) of God, and Yeshua's statement that He is the "Aleph and Tav" of Divine Revelation to mankind, the Light of the World, the Gateway, the Bread of Life, etc. Likewise the author of the Book of Hebrews identifies Yeshua as a "type" of Malki-Tzedek, a priest that preceded the rise of the Levites and to whom the Levites owe tribute.
It is important to stress, however, that the study of the p'shat (plain sense of the Scriptures) is a necessary first step before moving to other ways of reading or interpreting the texts, and in no case will other levels of interpretation explicitly contradict the plain meaning of the Scriptures (though they may elaborate on that meaning).
Many people want "shortcuts" to wisdom, but frankly there's no escaping the need to do some hard work to obtain it. The plain, historical meaning (i.e., p'shat) is the baseline for other ways of interpretation, and this implies that there can be "no drash without p'shat" -- i.e., you can't honestly get at true implications of the Scriptures without first studying the plain sense of the texts themselves. Many people want to bypass this process and hear "sod-level" mysteries without exerting the effort to earnestly study the text, check the grammar, research the historical context, and otherwise seek to ascertain the original intent of the author. Beware, chaverim, of those who come to you purporting to tell you what a text "really" means when it is evident that they have not toiled in the plain sense of the text (and context) itself... Studying the p'shat is the foundation for all that follows in your Bible study... Yeshua certainly taught so.
New "Table Talk" for Bamidbar
[ The following is related to this week's Torah reading, parashat Bamidbar ("in the wilderness"). Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
05.25.11 (Iyyar 21, 5771) It is encouraging and edifying to discuss the weekly Torah portion with your family and friends during the Friday night Sabbath meal. To make it a little easier to discuss some topics, I created a new Shabbat "Table Talk" guide for parashat Bamidbar. The guide includes a brief summary of the Torah portion, a set of questions (with answers), and some additional topics for discussion. Hopefully this material will prompt some interesting (and enjoyable) discussion around your Sabbath table, chaverim. You can download the table talk guide here.
My prayer today was simply, "Help, O LORD!" Everything seemed to go wrong, and I felt sorely tested... In a sense, we are all "living in the desert" as we await the final redemption. What are you learning as you walk with God through the wilderness of this world? One thing is certain, we all need God's power to make it through, and he has promised to give us just what we need for the journey:
נתֵן לַיָּעֵף כּחַ וּלְאֵין אוֹנִים עָצְמָה יַרְבֶּה
no-ten la-ya-eif ko-ach, ul-ein o-nim otz-mah yar-beh
"He gives power (ko'ach) to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength"
Note that the word translated "strength" in this verse (otzmah) comes from the same root for "bones" (עֲצָמוֹת). This alludes to the vision of the "dry bones" being clothed with life at the time of resurrection. "Thus says the Lord God to these bones: 'Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live'" (Ezek. 37:5). If God has the power to give life to dessicated bones, surely his resurrection power can "quicken us" through the life of our beloved Savior Yeshua who said, "You will receive power (i.e., koach: כּחַ) when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses" (Acts 1:7). Therefore we can recite the Hebrew blessing, בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה אֳלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם הַנוֹתֵן לַיָּעֵף כּח, "Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, who gives strength to the weary." We find real everlasting strength in our Comforter, the One who gives us life...
Yashar Ko'ach b'Yeshua, chaverim!
Prelude to the Desert...
[ The following provides a brief survey of the Torah as a sort of "prelude" to our study of the Book of Numbers... Hopefully it will help provide some overall context to the book as we begin to read it again this year. ]
05.23.11 (Iyyar 19, 5771) The Book of Genesis (i.e., Sefer Bereshit [סֵפֶר בְּרֵאשִׁית]) describes the creation of the world, the transgression of Adam and Eve, the promise of the coming Savior, and the subsequent lapse of the human race into godlessness and depravity. The wicked generations of Cain caused the world to be entirely steeped in anarchy and bloodlust, so that "every intention of the thoughts of man's heart was only evil continually." After ten generations, the LORD "had enough" and destroyed the human race by means of the great flood. Only Noah and his immediate family were spared. Noah had three sons, of whom God chose Shem to be the high priest of the remnant of the human race. From Shem's line would ultimately come Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. Of course Abraham had a son named Isaac, and Isaac later had a son named Jacob. From Jacob (who was renamed "Israel") were born twelve sons, each of whom became patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel. Jacob's treasured son Joseph, however, was sold into slavery by his envious brothers, but later God promoted him to great power in the land of Egypt. The Book of Genesis ends with Joseph's dramatic reconciliation with his family, who then emigrated to Egypt to escape a devastating famine in the land of Canaan. Before his death, Jacob blessed his sons and confirmed the coming of the Savior through the tribe of Judah.
The Book of Exodus (i.e., Sefer Shemot [סֵפֶר שְׁמוֹת]) describes how the family of Jacob (i.e., the twelve tribes of Israel) multiplied into a great nation while dwelling in the land Egypt. Eventually, however, the Egyptians came to regard these "outsiders" as a political threat and convinced the Pharaoh to enslave and to grievously oppress them. The book describes how God intervened on behalf of Israel and chose Moses (and Aaron) to confront the Pharaoh and to demand that the Israelites be set free. Pharaoh refused Moses' repeated appeals, however, despite plagues of warning visited upon the Egyptians. As a final act of judgment, God instituted the Passover and killed all the firstborn sons of the land of Egypt. Moses and the Israelites then fled from Egypt, crossing the Red Sea into the Midian desert as directed by the Pillar of Cloud and Fire. When the people finally convened at Mount Sinai 49 days later, they received the Ten Commandments, and Moses was called up the mountain to receive the vision of the Tabernacle. While Moses was on the mountain, however, the Israelites forged a Golden Calf and worshipped it, and God threatened to destroy the people. Moses successfully interceded on their behalf, however, and after a period of national teshuvah (repentance), the covenant was renewed. The remainder of the book describes the architectural details and the construction of the Tabernacle, which was finally assembled and consecrated a year after the Exodus from Egypt (i.e., on Nisan 1). The Book of Exodus ends with the Shekhinah Glory of the LORD filling the newly built sanctuary: "For the cloud of the LORD was on the Tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys."
Moses' brother Aaron had been selected to be the first High Priest of the Jewish people, and Aaron's sons were designated as Israel's priests. Since the Tabernacle was intended to symbolize God's Presence among the people, Moses undoubtedly instructed Aaron and his sons (along with the other Levites) about their forthcoming responsibilities. The Book of Leviticus (i.e., Sefer Vayikra [סֵפֶר וַיִּקְרָא]) is therefore called Torat Kohanim - the Law of the Priests - since it deals largely with the service of the priests in the Tabernacle (the book was probably originally written during the six months when the Tabernacle and its furnishings were being made). The laws of sacrificial offerings are therefore detailed, as well dietary laws, laws regarding purity and impurity, and specific rituals for purifying the sanctuary. Throughout the book the holiness of God is stressed, with the corresponding duty for the priests and the people to be holy themselves. Apart from the narrative concerning the days of the Tabernacle's consecration (i.e., the death of Aaron's sons), the book itself is somewhat "timeless," with an emphasis on the need for blood atonement and sacrificial rituals to draw near to God. The Book ends with a list of blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience to God's law.
Although it appears after the Book of Leviticus in the Torah scroll, the Book of Numbers (i.e., Sefer Bemidbar [סֵפֶר בְּמִדְבַּר]) picks up precisely where the Book of Exodus left off, with the Glory of the LORD hovering over Tabernacle as the Israelites camped at Sinai. The book opens: "The LORD spoke to Moses in the desert of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying, take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by clans, by fathers' houses, according to the number of names, every male, head by head" (Num. 1:1-2). After the adult men were counted (the result of 603,550 is identical to earlier number in the Book of Exodus (cp. Num. 1:45-46; Exod. 38:26-27)) - the tribes were meticulously arranged into military camp formation around the Tabernacle. It should be noted, however, that the narrative in the book is not presented in entirely chronological order, since later it is stated that Israel celebrated the Passover before this census was taken (cp. Num. 1:1-2; 9:1-5), and the commencement of the journey to the promised land began when the Divine cloud lifted from the Tabernacle and began moving towards the wilderness of Paran (Num. 10:11-12). Besides, very little is told us about the 38 years of wandering in the desert, though certain spiritually significant episodes are described in the text... At any rate, the purpose of the census appears to be military, and only true Israelites were allowed to fight in God's battles (i.e., none of the "mixed multitude" were eligible). However, despite being personally led by the Shekhinah cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night - with the Divine Presence encamping in their midst and protecting them on all sides - the Israelites repeatedly rebelled against the LORD. When the camp of Israel finally drew near to the promised land, the people lapsed in their faith and succumbed to the fears expressed by the faithless spies. This sin led to God's judgment that Israel's entry into the land would be delayed for an additional 38 years, during which time every person 20 years of age and older was fated to die in the wilderness - except for Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, the two spies who trusted in God. Truly it has been said that it was easy for the LORD to take the people out of Egypt, but it was hard for Him to take Egypt out of the people....
Following this tragic judgment, God turned the people back to the desert and restated various laws regarding the Tabernacle. Moses' cousin Korach - joined by other prominent leaders of Israel - then rebelled by challenging God's designated leadership and calling for the people to return to Egypt. After God destroyed the rebels and vindicated the priesthood of Aaron and his sons, the people wandered in the desert for several more years. After further tests and failures of the people - including Moses' own lapse at Kadesh Barnea which led to his banishment from the promised land - the 38 year period of exile finally drew to a close. Another census was taken, and Joshua was commissioned to lead the people into the land. The Book of Numbers ends with the next generation of Israel beginning to conquer the region of Canaan east of the Promised Land.
The Book of Numbers marks the end of the historical narrative of the Torah, since it briefly describes the Israelites arrival at the end of their journey, the impending death of Moses, and the appointment of Joshua as the new leader of the people (the Book of Deuteronomy presents Moses' final sermon before he died). In Jewish tradition, the book is generally not regarded as a book of law, though the sages discover various forms of "case law" in its pages (e.g., the case of the inheritance of the daughters of Zelophehad). Instead, the book functions as a warning of the need to adhere to God's Torah and to exercise faith in His provision for the people. It ends with a note of hope, as the surviving generation begins to take hold of God's promise and enter into the land...
On a "macro level," the Torah tells the story of our pilgrimage to Zion, the mountain of the LORD that will one day fill the whole earth.... Genesis describes our creation and fall; Exodus describes our bondage and deliverance; Leviticus describes the walk of holiness; and Numbers describes the test and refinement of our faith (Deuteronomy is "mishneh Torah," the retelling and review of the inner meaning of the first four books).
It has been rightly said that the Book of Numbers displays both the "goodness and the severity of God" (Rom. 11:22). The New Testament cites various acts of rebellion mentioned in the book as "parables" or examples that were recorded so that we might be warned to keep our faith resolute (1 Cor. 10:1-12; Rom. 15:4). The Apostle Paul wrote, "Now these things took place as examples (i.e., τύποι, "types") for us, that we might not desire evil as they did... they were written down for our warning (νουθεσία) on whom the end of the ages has come" (1 Cor. 10:6, 11). Part of the wonder of the story of the Exodus generation is that "the deeds of the fathers are signs for the children" (מַעֲשֵׂה אֲבוֹת סִימָן לַבָּנִים), which means that the stories recorded in the Torah are "immortal" patterns intended to teach us spiritual truth. The faithlessness of the Exodus generation is therefore an eternal warning of failing to genuinely possess the promises of God... As Paul further states in this connection, "Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10:12). We stand by trusting in the goodness of God and therefore we are warned about the severe consequences of unbelief.
Likewise, the author of the Book of Hebrews warns that "Exodus generation" was forbidden to enter into God's rest because of their unbelief. "Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called 'today,' that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Messiah, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. As it is written, 'Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion;" (Heb. 3:12-15). And again, "Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened" (Heb. 4:1-2).
