Preparation for the Promised Land

Parashat Ki Tavo

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, begins with the words, “When you have come to the land HaShem your G-d is giving you…” What follows is an entire parashah emphasizing the observance of the mitzvot.

The question arises as to why G-d would emphasize the observance of the Torah before bringing Israel into to the Promised Land. Would it not make more sense to first bring them into the Land, and then give them the Torah?

We are currently in the Jewish month of Elul – a time of preparation leading up to Rosh HaShanah, and the following High Holidays. The reason we have the month of Elul is because G-d is concerned about order and protocol. The entire Torah is about the proper order and protocol of living out our lives in the presence of HaShem. As such, we cannot just come marching into the High Holidays and expect to just shout out, “Here I am!” We have an opportunity for a mo’ed, a divinely appointed and set-apart time when G-d chooses to meet with us. Such an opportunity requires preparation on our part.

One of the several themes of Rosh HaShanah is the coronation of G-d as King. If we were to be summoned before an earthly king or queen, wouldn’t we want to prepare ourselves and make sure we were at our best? Then how much more so should we be preparing to meet with the King of the Universe! We have been given an opportunity to meet with G-d. The month of Elul is our preparation period to ensure that when we stand before HaShem on Rosh HaShanah, that we are coming at our best, and have prepared ourselves to be in the presence of G-d. We must get ourselves right, so we can stand upright before HaShem.

That is the purpose in Ki Tavo. The Jewish people were given the Torah before coming into the Promised Land because coming into the Land meant coming before G-d. The land of Israel is interconnected with G-d in the deepest way. So coming into the land symbolizes coming into G-d’s presence. In this week’s portion it states:

You are to take the first-fruits of all the crops the ground yields, which you will harvest from your land that HaShem your G-d is giving you, put them in a basket and go to the place where HaShem your G-d will choose to have His Name live (Deut. 26:2).

G-d has chosen the land of Israel as the place where G-d’s presence resides on earth. By coming into the Land, Israel is coming into G-d’s presence. Therefore, G-d emphasizes Israel’s preparation and observance of the “How to’s” of being in the manifest presence of HaShem (i.e. the mitzvot). That is also why the section of blessings and curses in the parashah is so severe. Being in the presence of G-d requires greater accountability. As we the Jewish people had to prepare to come into the Promised Land (i.e. G-d’s presence), so should we be in preparation for the coming of Rosh Hashanah, and another opportunity to be in the presence of G-d.

L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu – May you be inscribed for a sweet new year!
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Why Do We Need Yeshua?

feature_1625_story2Parashat Shoftim

For those of us who take Jewish life seriously, value Judaism, affirm the continued covenantal election of the Jewish people, and affirm G-d’s continued work among our people, we are often confronted with an interesting question – Why Yeshua?

This is actually a very good question. And often it is not given justice. Especially when you consider the question as a religious Jew. After all, what do you do with those Jews who are faithful to G-d, pray regularly, study Torah, observe the mitzvot, and are part of the people who are still in a covenant relationship with HaShem??? Why do I need Yeshua? This question, at times, also enters the minds of committed Messianic Jews.

One of my best friends pointed much of this out in a commentary he previously wrote for First Fruits of Zion. Often we try to answer this question with a complicated and convoluted answer having something to do with the sacrificial system. However, this approach is one that your average person is actually ill-equipped to discuss.

Therefore, we must ask, is there a more practical way to answer to this question? This week’s Torah portion offers a much clearer and more direct answer:

Deuteronomy 18:15, 18-19

טו  נָבִיא מִקִּרְבְּךָ מֵאַחֶיךָ כָּמֹנִי, יָקִים לְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ:  אֵלָיו תִּשְׁמָעוּן.

15 HaShem will raise up a prophet like me from among yourselves, from your own kinsman. You are to pay attention to him …

יח  נָבִיא אָקִים לָהֶם מִקֶּרֶב אֲחֵיהֶם, כָּמוֹךָ; וְנָתַתִּי דְבָרַי, בְּפִיו, וְדִבֶּר אֲלֵיהֶם, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוֶּנּוּ.

18 I will raise up for them a prophet from among their brethren, like you; and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him.

יט  וְהָיָה, הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יִשְׁמַע אֶל-דְּבָרַי, אֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר, בִּשְׁמִי–אָנֹכִי, אֶדְרֹשׁ מֵעִמּוֹ.