May the Living God (אֵל חַי) give you the grace to truly trust in Him... May He forever keep you! May He guard you from the seduction of unbelief.... May you forever resist the temptation to lose your heart. Walk strong, chaverim! Be strong in the LORD and the power of His might!
Parashat Bamidbar - במדבר
[ The following is related to this week's Torah reading, parashat Bamidbar ("in the wilderness"). Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
05.22.11 (Iyyar 18, 5771) It is customary to refer to "books" of the Hebrew Bible according to their initial word(s). For example, the first book of the Torah is called Bereshit ("in the beginning"), from the first word in the scroll (בְּרֵאשִׁית). When the Hebrew was later translated into Koine Greek (c. 3rd-2nd century BC), individual books were assigned names based on the interpretations of the sages. Therefore the Septuagint (i.e., the ancient Greek translation) named the first book of the Torah Γένεσις ("birth" or "origin"), which later made its way into English (and other languages) via Latin as the word "Genesis."
It's important to understand that the names of the various books of the Bible were "coined" by the Greek translators and are not part of the original texts of Scripture themselves. Therefore the "Book of Leviticus" is a transliteration of the Greek phrase βιβλίον το Λευιτικόν, ("book of the Levites"), though in a Torah scroll it was simply identified according to its first significant word: Vayikra (וַיִּקְרָא - "and he called"); likewise, the "Book of Numbers" comes from the Greek word Ἀριθμοί ("numbers"), though in a Torah scroll it was identified by the keyword Bamidbar (בְּמִדְבַּר - "in the wilderness"); and so on. Of course, we refer to the names of the books in Hebrew (not Greek, etc.): Bereshit (for Genesis), Shemot (for Exodus), Vayikra (for Leviticus), and so on.
Bamidbar means "in the wilderness" and is the name associated with the fourth book of the Torah scroll. Since several censuses are recorded in it, the sages sometimes called the book sefer ha-pekudim (the book of counting), so named because of the phrase bemispar shemot (בְּמִסְפַּר שֵׁמוֹת) - "they were counted according to their names" (Num. 1:2). The sages stress that unlike earlier censuses (e.g., Exod. 30:12-14), this one was personal because it was based on individual names (shemot). Accordingly, and because the idea of personal counting was considered central, the book was translated in the Septuagint using the Greek word Ἀριθμοί ("numbers") as its title. As Yeshua said, even the very hairs on our heads are all numbered (Matt. 10:30).
The Tribe of Levi was the smallest of the tribes of Israel (both before and after the sin of the Golden Calf). According to midrash, this was because the Levites were faithful to God while in Egypt and therefore did not come under the special blessing of God to supernaturally multiply those who persecuted the tribes (Exod. 1:12). Even when going out of Egypt, the LORD preserved a remnant for the sake of His Name.
The book recounts Israel's adventures in the wilderness (מִדְבָּר) from their second year of the Exodus until the 40th year. In general, it details how the tribes of Israel were counted and meticulously arranged into military camp formation around the Mishkan (tabernacle).
Note: Each tribe had its own prince (nassi) and its own unique flag (degel), and each tribe's flag color corresponded with the color of its respective stone in Aaron's breastplate (Exod. 28:15-21). For example, Judah's stone was a sky-blue carbuncle and therefore the color of his flag was like the color of the sky with a "fiery lion" embroidered upon it (Gen. 49:9).
Led by the Shekhinah (שְׁכִינָה) cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, at first the Jews were en route to the Promised Land - the land of Canaan - which the LORD swore to give to Abraham and his descendants forever. However, the people rebelled (i.e., their complicity in the "Sin of the Spies") and were therefore condemned to wander for 40 years in the desert. This 40 year period is often thought of as a time of punishment, though it was also a time of refinement for the nation, and it was during this time that God demonstrated great love for Israel by feeding the people with manna, giving them water from rock (i.e., the so-called Well of Miriam), protecting them with the Clouds of Glory, instructing them through the teaching of Moses, and so on. God loves his people -- even when they are faithless -- and his punishments are ultimately healing and redemptive.
The Great Assembly (כְּנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה) decreed that parashat Bamidbar would be read on the Sabbath before the festival of Shavuot "so that the year and its curses will be terminated." This phrase refers to the "Great Rebuke" - called the Tochachah (תּוֹכָחָה) - that was delivered in the previous Torah reading (i.e., Bechukotai, the last portion of Vayikra). Recall that this portion used 11 verses to describe the blessings for obedience (i.e., "if you follow my laws...") but used three times as many (33 verses) to describe the curses for disobedience to the Sinai covenant ("but this is what will happen if you do not listen to me"). Since the curses (קְלַלוֹת) included the destruction of the Temple and the great exile (galut) from the land, and since Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai, it was thought that recommitting to the Sinai covenant during Shavuot would "reverse the curse" and cause blessing to come upon Israel. This explains why Shavuot was regarded as time for Israel to recommit themselves to talmud Torah (the study of Torah) and to renew the decision to live as a Jew. And this also explains why the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) was given to Yeshua's disciples precisely during this time after His resurrection. Instead of recommiting to Sinai we were given evidence that the New Covenant was beginning to be established at Zion....
The Hebrew word midbar ("wilderness") shares the same root as davar (דּבר) which means "word." Sometimes we need to be alone to hear God speaking kol demamah dakkah (קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה) - "the sound of a low whisper" (1 Kings. 19:12), and indeed some of the sages regard the journey into the wilderness (as opposed to the direct route to the Promised Land) as God's way of separating His people away in order to speak to them "privately."
The desert (i.e., "word") of Sinai is the word of humility (עֲנָוָה). When God spoke the Torah to Moses (mattan Torah), it was from a nondescript mountain (Mount Sinai) -- a place of emptiness, brokenness and need. Indeed, another word for Sinai is Chorev (חרֵב), a word that refers to the dryness and desolation. That is the starting point -- not the lush places of future promise. We receive Torah "bamidbar" because we can only hear God's davar in a place of humility and inner quiet. God brings us to an arid place -- inhospitable, and dangerous -- to reveal our need for Him. This is a necessary excursion to prepare us to look for the greater hope of Zion.
The giving of the law was meant to offer gracious discipline until the Mashiach would come (Gal. 3:19, 24-25). Yeshua is the Greater Hope, the One who delivers us from the curse of Sinai to bring us to Zion (Gal. 3:10). We enter into the realm of promise when we personally put our trust in God's love for us -- not by redoubling our efforts to obtain favor through adherence the terms given at Sinai (Heb. 8:13). "For the Torah made nothing perfect; but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, and that is how we draw near to God" (Heb. 7:19).
Personal Update: I am pretty worn out after spending many years doing this work, and lately I have been feeling a bit disheartened as well.... I need to spend some time in prayer to help me discern what I should be doing with Hebrew4Christians, etc. Please pray that I receive God's wisdom and guidance. Thank you.
Waiting for that Day...
05.20.11 (Iyyar 16, 5771) Of this evil world it is written, "Why do the people rage and the nations devise schemes that will fail? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Mashiach, saying, 'Let us tear off the shackles of their yoke, and throw off their ropes from us!' But the enthroned LORD laughs at their insolence and holds them in derision, until the appointed hour when He will speak to them in his wrath and terrify them in his fury" (Psalm 2:1-5).
It may come soon, or it may tarry a bit longer, but the princes of this evil world are on notice: God will soon break their power "with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel" (Psalm 2:9). As was revealed to the prophet Daniel in the night terrors of Nebuchadnezzar: "As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, breaking them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth" (Dan. 2:34-35). One day the edifice of man's godless pride will come crashing down, and there will be no trace left of its rubble...
"And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever" (Dan. 2:44). The King of this glorious Kingdom, of course, will be none other than Yeshua, the greater Son of David and "Root of Jesse" (שׁרֶשׁ יִשַׁי), who will rule from God's holy mountain of Zion....
Concerning His reign the Scriptures declare: "The Spirit of the LORD (רוּחַ יְהוָה) shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain; for there will be universal submission to the LORD's sovereignty, just as the waters completely cover the sea" (Isa. 11:2-9).
The prophet Isaiah foresaw the glory of the coming kingdom: "It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD (הַר־יְהוָה), to the house of the God of Jacob (בֵּית אֱלהֵי יַעֲקב), that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore" (Isa. 2:2-4; see also Jer. 3:17, Micah 4:1, etc.).
כִּי מִצִּיּוֹן תֵּצֵא תוֹרָה וּדְבַר־יְהוָה מִירוּשָׁלָםִ
ki mi·tzi·yon tei·tzei to·rah, ud·var-Adonai mi·ru·sha·la·yim
"For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the Word of the LORD from Jerusalem" (Isa. 2:3b)
Before this glorious time of the Millennial Kingdom, however, the great "Day of the LORD" will come - a time of worldwide, catastrophic judgment that will befall the kings and princes of this world... "The great day of the LORD is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the LORD is bitter; the mighty man will cry loud there" (Zech. 1:14).
For those who are God's children - for those who are called to follow the Messiah Yeshua in this age, however, "Light dawns in the darkness for the upright; He is gracious, merciful, and righteous" (Psalm 112:4). Shabbat Shalom chaverim! Chazak and be strengthened in Yeshua our King.
Walking with God...
[ The following is related to this week's Torah reading (Bechukotai). Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
05.19.11 (Iyyar 15, 5771) Our Torah portion this week begins, "If you walk in my statutes ... you shall eat your bread ... and I will give peace ... and none shall make you afraid." As I mentioned the other day, the midrash notes that the blessings listed in this section (Lev. 26:3-13) begin with the letter Aleph (in the word אִם) and end with the letter Tav (in the word קוֹמְמִיּוּת), which suggests that they encompass all other possible blessings (from Aleph to Tav). This reminds me of a Psalm that lists "from A to Z" the blessings that are bestowed upon the righteous:
אַשְׁרֵי־אִישׁ יָרֵא אֶת־יְהוָה
בְּמִצְוֹתָיו חָפֵץ מְאד
Ash·rei ish ya·rei et Adonai,
Be·mitz·vo·tav cha·fetz me·od
"How blessed is the one who fears the LORD,
who takes great delight in keeping his commands" (Psalm 112:1)
Notice that Psalm 112 is an "acrostic" (alphabetical) song. After the call to praise the LORD (Hallelujah), every stanza (twenty-two in all) begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet (i.e., Aleph, Bet, Gimmel, and so on). The first verse includes both Aleph and Bet, the second verse includes Gimmel and Dalet, and so on, with each stanza separated by an atnach accent mark. Note further that the word translated "happy" (i.e., ashrei: אַשְׁרֵי) comes from a verb (אָשַׁר) that means to go straight (yashar), or to advance in your walk with the LORD (the word yesharim [יְשָׁרִים] means "the upright ones"). Ashrei can also mean "enriched." As Psalm 1 teaches us, "Enriched is the person who has not walked after the advice of the wicked, nor stood on the path of sinners, nor sat among the scorners, but finds delight (חָפֵץ) in the law (תּוֹרָה) of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night... (Psalm 1:1-2). The one who reveres the LORD and honors His truth will be like a tree transplanted beside flowing streams, yielding fruit at the proper time, with leaves that never fall off" (Psalm 1:3, cp. Jer. 17:7-8).
"If you know that he is righteous (צַדִּיק), you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness (צֶדֶק) has been born of him" (1 John 2:29).
New "Table Talk" for Bechukotai
[ The following is related to this week's Torah reading (Bechukotai). Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
05.18.11 (Iyyar 15, 5771) It is encouraging and edifying to discuss the weekly Torah portion with your family and friends during the Friday night Sabbath meal. To make it a little easier to discuss some topics, I created a new Shabbat "Table Talk" guide for parashat Bechukotai. The guide includes a brief summary of the Torah portion, a few questions (with answers), and some additional topics for discussion. Hopefully this material will prompt some interesting (and enjoyable) discussion around your Sabbath table, chaverim. You can download the table talk page here.
The Troubles of Love...