19 And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not listen to My words which he shall speak in My name, will have to account for himself to me.

Many Torah commentators have interpreted this only on the level of p’shat … the simplest, plain reading … to refer to Israel’s succession of post-Mosaic prophets.

However, when we view this prophecy in connection with the concluding words of the Torah: “And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (34:10) this interpretation doesn’t seem to completely fit the context, and there seems to be more of an implicit hint that favors a more eschatological or messianic interpretation.

The key point is that G-d will raise up a prophet LIKE MOSHE!

So the question is, is there justification to read this passage messianically? Meaning, is the figure Moses is speaking of here a reference to a greater Prophet than himself? And could the Torah possibly be referring to Mashiach? I will demonstrate that there is actually historic precedence to read this passage messianically.

The Samaritan Pentateuch, in its version of the Decalogue (Exodus 20), has a unique account of the giving of the Ten Utterances.

The Masoretic text reads, “So the people stood at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was (Exodus 20:21).” However, in the Samaritan version it reads:

“And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God [was]. And the LORD said to Moses to say: I heard what the people have said. All that they have spoken to you, they have spoken wisely. All that they have spoken let them put in their hearts so that they can keep my commandments all their days, so that it will be good to them and to their children forever. A Prophet I shall raise up for them from among their brothers, and I will place My words in his mouth to speak to them all that I’m commanding them. And it becomes that the man who will not listen to his words that are spoken in my name, will have to account for himself to me.”

The Samaritan Pentateuch includes the raising up of this Prophet into the giving of the Ten Commandments … assigning to this Prophet the role of Law Giver (who is solely identified with G-d).

Furthermore, there is also precedence within Rabbinic literature to read this passage as referring to Mashiach.

According to the Midrash (in Kohelet Rabbah):

“As the first redeemer was, so shall the latter redeemer be. [Both will be] ‘lowly and riding on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9)’” (Kohelet Rabbah 1:8).

One of the clearest messianic interpretations of Deuteronomy 18:15-19 and 34:9-10 however, appears in the works of a later medieval commentator Rabbi Levi Ben Gershom (known as the Ralbag). Commenting on Deuteronomy 34:10 he states:

“‘There will not arise a prophet like Moses who was a prophet in Israel only, but there will be a prophet from this people for the nations and this is the King Messiah, as it says in the Midrash (quoting Midrash Tanchuma Parashat Toledot), “Behold my servant will prosper” (Isaiah 52:13)—that he will be greater than Moses. And it is explained that the miracles he will do will be greater than Moses. Moses only brought Israel alone to the service of God may he be blessed with new miracles, and he (Messiah) will bring all the nations to serve God blessed is he. As it says, ‘Then will all the nations be turned to a pure speech, they will all call on the name of G-d.’ (Zeph. 3.9) This faith will come about due to the wondrous miracles that will be seen to all ends of the world by all the nations, and this is the resurrection of the dead.”

Lastly, the understanding of this passage from Deuteronomy as referring to Mashiach is also supported from the Brit Chadashah, as well.

In the Book of Acts, Peter addresses those who are around him on the Temple Mount:

18 But this is how God fulfilled what he had announced in advance, when he spoke through all the prophets, namely, that his Messiah was to die. 19 “Therefore, repent and turn to God, so that your sins may be erased; 20 so that times of refreshing may come from the Lord’s presence; and he may send the Messiah appointed in advance for you, that is, Yeshua. 21He has to remain in heaven until the time comes for restoring everything, as God said long ago, when he spoke through the holy prophets. 22 For Moshe himself said, ‘HASHEM will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers. You are to listen to everything he tells you. 23Everyone who fails to listen to that prophet will be removed from the people and destroyed.’ 24Indeed, all the prophets announced these days, starting with Sh’mu’el and continuing through all who followed. (Acts 3:18-24)

Furthermore, the righteous martyr Stephen, in his trial before the Sanhedrin begins his defense by recounting Biblical history and pointing out how in his own time Moses was rejected by his people:

“This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’—this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer…This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will rise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’ This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us” (Acts 7:35-37).

Stephen continues with his rebuke:

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered” (Acts 7:51-52).

Stephen clearly connects the Righteous One—Yeshua, with the prophet like Moses (directly quoting Deut. 18:15). It appears that Stephan was quoting from a textual tradition of reading this passage Messianically.

How Will this Prophet Be Like Moses?