[ The following is related to this week's Torah reading (Bechukotai). Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
05.18.11 (Iyyar 14, 5771) Parashat Bechukotai is the concluding portion of the Book of Leviticus (וַיִּקְרָא), which is the central book of the Torah. In light of all that God had done for the Jewish people - from their great deliverance in Egypt to the ordination of the priesthood in the Tabernacle - God expected them to live up to their high calling as His chosen people: "You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy" (Lev. 19:2). Therefore, some of the sages say that the central point of this concluding portion is tochachah (i.e., the warning of punishment) rather than nechamah (i.e., comfort). The focus is not, "If you walk in my laws" (Lev. 26:3), but rather, "if you do not listen (shema) to me" (Lev. 26:14).
It has been said that the opposite of love is not hate, but rather indifference, and that explains why the punishments would come if the people "left their first love." Indeed, the "rebuke" portion of the tochachah begins with v'im lo tishme'u li (וְאִם־לא תִשְׁמְעוּ לִי), "if you do not listen to me" (Lev. 26:14), which recalls the Shema and the duty to love the Lord bekhol levavkha, "with all your heart." If the people walk carelessly (i.e., keri: קְרִי) with God, then God will afflict them with "the troubles of love" (i.e., yissurei ahavah: יִסּוּרֵי אַהֲבָה). A student once asked his rebbe: "Do we get punished for our sins in this world?" His succinct response was, "Only if we are made fortunate..." The worse possible fate is for God to be indifferent to someone! Can anything be more tragic than to be forgotten or to go unnoticed by God? It is far better that He afflict you with the "troubles of love!"
Jewish tradition generally regards the entire chapter of Leviticus 26 as "the" tochachah (הַתּוֹכָחָה), even though the chapter itself begins with promises of blessing for obedience to God's law (Lev. 26:3-13). The sages of the Talmud regard the "rebuke section" of this chapter (Lev. 26:14-46) as even more severe than the tochachah found in the Book of Deuteronomy (Deut. 28:15-68), because it was spoken directly by the LORD to the Jewish nation as a whole, whereas the latter warning was spoken by Moses himself and addressed in singular form (Megillah 31b). As I mentioned the other day, it is often difficult to find volunteers to publicly read this portion during synagogue services, and the custom arose to have just one person read the rebuke section as one long aliyah (as opposed to breaking it up for several people to read smaller parts). It is also customary for the one making this aliyah to recite the passage in a lowered tone of voice...
The tochachah of Bechukotai begins with 11 verses that promise blessings for obedience to God's laws, but three times as many (i.e., 33 verses) that promise punishment for disobedience. To help "offset" this discrepancy, the midrash notes that blessing section begins with the letter Aleph (in the word אִם) and ends with the letter Tav (in the word קוֹמְמִיּוּת), which suggests that the blessings encompass all other possible blessings (from Aleph to Tav). On the other hand, the punishment section begins with the letter the Vav (in the word וְאִם) and ends with the letter Hey (in the word משֶׁה), the last two letters found in the Sacred Name (יהוה), which suggests that God's compassion would be present even in the suffering to come in the latter days. Another way to look at this is to regard the letter Vav as the symbol of man, and the letter Hey as the symbol of the Spirit: in the end - after the punishments were complete - God's compassion would prevail over His judgment for sin, and the Spirit of God would rest upon Israel. The midrash further states during the days of the Messiah, Israel will keep the Torah, "from Aleph to Tav" (i.e., from beginning to end), and at that time all the blessings God promised to them would finally be fulfilled.
The idea of tochachah is not simply something for ethnic Israel, of course, since the New Testament likewise warns us that God will punish those who likewise walk carelessly (i.e., keri: קְרִי) with Him. Have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as God's children? "My son, do not regard lightly (ὀλιγώρει) the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary by his reproof (תּוֹכֵחָה). For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and reproves (יוֹכִיחַ) every child whom he receives" (Heb. 12:5-6; Prov. 3:11-12). The Lord charged the assembly at Ephesus that they had let go of their first love. Yeshua therefore urged them: "Remember from what high state you have fallen and repent! Do the deeds (ἔργα) you did at the first; if not, I will come to you and remove your menorah from its place – unless you repent" (Rev. 2:4-5). Because God is never indifferent toward those who are trusting in His salvation, he will discipline and correct us to keep close to Him. He will afflict us with the "troubles of love." As it is written, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God" (Heb. 10:30).
Regarding the curses of this section, I'd like to relate a beautiful story I once read. The child of a famous Torah sage was used to hearing his father read the weekly Torah portion at synagogue, but on the Shabbat of Bechukotai his father happened to be out of town, and the boy listened intently as a substitute Torah reader recited the various punishments listed in the parashah. Afterwards, the boy was so emotionally distraught that he fell into a deep depression that lasted for over a month. The child was later asked, "Why were you not disturbed this way when the admonition was read in past years?" The boy replied, "When father reads it, no curses are heard." Yes, when "father reads," namely, the Father that sees our hearts in the darkest of places, we will hear His voice of blessing....
At the end of this parashah, as with every other parashah that concludes a book of the Torah, we say, Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazek - "Be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened!" Despite the "heaviness" associated with the idea of God's judgment and punishment, we must press on in faith.... The great commandment is always "Choose Life!" (Deut. 30:19), and that life comes from being in a loving relationship with our Heavenly Father through our Yeshua our Savior, blessed be He (1 John 5:12). May God help us return to our first love for Him b'khol levavkha - with all our hearts. "I love those who love me; and those who seek me will find me" (Prov. 8:17). "The LORD is good to those who hope (קוה) for him, to the soul who seeks him" (Lam. 3:25).
Does Torah Bake Bread?
[ The following is related to this week's Torah reading (Bechukotai). Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
05.17.11 (Iyyar 13, 5771) "If there is no bread, there is no Torah; and if there is no Torah, there is no bread" (Avot 3:17). Our Torah portion this week begins, "If you walk in my statutes ... you shall eat your bread ... and I will give peace ... and none shall make you afraid" (Lev. 26:3-5). In other words, though Torah study may not literally "bake bread," it nevertheless provides the means by which bread itself will have any real significance to us... After all, what good is bread if there is no real blessing of peace?
Though the Torah was not given for the sake of this world (i.e., so we could eat and drink), it nevertheless provides the means by which we can study God's truth and fulfill His commandments, and by so doing, enter into the world to come. The sages affirm, "This world is like a corridor before the World to Come; prepare yourself in the corridor, that you may enter into the hall" (Avot 4:21), which implies that the great commandment is always דִּרְשׁוּנִי וִחְיוּ - "Seek Me and live" (Amos 5:4). As Isaiah cried out, "Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near..."
When Yeshua our Lord was tempted with physical hunger in the desert, he rebuked the evil one by quoting the Torah, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matt. 4:4; Deut. 8:3). Man shall not live by bread alone, though bread nevertheless is the means by which we are physically sustained so that we can study "every word that comes from the mouth of God."
כִּי לא עַל־הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם
כִּי עַל־כָּל־מוֹצָא פִי־יהוה יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם׃
ki lo al-ha·le·chem le·va·do yich·yeh ha·a·dam;
ki al-kol-mo·tza fi-Adonai yich·yeh ha·a·dam
"Man does not live on bread alone, but by everything that comes
from the mouth of the LORD does man live" (Deut. 8:3)
Whenever we eat food, we incorporate other life as a means of nourishment for our own. Physical bread temporarily sustains our physical life. After it's digested, however, we find ourselves in need of it once again. God has designed the human body so that its life requires sacrifice....
Although physical food helps us survive, we must ask the question, for what end? Do we live for the sake of eating (and thereby live to eat for another day, and so on), or do we eat in order to live? If the latter, then what is the goal of such life? What is the source of its nutrient and where is it taking you? What does your soul or "inner man" feed upon to gain the spiritual will to live?
Both the written Torah and Yeshua (who is the living embodiment and inner expression of all that the Torah really means) make it clear that we receive sustenance from the Word of God (דְּבַר הָאֱלהִים), the Source of spiritual life. The word of God is the message of the very love of God that is always sustaining us -- whether we are conscious of this or not. God provides lechem ha-chayim (לֶחֶם הַחַיִּים), the "Bread of Life," through the Torah of his Son (John 6:35). As Yeshua promised, whoever comes to Him shall not hunger, and whoever believes in Him shall never thirst (John 6:48).
Note: After sundown tonight is Pesach Sheni (פֶּסַח שֵׁנִי), literally, "Second Passover" (Num. 9:6-13). Some people eat matzah on this day to recall this time.
[ The following is related to this week's Torah reading (Bechukotai). Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
05.16.11 (Iyyar 12, 5771) This week's Torah portion includes the first great "rebuke" (i.e., tochachah: תּוֹכָחָה) of the community of Israel given in the Scriptures (the second is found in Ki Tavo, i.e., Deut. 28:15-68). In this sober and ominous section, God promises the people great blessing if they would obey Him (Lev. 26:3-13), but He forewarns that exile, persecution and other progressively evil things would befall them if they would break faith with Him (Lev. 26:14-46). The sages note that divine censure would come if the people "forgot" about God or otherwise became careless in their observance of His laws. They point out that the refrain "if you walk contrary to me" (וַהֲלַכְתֶּם עִמִּי בְּקֶרִי) - which occurs several times during the rebuke - really means "if you walk carelessly (i.e., keri: קְרִי) with with me." Rashi notes that the verb קָרָה means "to befall" or "to happen" and therefore suggests a sense of randomness. If the people regarded the events of life as "random," then God would reciprocate by bringing senseless trouble into their lives... For this reason the sages regard a careless attitude about God's will as the very first step to inevitable apostasy. In other words, regarding whatever happens in life as mere "coincidence" essentially denies God's Presence, and this attitude will eventually call for God's corrective intervention. People can be "hot or cold" regarding their relationship with Him, but God will never give the option of affecting indifference toward Him... Indeed, God often brings hardship into our lives to regain our attention and cause us to return to Him. As C.S. Lewis once said, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."
The portion begins, "If you walk in my statutes (i.e., bechukotai: בְּחֻקּתַי) and guard my commandments and you do them..." (Lev. 26:3), which led Rabbi Hanina to ask why the seemingly superfluous phrase, "and you do them" (וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אתָם) was included here. After all, if the people would walk in God's statutes and guard his commandments, wouldn't they necessarily be doing them? He then suggested that the vowels of the word otam ("them") should be vocalized as atem (אַתֶּם), "you," which would then change the sense of the phrase to become, "you shall make (עָשָׂה) yourselves" (i.e., into God's image). The logical corollary of this seems to imply that if you do not walk in God's statutes and guard his commandments, you will disfigure the image of God within you...
Interestingly, God specifically cites the failure to observe the Sabbatical Year (shemittah), mentioned in last week's Torah portion, as part of the reason why His judgment would come (Lev. 26:34-35,43). The observance of the Sabbatical Year, of course, required complete faith that God was in control of all the "happenings" of nature. Like the Sabbath day, the Sabbatical year was designated to proclaim that God is the King of the universe. Those who disregarded this law therefore denied God's rule over nature, and thereby denied the existence of a spiritual law of "cause and effect" that operates in the physical world...
יִרְאַת יְהוָה רֵאשִׁית דָּעַת
חָכְמָה וּמוּסָר אֱוִילִים בָּזוּ
yir·at Adonai rei·shit da·at,
chokh·mah u·mu·sar e·vi·lim ba·zu
"The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction."
The litany of evils that would befall the Jewish people is not issued without hope, of course. God promised never to entirely forsake them even while they endured the "like for like" punishment of exile and tribulation: "But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking carelessly (קְרִי) with me, so that I walked carelessly (קְרִי) with them and brought them into the land of their enemies - if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant (וְזָכַרְתִּי אֶת־בְּרִיתִי) with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land" (Lev. 26:40-42). Notice that the names of the patriarchs are listed in reverse order, suggesting that the LORD would harken back all the way to His original covenant made with Abraham....
According to Jewish tradition, Ezra the Scribe (5th century BC) arranged the weekly readings so that this portion was always read couple weeks or so before the holiday of Shavuot. Apparently Ezra reasoned that since the judgment mentioned in this portion included the destruction of the Temple and exile from the land, he thought that publicly reading it before the holiday of Shavuot (which traditionally commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai) would instill a sense of teshuvah (repentance) among the people. Nonetheless, since this portion concerns rebuke and judgment, it is difficult to find volunteers to publicly read this portion during synagogue services, and the custom arose to have just one person read the entire rebuke (i.e., Lev. 26:10-46) as one long aliyah (as opposed to breaking it up for several people to read smaller parts). It is also customary for the one making this aliyah to recite the passage in a lowered tone of voice....
The idea of divine rebuke (תּוֹכָחָה) is a sober reminder that "God is not mocked (μυκτηρίζω - lit., "to turn up the nose at"), and what a man sows, he also reaps" (Gal. 6:7; Psalm 39:11). Each of us is therefore responsible to live before God in holiness and to remind others to fear the LORD and His coming judgment. Despite the propaganda of this evil world, the Scriptures repeatedly state there are abiding consequences for the choices we make in our lives. "For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Messiah and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience" (Eph. 5:6-7).
כֵּן־צְדָקָה לְחַיִּים וּמְרַדֵּף רָעָה לְמוֹתוֹ
ken tze·da·kah le·chai·yim, u·me·ra·def ra·ah le·mo·to
"True righteousness leads to life;
but the one who pursues evil goes to his own death."
For those who can believe, God imparts a "new nature" that is received entirely by faith in Yeshua. This new nature makes us briah chadashah (בְּרִיאָה חֲדָשָׁה), "a new creation," with a heart and will that is supernaturally enabled by God's power (not by our feeble intentions) to please the Father... Because of Yeshua, all things are made new (2 Cor. 5:17). The process of sanctification - just as the process of justification - is a gift from God to those who are trusting in Him, and both are inextricably connected.
Haftarah for Bechukotai
In the Haftarah portion for Bechukotai, we see the prophet Jeremiah desperately appealing to the Jewish people before their destruction comes. Jeremiah cites Israel's idol worship, neglect of the shemittah commandment (Sabbatical year), and the general loss of trust in the LORD as the reason for their coming judgment. The prophet then sets up the contrast between trusting in man and trusting in the LORD. "Thus says the LORD: 'I will put a curse on people who trust in mere human beings, who depend on mere flesh and blood for their strength, and whose hearts have turned away from the LORD" (Jer. 17:5).
The only acceptable response light of God's inevitable judgment is heartfelt repentance.... "Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit" (Jer. 17:7-8).
Nonetheless, since heart is deceitful "above everything else" and "incurably bad" (אָנוּשׁ), Jeremiah wonders what can be done to change the people's direction. God answers by saying that He searches the heart and tests the mind, "to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds" (Jer. 17:10). Those who attempt to secure wealth by unjust means will be proven to be a fool (נָבָל). Jeremiah responds by exclaiming, "A glorious throne set on high from the beginning is the place of our sanctuary. O LORD, the hope of Israel (מִקְוֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל), all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water" (Jer. 17:12-13). The haftarah ends with an appeal for healing and salvation:
רְפָאֵנִי יְהוָה וְאֵרָפֵא
הוֹשִׁיעֵנִי וְאִוָּשֵׁעָה כִּי תְהִלָּתִי אָתָּה
re·fa·ei·ni Adonai ve·ei·ra·fei
ho·shi·ei·ni ve·iv·va·shei·ah, ki te·hil·la·ti at·tah
"Heal me, O LORD, and I shall be healed;
save me, and I shall be saved, for you are my praise."
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05.13.11 (Iyyar 9, 5771) Shabbat Shalom, chaverim. I wish you joy, peace, and love from our LORD Yeshua, the Master of the Universe and our Beloved Savior and Mashiach. He alone is the way to life, and there is no other. "May the peace of God (שְׁלוֹם אֱלהִים), which surpasses all understanding, guard your heart and your mind in Yeshua our Messiah." Amen.
שׁוֹמֵר יְהוָה אֶת־כָּל־אהֲבָיו
sho·mer Adonai et kol o·ha·vav
"The LORD guards those who love Him"
Personal Update: Please keep this ministry in your prayers. I have been fighting a cold the last few days and am feeling pretty run down. I also have a tick bite that might be infected... Thank you so much, chaverim.
Remembering our Roots...
[ The following is related to this week's Torah reading (Behar). Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
05.12.11 (Iyyar 8, 5771) How important are the Jewish roots of our faith? How important is our heritage in relation to our understanding of God's ways? Our Torah portion this week is called "Behar," from the phrase "behar Sinai" (בְּהַר סִינַי) found its opening verse (Lev. 25:1). But why does the word Sinai appear in a portion of Torah that discusses social and agricultural laws that were to be observed in the promised land? What does the subject of the Sabbatical Year (shemittah) have to do with the revelation given at Sinai?
The sages say that the Sabbatical year was mentioned in connection with Sinai in order to teach that Moses received not only the Ten Commandments and the revelation of the Tabernacle there, but also specific laws regulating future social and economic practices of the people as well. The law of the Sabbatical year is a case in point, since it would have been absurd for a law that required farmers to abandon their farming practices once every seven years to have been proclaimed while the people wandered in the desert...
How important is tradition in our lives? So important that we could not understand even the first word of the Scriptures without it ... There is a story that illustrates this point. A pagan came to Hillel seeking to convert but was troubled with the idea of tradition, though he accepted the idea of the written Scriptures. Since the man did not know how to read Hebrew, however, Hillel began pointing to the letters in the written Torah to teach him the alphabet: "This is Aleph... this is Bet... this is Gimmel," and so on, until the man began to understand the letters of the Holy Scriptures. "Now come tomorrow, and I will teach you more." The next day, Hillel pointed to the exact same letters but reversed their names, "This is Gimmel... this is Aleph... this is Bet," and so on. The convert was confused: "But yesterday you said just the opposite!" Hillel replied, "Now you have had your first lesson. You see that the written word alone is insufficient, and we need the tradition to explain God's Word." Another way to make this point is to say that the Torah was not revealed along with a dictionary that defines the meaning of its words....
All this is said to remind us that the transmission of Torah from generation to generation demands that we trust. Indeed the very concept of "Torah" (or Scripture) is bound up with trust and community... This is true of the written word (i.e., trusting in scribal traditions that preserved the Scriptures for us), as well as the oral word (i.e., the customs, interpretations, translations, and wisdom that explain the meaning of the words themselves). Knowledge has been defined as "justified true belief," which implies that there can never be knowledge without trust. It is ludicrous to think that we can translate the Scriptures in a vacuum - all by ourselves without any help from others... We must humble ourselves and become "like little children" to learn from those who have gone before us, and this is why the Jewish value of Talmud Torah - teaching children the words and values of Torah - is regarded as so important. As the Talmud puts it, "The world exists because of the breath of the schoolchildren who study Torah" (Shabbat 119b).
In Hebrew the word chinukh (חִנּוּךְ) means "education," a word that shares the same root as the word "chanukah" (חֲנֻכָּה, "dedication"). Unlike the Greek ideal that regards education as "enlightenment" (i.e., being "led out" of the cave of ignorance), the Jewish ideal implies dedication to God and His concrete purposes on the earth. This ideal goes beyond the process of merely transmitting information, since dedication must be modeled (lived) as well as intellectually taught. Maimonides noted that the Hebrew word chinukh comes from the Torah's description of dedicating a tool for use at the Holy Altar, "habituating the tool for its work." In other words, godly education is a process of modeling how to be made into a "fit vessel" for the service of God in this world. All other ends of knowledge ultimately exist for this purpose, and rightly understood, education is a form of worship.
Disciples of Yeshua are 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). Education is therefore foundational to being a disciple of the Messiah, and the great commission is for each of us to share His teaching with others (Matt. 28:19-20). May God help each of us to be students who are dedicated to living for the sake of Yeshua's Name.
New "Table Talk" for Behar
[ The following is related to this week's Torah reading (Behar). Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
05.11.11 (Iyyar 7, 5771) Today I wrote a new Shabbat "Table Talk" for parashat Behar that you can download here. Like other Table Talks, first I provide a brief synopsis of the portion followed by a series of discussion questions. I hope you will find it helpful as you discuss (or review) the Torah reading for this week, chaverim.
This portion of Torah is radical in its social implications, especially regarding the economic concepts of "ownership," "loans" and "debts." Regarding the former, it is clear that the Israelites were to regard themselves as vassals of the land who honored God as their Lord (Lev. 25:23). God alone owns the vineyard and "leases" it to his tenants (Matt. 21:31-ff). Both the laws of shemittah (i.e., the Sabbatical year) and the yovel (the Jubilee year) were therefore intended to prevent wealth from becoming concentrated into the hands of a few. Regarding the latter, the Torah teaches that one should lend money to a fellow Jew without charging him interest (i.e., neshekh: נֶשֶׁךְ). Interestingly, the word neshekh comes from the verb nashakh (נָשַׁךְ), which means "to bite," which suggests that offering someone a loan with interest is like giving them a snake bite. The sages note the connection between the prohibition of usury with God's deliverance of the people from Egypt (Lev. 25:37-38). A Jew who charges interest to his neighbor is like one who denies that God took Israel out of Egypt. Just as in Egypt we were forced to work and own nothing, so with paying interest on a loan... On the contrary, the law of God's redeemed children required that all debt obligations were to be forgiven during the time of the "release" of the land. Of course such principles are contrary to the world's economic system in which a class of "owners" extend "credit" to others who are then charged interest for the loan, but this sort of arrangement is abhorrent to the principle of the Torah that states "you shall not cheat one another" (Lev. 25:17). The laws of shemittah and the prohibition against charging interest remind us that land and money, respectively, are gifts from God of which we are merely stewards... God alone is the owner, and we are his servants, responsible for what he entrusts to our care.
The portion further teaches that the yovel or "Jubilee Year" (i.e., the 50th year of the 49 year cycle in the land) was to initiate a great socioeconomic transition: "... freedom shall be announced to the land and all its inhabitants." Every servant shall return home to his family. All land that was sold shall return to its original owner (Lev. 25:10). That the yovel was proclaimed on Yom Kippur links it to the idea of atonement itself (and indeed, the word "yovel" (יוֹבֵל) is related to verb "to lead" (יָבַל), perhaps from the word for "ram's horn" [Exod. 19:13; Josh. 6:5]). The "purification of the land" involved purging all the artificial power relationships that falsely assumed a sense of personal permanence in this world... These marvelous social laws caused everything to be "reset" every seven years so that people would remember they were "strangers and sojourners" (גֵרִים וְתוֹשָׁבִים) passing through this temporary world. Every person - great or small - would recover his or her true identity (and inheritance) in the LORD...
The Scriptures declare that "the world is built on chesed" (Psalm 89:2) and therefore the idea of making a profit at the expense of someone in need (i.e., charging interest on a loan) is a form of exploitation. Your brother is "to live beside you," and therefore we are commanded to help the one who has become poor (Lev. 25:35-38). The laws of shemittah, renouncing debts, and the redemption our destitute brother all imply that we must surrender our illusions of ownership by trusting in God. We do not worry "while our land lies fallow," nor do we demand repayment from others to whom we have given...
The social and agricultural laws foreshadow a "return" to the lost paradise of Eden, where the orchard of God was to be a place of shared dignity, grace and love. In olam habah (i.e., the Millennial Kingdom to come), the world will finally enjoy God's "Sabbath Rest," and the vision of a truly just and loving society will finally be realized. May that day come soon, when every knee bow to the Messiah Yeshua, the true King of King of Kings!
יְהִי־חַסְדְּךָ יהוה עָלֵינוּ כַּאֲשֶׁר יִחַלְנוּ לָךְ׃
ye·hi chas·de·kha Adonai a·lei·nu, ka·a·sher yi·chal·nu lakh
May your chesed, O LORD, be upon us, as we wait for You (Psalm 33:22)
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Personal Update: I was bitten by a deer tick the other day which I did not notice until today. We removed the tick, but the area of the bite is angry-red, and starting to swell. I am planning on seeing a doctor tomorrow to have the bite examined. Please pray I won't contract Lyme Disease, chaverim. Thank you!
Strangers and Settlers...
[ The following is related to this week's Torah reading (Behar). Please read the Torah portion to find your place here... ]
05.10.11 (Iyyar 6, 5771) Parashat Behar includes two special laws that were intended to radically affect the social, economic, and spiritual well-being of Jews in ancient Israel. The first law was to "release the land" every seventh year, called ha-shemittah (הַשְּׁמִטָּה), which meant that the land would lie fallow by not being seeded or harvested. The shemittah law involved far more than simply refraining from agricultural labor, however, since it implied that everyone was required to forgive all their debtors as well (Deut. 15:1-4). This recurring cycle of "rest and forgiveness" was to be commemorated as an appointed time (מוֹעֵד) when everyone would gather together during the festival of Sukkot to listen to the Torah read aloud (Deut. 31:10-12). God's word was proclaimed from Zion; the land would breath and rest; people's burdens were lifted; and everyone would dwell in booths (sukkot) to recall their temporary status on the way to obtaining an eternal inheritance... No wonder Sukkot was regarded as the most joyous of the moedim!
The second special law was even more joyous. After seven of these seven-year sabbatical cycles (shemittot) had elapsed, the 50th year (called the "Jubilee" year [i.e., shenat ha-Yovel: שְׁנַת הַיּוֹבֵל]) was proclaimed, and all servants would be set free (i.e., "released"), all debts would be forgiven, and the land would be "reset" to its original condition (Lev. 25:8-17). This joyful occasion is called the "Jubilee Release" and signifies the life of redemption (גְּאֻלָּה) for the community of God. It is also called Shemittah LaAdonai: "the LORD's Release" (Deut. 15:2). Just as Shavuot comes after seven cycles of seven days (i.e., the 50th day of Sefirat HaOmer) and therefore represents the perfection of freedom, so the Jubilee Year (Yovel) signals a time of freedom, dignity and equality for all people.
On Yom Kippur of the Year of Jubilee, a great shofar blast (i.e., teruah: תְּרוּעָה) would be sounded throughout all the land to proclaim liberty: "You shall sound the shofar on the tenth day of the seventh month, on the Day of Atonement (וֹם הַכִּפֻּרִים) shall you sound the shofar throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty (דְּרוֹר) throughout all the land to all its inhabitants thereof: it shall be a Jubilee (יוֹבֵל) for you. And you shall return every man to his estate, and you shall return every man to his family" (Lev. 25:8-10). Despite the fact that part of this verse appears on the "Liberty Bell" in Philadelphia, this verse ultimately refers to the coronation of the Mashiach Yeshua as the true liberator of the Jewish people.... Indeed, the word yovel is another word for a ram's horn, or shofar, signifying the coronation of the King...
The observance of shemittah (שְׁמִטָּה) was a real test of faith, since it meant that the Jews had to completely trust that the LORD would provide for them, despite abandoning their usual farming and banking practices. God repeatedly warned the Jews not to oppress one another (Lev. 25:14,17) and explicitly promised His protection and care despite these counterintuitive practices (Lev. 25:18-22). Sadly, the people did not observe the laws of shemittah, and this eventually lead to the 70 year captivity in Babylon, one year in captivity for each year that shemittah was disregarded (2 Chron. 36:20-21).
Regarding the laws of Shemittah and Yovel, the LORD states: "The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine, for you are strangers (גֵּרִים) and settlers (תּוֹשָׁבִים) with me" (Lev. 25:23). This is a paradoxical phrase, since a ger is one who is just passing through, like a visitor or tourist, whereas a toshav is one who is a resident, like a settler or citizen. How can someone be both a visitor and a resident of a place, or a stranger and a citizen at the same time? How can one "pass through" a place he is said to dwell?
Concerning this paradox the Maggid of Dubna comments: "If you see yourselves in this world as strangers and remember that you are here only for a short visit, passing through the hallway of this world, then I will settle among you. However, should you see yourselves as settlers on this world, "owners" who are here to stay, then I am but a stranger among you. Either you are the settlers and I the stranger, or you the stranger and I the settler."
God 'settles' among those who are strangers in this world,
but makes himself "strange" to those who 'settle' here...
In other words, God "settles" among those who are exiles in this world... Those who "settle" here, who lay claim to this world, therefore make God their stranger. As James the Righteous warned, "Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God" (James 4:4). Likewise the Apostle John admonished: "Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him... For the world is passing away along with its lusts, but whoever does the will of God shall abide forever" (1 John 2:15,17). Those who walk in faith invariably regard themselves as gerim v'toshavim (גֵּרִים וְתוֹשָׁבִים) - "strangers and exiles" upon the earth (Heb. 11:13).
Abraham "sojourned" in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with his children because he looked for a city whose builder and maker was God (Heb. 11:9-11). Likewise we are strangers and exiles here, on the journey to the reach "the City of Living God, to heavenly Jerusalem, to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven" (Heb. 12:22-23). When we take up the cross and follow Yeshua, we die to this world and its dreams. We die to ourselves in order to find life (Mark 8:35-36). We give up houses, lands, all our possessions, family relationships, and even our own lives in order to find residence with God (Matt. 19:29; Luke 14:26). We reckon ourselves "dead" to this world as our home and "look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal" (2 Cor. 4:18). We walk by faith, not by sight. Faith is the conviction (ἔλεγχος) of things unseen (Heb. 11:1) - and that includes the conviction that God will visibly care for our needs even if we let our gardens go fallow and release our claim on all our debtors...
We must venture out to take hold of the miraculous Presence of God. "According to your faith be it done unto you" (Matt. 9:29). I pray that we do not miss this awesome opportunity to truly share the present exile with God, chaverim, for one day those who are "strangers" with Him shall share His glory.... Meanwhile, we are not without comfort, though we still groan for the great homecoming to come.
Haftarah for Behar
[ The following is related to this week's Torah (and Haftarah) reading for Behar. Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
05.09.11 (Iyyar 5, 5771) Our Torah portion this week (i.e., Behar) includes the requirement that someone should redeem (buy) the land of their close relative if the relative is in such financial difficulty that he is forced to sell it: 'If your brother becomes impoverished and sells some of his property, then his near redeemer (גאֲלוֹ הַקָּרב) shall and redeem (גָאַל) what his brother has sold" (Lev. 25:25). In other words, if a man was forced to sell some of his inheritance due to poverty, then one of his close relatives had the duty to acquire it so that it would not pass into the hands of strangers. This law of redemption, as supplemented with the laws of inheritance (Num. 27:8-11), becomes a focal point in the Haftarah for Behar.
To contextualize the Haftarah reading (Jer. 32:6-27), the prophet Jeremiah was imprisoned in the guardhouse of the king's palace as the city of Jerusalem was under siege by the Babylonian armies (Jer. 32:2). King Zedekiah had decided to arrest the prophet and put him under armed guard to prevent him from spreading his terrifying message that Jerusalem would soon fall (Jer. 32:3).
While he was in prison, however, the LORD told Jeremiah that his cousin Hanamel would soon visit him and ask that he "redeem" his besieged land (Jer. 32:6-15). Even though Jeremiah understood that the exile of the people was imminent and that the Babylonians would soon take full possession of the land of Israel, he went ahead paid the price and signed the deed of sale in fulfillment of the law's requirement (Jer. 32:10). Before assembled witnesses Jeremiah instructed his secretary Baruch ben Neriah: "The LORD who rules over all (יהוה צְבָאוֹת), the God of Israel (אֱלהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל) says, 'Take these documents, both the sealed copy of the deed of purchase and the unsealed copy. Put them in a clay jar so that they may be preserved for a long time to come. For the LORD God who rules over all, the God of Israel, says, "Houses, fields, and vineyards will again be bought in this land" (Jer. 32:14-16). Jeremiah looked ahead by faith and bought his cousin's land, even though the Babylonian invaders were on the verge of destroying the country and taking the people away in exile... His purchase of a seemingly worthless piece of land was therefore symbolic of his complete assurance that one day God would regather the Jewish back in the land promised to the patriarchs.
After the property deal was completed in front of the assembled witnesses, Jeremiah offered a prayer to God, perhaps as a way to impart the significance of the seemingly preposterous transaction (Jer. 32:17-25). Some have suggested that Jeremiah's prayer was intended to function as a type of "sermon." At any rate, God responded to the prayer in two parts. On the one hand, the judgment upon the people of Judah was entirely just and inevitable (Jer. 32:18-36), but on the other hand, God promised to regather the people from "all the countries" (מכָּל־הָאֲרָצוֹת) of their exile and bring them back to the Promised Land (Jer. 32:37-44). Notice that this promise clearly extends beyond the 70 year Babylonian captivity, since it refers to exile to various different countries (Deut. 30:3; Jer. 32:37). Moreover, at the end of this great (i.e., worldwide) exile, the LORD would give them a new heart and a new will that would revere the LORD forever: "I will make with them an everlasting covenant (בְּרִית עוֹלָם), that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness bekhol libbi uvkhol nafshi (בְּכָל־לִבִּי וּבְכָל־נַפְשִׁי) - "with all my heart and all my soul" (Jer. 32:40-41). Just as God was sure to bring his judgment on the Jewish people, so he promised to bring them good at the end of days... "For I will restore them to their land. I, the LORD, declare it!"
As this prophecy shows, nothing is too wonderful for God (Jer. 32:27). God's wonder is that He alone is LORD of all people, and his power is unlimited.... As the prophet Isaiah said, the LORD is Pele Yo'etz (פֶּלֶא יוֹעֵץ), the Counselor of Wonders (Isa. 9:5): "O LORD, you are my God; I will exalt you; I will praise your name, for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure" (Isa. 25:1). The history of the world reflects God's overarching will, and therefore we need not fear the rise and fall of transient civilizations. God is on the throne, and ein od milvado (אֵין עוֹד מִלְבַדּו): "there is no power apart from Him" (Deut. 4:35,9; 1 Kings 8:60). God "works all things together for good" (πάντα συνεργεῖ εἰς ἀγαθόν) for those who are trusting in Him (Rom. 8:28).
Today is Israel's Independence Day - Yom Ha'atzma'ut - a term that comes from the Hebrew word for "bones" (i.e., atzmot: עצמות). The rebirth of the modern state of Israel in 1948 therefore reminds us of God's promise to revive the "dry bones" of Israel by bringing the Jewish people back from their long exile (Ezek. 37:4-6). Of course, the spiritual rebirth of Israel is yet to come and will not occur until the prophesied End of Days, but Israel first must be within the land for the words of the prophet to be fulfilled, "Prophesy over these bones (הִנָּבֵא עַל־הָעֲצָמוֹת) - and say to them, "O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD."
Happy Independence Day, Israel!
[ Israel's Independence Day occurs May 9th-10th this year... Stay Strong, Israel - our heart and prayers are with you! ]
05.09.11 (Iyyar 5, 5771) After the Jewish people had suffered for nearly 2,000 years of exile as foretold by Moses (Lev. 26:38, 44; Deut. 28:64-64) and the Hebrew prophets (Isa. 43:5-6; Jer. 30:11; Joel 3:2; Ezek. 36:8-10; Hos. 9:1-10, etc.), Israel was miraculously reborn as a nation in their ancient homeland on May 14, 1948 (Iyyar 5, 5708).
The Hebrew word for "bones" is atzmot (עצמות) which suggests the "ability to stand on one's own" or to have a sense of autonomy. So critical is this ability of the human body that the very Hebrew word for "independence" (i.e., atzma'ut: עַצְמָאוּת) means "having a sense of backbone," or the ability to move about freely. Following Passover - the Festival of our Freedom - the holiday of Yom Ha'atzmaut (יוֹם הָעַצְמָאוּת) reminds us of God's promise to revive the "dry bones" of Israel by bringing the Jews back from their long exile (Ezek. 37:4-6). "Prophesy over these bones (הִנָּבֵא עַל־הָעֲצָמוֹת) - and say to them, "O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD." Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: "Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live."
The modern State of Israel (Medinat Yisrael) is the LORD's "super sign" that He is faithful to His covenant promises (see Jer. 31:35-37). Unlike most of the other nations of this world that obtained their territory through conquering others, God Himself gave the Jewish people their land for an everlasting possession based on His promise to Abraham. Some misguided "church" leaders have said that Israel has "no right to the land" because they broke covenant with God (understood to mean either by failing to keep the terms of Sinai, or by rejecting the Messiah Yeshua). This is a mistaken doctrine since it is clear that the "covenant of the parts" (בְּרִית בֵּין הַבְּתָרִים) was an unconditional promise the LORD made to Abraham and to all his descendants (Gen. 15:9-21)... This covenant - that preceded the Mosaic covenant by 400 years - is based on grace, not on works. Prophetically, one day (soon) God will graciously restore all of the Jewish people to their land and cause His breath to enter them so they shall live... "So I prophesied as I was commanded, and the breath came into them; they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army" (Ezek. 37:10).
Note: Yom Ha'Atzmaut is always preceded by Yom HaZikaron, the "Memorial Day" for the Fallen Soldiers. Linking these two days is intended to instill the message that Israelis owe their independence (עַצְמָאוּת) to the soldiers who have sacrificed their very bones for it....
[ The following is related to this week's Torah reading (Behar). Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
05.08.11 (Iyyar 4, 5771) Why is it, the sages asked, that God bypassed all of the world's great and lofty mountains and chose to give His Torah on the humble mountain of Sinai? Why, for that matter, did God come to earth "disguised" as a slave who would be condemned for sin? Because God's Spirit (רוּחַ) rests with the lowly, the humble of heart. Therefore humility (עֲנָוָה) is considered one of the greatest of middot ha-lev (heart qualities).
It is perhaps in this connection that we should understand the commandments given in this week's Torah portion to entirely abstain from harvesting the land every seventh year (i.e., the shemittah - שְׁמִטָּה) and to cancel (forgive) all outstanding debts every 50 years during the Yovel (יוֹבֵל), or "Jubilee Year." Each of us must live in conscious dependence on God's provision and care for our lives. The earth is the LORD's and the fulness thereof, but in the end everything reverts back to God, the true Possessor of heaven and earth. How wonderful that God gives us true "release" and freedom, despite the shackles that mere men try to impose on us. "From Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things."
כִּי כה אָמַר רָם וְנִשָּׂא שׁכֵן עַד וְקָדוֹשׁ שְׁמוֹ
מָרוֹם וְקָדוֹשׁ אֶשְׁכּוֹן וְאֶת־דַּכָּא וּשְׁפַל־רוּחַ
לְהַחֲיוֹת רוּחַ שְׁפָלִים וּלְהַחֲיוֹת לֵב נִדְכָּאִים
ki · kho · a·mar · ram · ve·nis·sa · sho·khen · ad · ve·ka·dosh · she·mo,
ma·rom · ve·ka·dosh · esh·kon · ve·et · dak·ka · ush·fal · ru·ach
le·ha·cha·yot · ru·ach · she·fa·lim · u·le·ha·cha·lot · lev · nid·ka·im
"For this is what the high and exalted one says, the one who rules forever,
whose Name is Holy: "I dwell in an exalted and holy place, but also with the crushed
and lowly of spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive
the heart of the crushed." (Isa. 57:15)
God reveals Himself to the "lowly in spirit" (שְׁפַל־רוּחַ), that is, to those who understand their own nothingness and complete dependence on Him.... Notice that the word dakka (דַּכָּא) refers to being crushed to the very dust, the very same word used to describe how Yeshua was crushed for our iniquities (Isa. 53:10). From the point of view of our dependence on God for salvation, dakka refers to humility and contrition we express in light of God's love and grace for our souls... Pride, arrogance, and self-righteousness are antithetical to the awareness of God in the truth.
According to the Sages, of all the various berachot (blessings) mentioned in this portion of Torah, the most desirable is that of shalom (שָׁלוֹם), or peace. The Birchat Kohanim (the priestly blessing) ends with the word shalom, as does the Shemoneh Esrei (sometimes called the "Amidah") -- the central prayer of the synagogue. The root שׂ-ל-מ indicates not merely the absence of strife but completion and fulfillment, a state of wholeness and unity, and this implies a restored relationship with God and man. Hence the word can be variously understood to mean "peace, prosperity, well, health, completeness, safety." Shalom is a necessary precondition for all other forms of goodness. It represents the Presence and Rule of God over the hearts and souls of humanity. May God grant you His shalom, chaverim.
Jewish Destiny and the Book of Ezekiel
[ The following is related to this week's Haftarah reading for parashat Emor. Please note that this entry provides only a brief overview of this amazing prophecy... ]
05.06.11 (Iyyar 2, 5771) Ezekiel (i.e., Yechezkel: יְחֶזְקֵאל) was a Jewish priest and Hebrew prophet who lived through the devastating time of the destruction of the First Temple (586 BC) and the subsequent exile of the Jewish people to Babylon. The prophet was actually exiled some eleven years before the Temple was destroyed, and joined the other exiles who were taken when King Jehoiachin of Judah was removed by Nebuchadnezzar. While he was in exile at the River Kebar, Ezekiel had the astounding vision of the "Chariot of the LORD" (merkavah) with four wheels guided by the cherubim, upon which the LORD sat upon a sapphire throne (Ezek. 1). This vision marked the beginning of Ezekiel's prophetic ministry to the exiles, which consisted primarily of a series of visions regarding the imminent destruction of the Temple, along with prophecies regarding the downfall of surrounding nations, the vision of the "dry bones" coming back to life (i.e., the resurrection of future Israel), the great prophecy of the war of Gog and Magog, and the climactic vision of the future Temple during the Messianic era...
Jewish tradition has tended to regard the Book of Ezekiel (סֵפֶר יְחֶזְקֵאל) as difficult to understand (and even objectionable) for a variety of reasons. First, the sages were troubled by apparent contradictions between Ezekiel's vision of the Temple Service and the laws given in the Torah. For example, various Temple rituals and rules described in the book appear to have been changed from the laws given earlier in the Book of Leviticus. Second, the sages thought Ezekiel took a "backward step" by reemphasizing the role of the Temple. Didn't Micah the prophet write: "With what should I come before the Lord? With burnt offerings and year-old calves? He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:6, 8). Third, other sages objected to mystical visions found in the book (especially the vision of the Chariot), and warned that encouraging mysticism would lead the people astray. Despite these objections, however, the Book of Ezekiel was eventually accepted into the canon of the Jewish Scriptures, and today portions are publicly read (for the weekly Haftarah) no less than ten times a year. Part of the credit for the inclusion of the book is said to go to a first-century sage named Hananiah ben Hezekiah (c. 70 AD), who was reputed to have used "three hundred measures of oil" (to keep his lamps lit) as he tirelessly studied the prophecy and harmonized it with the laws Torah: "Were it not for him, the Book of Ezekiel would have been hidden" (Sabbath 13b). Today Jewish tradition makes "peace" with Ezekiel by understanding that the need for ritual is a part of Jewish life, just as is the study of the Torah, the practice of tzedakah, and so on. Among Orthodox Jews, however, the Book of Ezekiel foretells the time when the Messiah will come to the Jewish people and establish the Kingdom of Zion as the center of the earth.
Most modern commentators divide the Book of Ezekiel into four main divisions: (1) chapters 1-24 provide prophetic warnings before the destruction of the Temple; (2) chapters 25-32, provide prophecies during Jerusalem's fall, including prophecies of judgment upon the surrounding nations; (3) chapters 33-39, prophecies after Jerusalem's destruction, including promises of future restoration and blessing for Israel; and (4) chapters 40-48, the great vision of the coming Temple and its glory in the world to come (i.e., the Millennial Kingdom).
Our Haftarah portion this week (Ezek. 44:15-31) comes from the last section of the book (chapters 40-48) that foretells the glory of the future Temple that will be built after the Final Redemption, during the 1,000 year Kingdom of Zion. This Temple, it should be noted, will be built by the Messiah Yeshua after His second coming and is better understood as the "Fourth Temple," since the "Third Temple" will be destroyed at the end of the Great Tribulation period....
The connection between our Torah portion (Emor) and the haftarah clearly centers on the role of the priests and the continuation of the Jewish holy days in the world to come. The opening phrase of the parashah (Lev. 21:1), "Say to the priests" is therefore linked with the service described by the priests in the coming Millennial Temple. Like the instructions given in the Torah portion, Ezekiel declares that the priests "shall teach my people the difference between the holy and the profane, and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean." In a dispute, they shall act as judges, and they shall judge it according to my judgments. They shall keep my laws and my statutes in all my appointed feasts, and they shall keep my Sabbaths holy" (Ezek. 44:23-24, cp. Lev. 10:10-11). Note that besides teaching the people the difference between the holy and the profane, the priests will judge the people and teach them about Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, and the other festivals (especially Passover and Sukkot: Ezek. 45:17-25).
Interestingly, the priests of the Millennial Temple will only be those who are direct descendants of Zadok (צָדוֹק), who was the first High Priest in the Temple of Solomon (1 Kings 2:35). Zadok demonstrated loyalty to King David during the insurrection of Absalom (2 Sam. 15) and later anointed King Solomon to be the king of Israel after the failed attempt of Adonijah to seize the throne (1 Kings 1:32-ff). Zadok was also said to be a direct descendant of Pinchas (Phinehas), the grandson of Aaron, who had been promised a "covenant of priesthood for all time" (Num. 25:13). Therefore the LORD says, "The Levitical priests, the sons of Zadok (בְּנֵי צָדוֹק), who kept the charge of my sanctuary when the people of Israel went astray from me, shall come near to me to minister to me. And they shall stand before me to offer me the fat and the blood, declares the Lord GOD" (Ezek. 44:15). In other words, other descendants of the Levites would be forbidden from the sacred service in the Holy Place of the future Temple....
Some of the Jewish commentators (i.e., Radak) note that the spiritual level of the Zadokite priests will rise to be equal to that of the High Priest as described in the Torah portion of Emor. For instance, all the priests would wear the linen garments the High Priest wore during Yom Kippur (Ezek. 44:17-19), and the more stringent rules for holiness demanded of the High Priest are now applied to all the Zadokite priests. In other words, all the priests would be held to the higher standards of holiness formerly required for the High Priest alone. The priests will eat the meal offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings, first fruits, and terumah (special contributions) brought by the people to the new Temple.
Some people are troubled by the idea of a Jewish priesthood operating in the world to come, and especially with the idea that the various sacrifices described in Ezekiel will be offered after the cross of Yeshua. Indeed, Ezekiel describes sacrificial offerings (given by the regent of King David) for the Sabbath day (46:1-5), the New Moon (46:6-8), the appointed feasts (46:9-12), as well as the daily (tamid) sacrifices (46:13-15). Because all this seems inconsistent with the message of the gospel, many Christian interpreters attempt to "allegorize" the Book of Ezekiel and apply its message as a vision of the triumphant church in heaven (this is characteristic of many who hold to some for of "ammillennialism," as well as to most "covenant" theologians). It should be noted, however, that what is being described in Ezekiel pertains to a coming "dispensation" or age that follows the "church age." The language of Ezekiel's description of the Temple is too precise to warrant such allegorization, nor do the detailed descriptions of the sacrifices, the appointed times, the description of the "city of the LORD" and the inheritance of the tribes hint at any kind of metaphor. It is better, then, to understand the future Temple to be the way a redeemed Israel will commemorate (or memorialize) the sacrifice of Yeshua as Israel's true High Priest and King. After all, if the sacrifices offered in the Levitical system before the cross looked forward to the sacrifice of Yeshua, it is logical that the sacrifices in the coming Kingdom of Zion will commemorate His sacrifice as Israel's Lamb of God...
When we consistently read the Scriptures using the historical-grammatical method, the Book of Ezekiel strongly refutes the error of "replacement theology," and indeed the Jewish sages understand it to be the ritual expression of the words of other Hebrew prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, and so on. So you see why the study of the Hebrew language (i.e., the "language of the Kingdom") and the study of the Jewish holidays is so important to us, chaverim. God's purposes remain the same, and the Torah is part of our heritage as followers of Yeshua, the Jewish Messiah and our Savior.... Those who ignore (or "interpret away") the literal reading of the Book of Ezekiel will likely be scandalized with the clear message of the Book of Esther as well.
The name Ezekiel means "God [אֵל] will strengthen [יֶחֱזַק]" and his message is one of hope and strength (chazak) for the Jewish people... As the apostle Paul foresaw, one day all Israel will be saved and the promises of the Hebrew prophets will be completely fulfilled (Rom. 11:26). God is faithful, chaverim, and He will do as He promised for the Jewish people.... May that day come soon!
Prayer Changes Things...
05.05.11 (Iyyar 1, 5771) We don't pray to attempt to change God's mind, but rather to change our own: "Your Father knows what you need before you even ask him..." (Matt. 6:8). Prayer is not a means of getting your Father's attention, but rather of getting your attention fixed on reality.... It is a type of confession of your need for God.
It's been said that "God knows everything," and while that is indeed true, God does not know anything apart from his love. God does not "know" you in some abstract sense, like a computer that records information, but rather as a parent who loves and cares for you (Psalm 103:13). Your heavenly Father knows the number of hairs on your head; he knows the word on your tongue before you utter it, and he perfectly sees your beginning and end. He has intimate understanding of who you are and what you really need.
Some people regard prayer as boring or even tedious, while others regard it as a sort of "duty" to be unthinkingly performed during meals or special occasions.... Still others use prayer as a kind of "code" to express their identity or their association with a particular religious group... In such cases, the right "keywords" or formulaic expressions are used as tokens that someone is a "true believer" or part of the approved group (i.e., denomination, church, etc.). Here the language of prayer is insincere and is usually meant as a way to judge others: "People lie to one another; they flatter and deceive" (Psalm 12:2). Likewise certain Pharisees used prayer as a way to "be seen by others," undoubtedly in a vain attempt to gain honor and self-importance. They "draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips while their hearts are far from me" (Isa. 29:13). And some people even use prayer to rebuke others or even to make a point in an argument! "O Lord, I pray for my misguided brother (spouse, child, etc.), who is surely wrong about such and such..." How sad, and how tragic. No, no, no... Genuine prayer is an opportunity for you to "come to yourself" and wake up from your carnal illusions; it is ultimately a decision to turn away from vanity to embrace the reality and love of your heavenly Father. As such, praying from the heart is undoubtedly one of the most powerful things you can ever do, since it removes you from the realm of make-believe, illusion, and self-deception so that you can call upon and encounter Ultimate Reality - namely, the LORD who created and rules over all things....
A prayerful heart is one of surrender and acceptance to the truth. It does not play "religious games" or attempt to whitewash the truth about our desperate condition. True reverence is an attitude of trust that God is intimately involved in your life, that he sees, that he cares, and that he is present for you now. It receives "daily bread." Prayer truly changes things, but most importantly it changes you. It enables you to become a witness and intercessor for this world so that God's power and truth is released... Therefore James the Righteous wrote, "Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great effectiveness" (James 5:16). Notice that the prayer of the righteous is effective because it is grounded in reality. "Confession" (ὁμολογία) means forsaking pretense by accepting the truth about yourself. Indeed the Greek word (ὁμολογέω) literally means "saying the same thing," or surrendering to the truth of God. The prayer of the righteous "avails much" because it is focused on true healing that draws people closer to God's love....
This is part of what Yeshua meant when he told us to make our petitions "in his name." When we are filled with the truth of his spirit, we have confidence that we are "one" with God's will, and therefore we can request God's agency in our circumstances: "And this is the confidence that we have before him: that whenever we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in regard to whatever we ask, then we know that we have the requests that we have asked from him" (1 John 5:14-15). Note that the word translated "confidence" in this verse (i.e., παρρησία: parresia) is formed from two other words (i.e., πᾶς, "all," and ῥέω, "to utter"), suggesting the free flow of the word of truth within our hearts. The verb form of this word (i.e., παρρησιάζομαι) is used exclusively in the Scriptures to refer to the bold proclamation of the message of salvation given in the Messiah. All our petitions we must begin there, remembering the "business of heaven" and the heart of Yeshua who came to seek and to save the lost....
New "Table Talk" for Emor
[ The following is related to this week's Torah reading (Emor). Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
05.04.11 (Nisan 30, 5771) Today I wrote a new Shabbat "Table Talk" for this week's Torah reading (Emor), which is a very important portion because it reviews both the role of the Jewish priests and provides a list of the various moedim (holidays) of the Jewish year. Like other Table Talk guides I've written, first I provide a brief synopsis of the Torah reading and then ask a set of discussion questions. I hope you will find it useful for discussing (or reviewing) our reading this week, chaverim. You can download the page here.
The Hebrew word for "priest" is kohen (כּהֵן), which is thought to come from the word ken (כֵּן) meaning "yes" and the word kivun (כִּווּן) meaning to "direct" or "lead," implying that the priest helped direct a person toward God.... The first priest mentioned in the Torah is Malki-Tzedek (מַלְכִּי־צֶדֶק), the King of Salem to whom Abraham offered tithes after his victory over the kings (Gen. 14:18). The author of the Book of Hebrews states that Malki-Tzedek was "without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever" (Heb. 7:3), and then goes on to argue that his priesthood is greater than that of sons of Aaron since Abraham (and therefore Levi) offered him tribute (Heb. 7:9-11). It is wonderful to see how Yeshua functions as our great High Priest of the New Covenant. He is able to save to the "uttermost" those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to intercede (i.e., ἐντυγχάνειν, to plead, entreat) on their behalf" (Heb. 7:25). As our Kohen Gadol of the New Covenant, "all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory" (2 Cor. 1:20).
Personal Update: Please keep me in your prayers, chaverim... I have not been feeling well the last couple days. Thank you so much.
The Month of Iyyar
[ The new month of Iyyar begins Tuesday, May 3rd at sundown this year... ]
05.02.11 (Nisan 28, 5771) The second month of the traditional Jewish calendar (as reckoned from the month of Nisan) is called Iyyar (אִיָּיר). In the Torah, this month is simply called "the second month" (i.e., chodesh sheni: חדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי), though later it was called Ziv (זִו), a Canaanite loan word that means "glow" or "blossom," perhaps suggesting the growing season of early spring (1 Kings 6:1). The word Ziv may be related to the word zuv (זוּב), meaning a flow or gush of fluid. Like most other Hebrew months, the name was later changed some time after the Babylonian captivity. Iyyar usually falls in April–May on the Gregorian calendar. The month always lasts 29 days and Rosh Chodesh is therefore observed for two days (i.e., the last day of Nisan and the first day of the new month). It was during this month that those who were unable to observe Passover were allowed to celebrate a "second Passover" exactly 30 days later, on Iyyar 14-15 (Num. 9:9-12).
On the Torah's calendar, the month of Iyyar falls between the great month of redemption (i.e., Nisan) and the great month of revelation (Sivan), and is therefore primarily commemorated as a "month of passage" leading up to the awesome revelation given at Sinai (mattan Torah). Later, the agricultural aspect of this "passage" was enshrined in terms of Sefirat HaOmer (סְפִירַת הָעוֹמֶר), or the "counting the sheaves," when a sheaf of barley was waved before the altar each day for 49 days before the arrival of the climactic holiday of Shavuot (Lev. 23:15-16). Indeed, Rabbinical (and mystical) traditions associate each passing day of the month of Iyyar with a heightened spiritual status wherein a different level of (tumah) impurity is "purged" from the soul, thereby implying that the Israelites' journey from Egypt to Sinai represented a spiritual transformation.
Recall that exactly one month after the Exodus (i.e., Iyyar 15) God led the Israelites from the oasis and palm trees at Elim into the deeper part of the desert, to midbar Sin (מִדְבַּר־סִין), a desolate region that was about midway to Sinai going southeast (Exod. 16:1). About this time, the food provisions the people had brought with them ran out, and the Israelites began grumbling against Moses and Aaron, saying: "If only we had died by the hand of God in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate bread to our fill, for you have brought us out into this desert to starve to death!" (Exod. 16:3). God then said to Moses, "'Look I am going to rain down bread from heaven (לֶחֶם מִן־הַשָּׁמָיִם) for you. The people will go out and gather a portion for that day so that I might test whether they will walk in my Torah (תּוֹרָה) or not" (Exod. 16:4). Each Friday the people received a double portion that was to last them through Shabbat, and the test centered on whether the people would refrain from seeking manna on God's appointed day of rest. Note that the Ten Commandments had not yet been given to Israel at this time, so it is likely that the law of manna was meant to prepare them for the law of the Sabbath that would be given at Sinai the following month (i.e., on Sivan 6, or Shavuot). According to Jewish tradition, it was also during the month of Iyyar that the "Well of Miriam" began to flow (zuv) to provide fresh water for the people. The war with Amalek - Israel's first national enemy - also took place during the month of Iyyar just before the revelation was given at Sinai.
It was also during the month of Iyyar - during the second year after the Exodus - that the Israelites began their travels through the desert with the newly completed Mishkan (Tabernacle) in their midst (Exod. 40:17). The Torah relates that it was on Iyyar 1 that the first "census" (i.e., שְׂאוּ אֶת־ראשׁ, lit. "counting of heads") of the Jewish people was taken, so that each person could find his or her place in the fourfold formation of tribes that made up the camp of Israel that surrounded the Tabernacle in the desert (Num. 1:1-4). In other words, Iyyar represented the first month that the Shekhinah Glory began leading the tribes to the promised land of Zion.
This was prophetic, of course, since the Scriptures later reveal that it was during this same month that King Solomon began to build the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 6:1).
Finally, the month of Iyyar is important in more recent Jewish history and tradition. On the modern Jewish calendar, a number of newer holidays are observed, including Yom HaZikaron (Iyyar 4), Yom Ha'atzmaut (Iyyar 5), Lag B'Omer (Iyyar 18), and Yom Yerushalayim (Iyyar 28). By far the greatest of these modern holidays is Yom Ha'atzmaut, or Israel's Independence Day, which was originally announced on before sunset on Friday, May 14th (i.e., Iyyar 5, 5708). And of course the liberation of the Temple Mount on June 7th, 1967 (i.e., Iyyar 28, 5727) is also highly prophetic.
Rosh Chodesh Blessing
The following (simplified) Hebrew blessing can be recited to ask the LORD to help you for the coming new month, chaverim:
יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֵיךָ יהוה אֱלהֵינוּ וֵאלהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ
שֶׁתְּחַדֵּשׁ עָלֵינוּ חדֶשׁ טוֹב בַּאֲדנֵינוּ יֵשׁוּעַ הַמָּשִׁיחַ אָמֵן
ye·hi ra·tzon mil·fa·ne·kha Adonai E·lo·hei·nu ve·lo·hey a·vo·tei·nu
she·te·cha·desh a·lei·nu cho·desh tov, ba'a·do·nei·nu Ye·shu·a ha·ma·shi·ach, a·men
"May it be Your will, LORD our God and God of our fathers,
that you renew for us a good month in our Lord Yeshua the Messiah. Amen."
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Note: Regarding the date for the new moon, I follow the "standard" calendar system used by the Jewish community living in the Diaspora worldwide. Rosh Chodesh is celebrated for two days on months with just 29 days, so it will begin a day "early" for Iyyar - on Nisan 30 (which this year begins Tuesday May 3rd after sundown). It is also observed the following evening, on Wednesday, May 4th after sundown.
Israel's Independence Day
05.02.11 (Nisan 28, 5771) After the Jewish people had suffered for nearly 2,000 years of harrowing exile as foretold by Moses (Lev. 26:38, 44; Deut. 28:64-64) and the Hebrew prophets (Isa. 43:5-6; Jer. 30:11; Joel 3:2; Ezek. 36:8-10; Hos. 9:1-10, etc.), Israel was miraculously reborn as an autonomous nation in their ancient homeland on May 14, 1948 (Iyyar 5, 5708). Today Jews across the world celebrate Iyyar 5 as Israel Independence Day (i.e., Yom Ha'atzmaut: יוֹם הָעַצְמָאוּת). "The people of Israel live!" עַם יִשְׂרָאֵל חַי / am Yisrael chai: The modern State of Israel is the LORD's "super sign" that He is faithful to His covenant promises (see Jer. 31:35-37).
It should be noted that the date for Yom Ha'atzmaut can vary from year to year. For instance, it may be moved earlier or postponed if it conflicts with a Sabbath, or if Yom HaZikaron - which always precedes it - occurs on a Sunday.
Note: This year Israel's Independence day is observed Monday, May 9th (at sundown). The typical greeting is simply to say mo'edim le'simcha ("good yom tov"), with an acceptable response, ligula shleima ("towards a complete redemption").
Israel's Memorial Day
05.02.11 (Nisan 28, 5771) The Hebrew word zakhar (זָכַר) means "remember," and zikaron (זִכָּרוֹן) means "memorial." Yom HaZikaron (יוֹם הַזִּכָּרוֹן), then, is the "Day of Memorial" for those soldiers who gave up their lives in battle for the creation and defense of the State of Israel. In 1951 the Israeli Knesset established Iyyar 4 (the day immediately before Israel's Independence Day) as Israel's Memorial Day. In more recent times, the holiday has also become associated with victims of political terrorism. This year Yom HaZikaron begins Sunday, May 8th at sundown (the first siren is sounded at 8:00 p.m.) and various commemoration services will be held throughout the day of Monday, May 9th.
It should be noted that the date for Yom HaZikaron can vary from year to year. For instance, it may be moved earlier if the observance of Independence Day (which always follows it) falls on a Sabbath. In addition, if Yom HaZikaron falls on a Sunday (as it does this year), it is always postponed to the following Monday (in order to set the day apart for schools and businesses). As always, if in doubt, check a reputable Jewish calendar...
Parashat Emor - אמור
[ The following is related to this week's Torah reading (Emor). Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
05.01.11 (Nisan 27, 5771) The Torah reading for this week (Emor) begins with a warning to the priests not to defile themselves through contact with a corpse and concludes with an outline of the mo'edim (Jewish holidays) celebrated throughout the year. It is a fascinating and very rich portion of Torah, chaverim.
Who were the priests of Israel?
Jacob, of course, had 12 sons, who became the founders of the twelve tribes (shevatim) of Israel. His son Levi had three sons: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari (Gen. 46:11; Ex. 6:16-26) who became heads of the clans of the Levites. However, God exclusively chose Levi's great grandson Aaron and his descendants from among all the Levites to be His priests (Num. 17:1-10). The other descendants of Levi were assigned roles to assist in the maintenance of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), such as carrying various vessels, assembling it when the LORD moved the camp, and so on, but only the direct male descendants of Aaron were authorized to perform avodah and offer sacrifices on behalf of the people.
The Jewish people are therefore composed of three "classes:"
- Levi'im (לְוִיִּם) - Levites (i.e., descendants of the patriarch Levi).
- Kohanim (כּהנִים) - A subset of the Levites (i.e., the male descendants of Aaron) who were assigned the role of priests. An individual descendant is called a kohen (כּהן). The Kohen Gadol was a priest singled out to perform special functions such as the Yom Kippur ritual and other sacrifices. Note that both the Leviim and the Kohanim were supported by the gifts given by the rest of Israel.
- Yisraelim (יִשְׂרְאֵלִים) - Israelites (i.e., a Jew or convert in general)
Note that while every Levite is an Israelite (a descendant of Israel), not every Levite (descendant of Levi) is a Kohen (descendant of Aaron).
This class distinction is one of the few remnants of Temple-era Jewish society still in force today, with special roles assigned at synagogue services. For example, it is customary to call a Kohen for the first Torah reading (aliyah), a Levite for the second reading, and members of any other tribe of Israel to the remaining readings. A kohen is also called for performing the priestly blessing (called nesiat Kapayim - "raising the hands") during the service. Among orthodox Jews, a kohen is symbolically given money during the Pidyon HaBen ceremony ("redemption of the first born).
Avoiding the Defilement of Death
Based on the Torah's prohibition that a priest must refrain from contact with a corpse, Jewish law decreed that a Kohen cannot be within six feet of a dead body and may not be in the same room where a dead body is at rest. This means that Kohanim cannot attend a Jewish funeral (except for those of his immediate family) or must stay in a "Kohanim room" outside of the main chapel area. In order to further protect them from coming into contact with the dead, many Jewish cemeteries designate a separate burial ground for Kohanim so that the sons of deceased kohanim can visit their fathers' graves without becoming defiled. Kohens are also careful not to be in a hospital, morgue, etc. where dead bodies might be present.
The Appointed Times of the LORD
The second part of parashat Emor lists the eight main mo'edim (מוֹעֲדִים) -- the "appointed times" of the LORD given in the Jewish Scriptures. These special times are also referred to as mikra'ei kodesh (מִקְרָאֵי קדֶשׁ), "times in which holiness is proclaimed" (Lev. 23:2). Note that this is the first time that the Torah reveals a comprehensive description of the festivals of the year, including the following special times:
- The Sabbath - weekly observance of Shabbat that commemorates God as the Creator of the world. According to the sages, Shabbat is the most important of the appointed times, even more important than Yom Kippur and the Ten Days of Awe. There are 54 weekly Sabbaths in a "leap year" and 50 for regular years...
- Pesach (Nisan 15), also called Passover.
- Unleavened Bread (Nisan 15-22); note that the Counting of the Omer is first mentioned in this section of Torah (Lev. 23:9-16).
- Firstfruits (Nisan 17), also called Reishit Katzir.
- Shavuot (Sivan 6), also called Pentecost.
- Yom Teru'ah (Tishri 1), also called Rosh Hashanah (note that this is the first time this is revealed in Torah).
- Yom Kippur (Tishri 10) also called the Day of Atonement.
- Sukkot (Tishri 15-22) also called Tabernacles (note that this is the first time the commandments to dwell in a Sukkah and to wave the arba minim (four species) are mentioned in the Torah).
Notice that there is a restatement of the commandment to leave food for the poor and the stranger (pe'ah, leket, etc.) that appears in the midst of the list of the various holidays (see Lev. 23:22), which the sages said was intended to remind us to help those in need, especially during these times. Hence we see that giving of tzedakah is a regular part of the Jewish holidays (e.g., giving ma'ot chittim [מַעוֹת חִטִּים] "money for wheat" during Passover, matanot la'evyonim [מַתָּנוֹת לָאֶבְיוֹנִים] for Purim, and so on). The sages ask, "Why did the Torah place the mitzvah of helping the poor while speaking about the holidays and their particular sacrifices? To teach us the greatness of charity: 'God credits whoever gives charity to the poor as if they built the Holy Temple and presented offerings therein to God.' Giving a gift to the poor is giving a gift to God Himself!"
Since there are at least 50 weekly Sabbaths in a Jewish year in addition to the seven prescribed holidays (not to mention Rosh Chodesh and the other holidays such as Purim, Chanukah, Israel Independence Day, etc.), it is no wonder that the Scriptures declare: "A person with a cheerful heart has a continual celebration" (Prov. 15:15). The moedim are times to cheerfully give thanks to the LORD for all He has done....
In this connection, notice that the calendar is divided into two equal parts of exactly six lunar months each, both of which center on redemptive rituals and end with harvests. The first half of the divine calendar begins on Rosh Chodashim (i.e., Nisan 1; Exod. 12:2), which is followed by the instructions to select the Passover lamb on Nisan 10 (Exod. 12:3), slaughter it in the late afternoon of 14th (Exod. 12:6-7) and eat it on the 15th (Exod. 12:8). The Passover itself initiated the seven day period of unleavened bread (from Nisan 15-22), wherein no leaven was to be consumed (Exod. 12:15-20). On an agricultural level, Passover represents spring, the season of the firstfruit harvests (i.e., chag ha-katzir: חַג הַקָּצִיר), and so on. On the "other side of the calendar," Yom Teruah (or Rosh Hashanah) marks the start of the second half of the year (Exod. 23:16, Lev. 23:24), which is followed by the Yom Kippur sacrifice ten days later, on Tishri 10 (Lev. 23:27), followed by the weeklong festival of Sukkot ("Tabernacles") that occurs from Tishri 15-22 (Lev. 23:34-36). On an agricultural level, Sukkot represents the reaping of the fall harvest (i.e., chag ha'asif: חַג הָאָסִף) at the "end of the year" (Exod. 23:16). In other words, in some respects the fall holidays "mirror" the spring holidays on the divine calendar, and indeed, both sides of the calendar represent different aspects of God's redemptive plan for the world. As I've written about elsewhere, the spring holidays represent the first advent of Yeshua (i.e., Yeshua as Suffering Servant, Lamb of God, Messiah ben Yosef), whereas the fall holidays represent His second advent (Yeshua as Conquering Lord, Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Messiah ben David).
In an attempt to include Chanukah and Purim as apart of the divine calendar revealed in the Torah, the Jewish sages note that immediately after the LORD revealed these holidays, he instructed Moses to keep the menorah in the Holy Place of the Mishkan burning continually (ner tamid) and to provide weekly "showbread," or twelve loaves of bread on the shulchan inside the Holy Place. The sages say that the instructions regarding the oil of the menorah alludes to Chanukah, whereas the lechem ha-panim ("showbread") alludes to hester panim - or "hiding of face" and the nes nistar (hidden miracle) of the Esther story.
Cycles of Time...
Instead of thinking of time as a linear sequence of events (i.e., the measurement of linear, progressive motion), Jewish thinking tends to regard it in terms of a spiral or "helix," with a forward progression delimited by an overarching (and divine) pattern that recurs cyclically throughout the weeks, months, and years of life. This can be seen in the Hebrew language itself. Some of the sages note that the Hebrew word for "year" - shanah (שָׁנָה) - shares the same root as both the word "repeat" (שָׁנָה) and the word "change" (שִׁנָּה). In other words, the idea of the "Jewish year" implies ongoing "repetition" - mishnah (מִשְׁנָה) - or an enduring "review" of the key prophetic events of redemptive history as they relived in our present experiences... (The idea that the events of the fathers were "parables" for us is expressed in the maxim: מַעֲשֵׂה אֲבוֹת סִימָן לַבָּנִים / ma'aseh avot siman labanim: "The deeds of the fathers are signs for the children.") The Jewish year then repeats itself thematically, but it also changes from year to year as we progress closer to the coming Day of Redemption... We see this very tension (i.e., constancy-change), for example, in the "dual aspect" of the ministry of Yeshua our Messiah. In His first advent Yeshua came as our Suffering Servant and thereby fulfilled the latent meaning of the spring holidays, and in His second advent He will fulfill the latent meaning of the fall holidays. Nonetheless, we still commemorate both the "type and its fulfillment" every year during Passover by extending the ritual of the Seder to express the reality of Yeshua as the world's "Lamb of God," just as we commemorate the fall holidays in expectation of His rule and reign as our King....
None of this is meant to suggest, by the way, that there isn't an "end point" in the process - a Day in which we will be with God and enjoy His Presence forever... The idea of the "cycles" of time, or "timeless patterns in time," suggests, however, that the "seed" for our eternal life with God has already been sown - and was indeed foreknown even from the Garden of Eden, despite the fact that we presently groan while awaiting the glory of heaven.