Moses acted in three distinct roles:

  1. As prophet – who spoke “with G-d face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10);
  2. As a priest – who inaugurated the first High Priest (Numbers 8);
  3. and as a king, as Deuteronomy 33:5 states: “He [Moshe] became king”.

It’s interesting to note that the term “mashiach” (literally “anointed one”) was a title designated for these three types of people. Just as Moshe held all three titles, so too will the prophet “like Moshe” hold all three titles.

We see the fulfillment of Moshe’s prophecy come to life when Phillip exclaims of Yeshua: “We’ve found the one that Moses wrote about in the Torah” (John 1:45; cf. 5:45).

Yeshua also ultimately fulfilled these three roles, as well:

  1. He is the Prophet who will be greater than Moses
  2. He is the great High Priest as described in the Book of Hebrews;
  3. and He is the “King of the Jews”

So we ask ourselves again, why do we need Yeshua?

One way we might answer our modern-day objectors is to point directly to the Torah –  using Deuteronomy 18:15-19 to show that HaShem has raised up this Prophet who we are supposed to listen to, and Yeshua is the fulfillment of this prophecy.

If Moses was the agent for the giving of the Torah and the whole basis of faith than how much more so are we to believe in the coming Prophet like Moses of whom Moses foretold?

Furthermore, each one of our readings this week speak of the raising up of a Messianic figure … a Prophet like Moses in the Torah … the Suffering Servant (just after the Haftarah) … and Yeshua’s revelation of himself to his talmidim following his resurrection.

If you have been questioning, “Why Yeshua?” – maybe it’s time to take another look. If you have not seriously considered whether or not Yeshua is the Messiah – it’s time to look again!

Yeshua is indeed that Prophet who is not only like Moshe, but even greater than Moshe.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Elul: A Month of Love and Preparation

This past Saturday was the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul. Elul is very special because it is the month preceding Tishrei – the month the High Holidays fall in. Traditionally it is known as a month of preparation. This preparation, called Cheshbon HaNefesh, is a time we begin to take an accounting of our soul. We recall our thoughts and actions over the past year and begin to seek t’shuvah (repentance) for those things and with those we may have wronged.

In recognition of this special month, and in anticipation for the upcoming High Holidays, a few additions are added to our daily prayers. One of the most noticeable is the sounding of the Shofar every morning. Traditionally, we Jews only blow the Shofar once a year – every morning of the month of Elul leading up to, and on, Rosh HaShanah and Neilah (the concluding service) of Yom Kippur. The reason is because of the specialness of the blowing of the Shofar. Jewish tradition teaches that there is something spiritual and mystical about the blowing of the Shofar. According to the Talmud (b. Rosh Hashana 16b):

Rabbi Abahu asks, “Why do we sound the horn of a ram [on Rosh HaShanah]? Because the Holy One, Blessed be He, said, ‘Blow Me a ram’s horn that I may remember unto you the binding of Isaac the son of Abraham, and I shall account it unto you for a binding of yourselves before me.’”

For us Jews, the sounding of the shofar is not meant to be a quaint traditional practice, but a spiritual wake-up call! As the Rambam points out, it is meant to “Rouse the slumbers’ from their sleep!”

Another familiar addition is Psalm 27 – the Psalm associated with the High Holidays. Psalm 27 is added to all of the services beginning with the first day of Elul and continuing through Hoshanah Rabbah at the end of Sukkot (in some congregations, only through Yom Kippur).

How are we to understand this preparation period of Elul?

The rabbis teach us that Elul is actually an acronym. Each of the Hebrew letters – אלול – alef, lamed, vav, lamed – stand for the beginning letter of each word in the phrase “אני לדודי ודודי לי – ani l’dodi v’dodi li – I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.” A familiar phrase taken from Song of Songs 6:3.

The illustration of Elul in Jewish thought is the preparation before a wedding. The holidays in Hebrew are called mo’edim, set appointed times when God chooses to meet with us. The High Holidays are the pinnacle of these appointed times. HaShem desires that we should be caught up in a love affair with Him. As Abraham Joshua Heschel points out, God is in pursuit of a relationship with us. God desires communion with creation and the High Holidays are set times which God “clears away His calendar” so to speak, and chooses to spend an even greater amount of time with us. Although we can meet with God anytime, the mo’edim are specific and special times.

The High Holidays are also when many believe the Mashiach will return – at the final blast of the Shofar. As such, the High Holidays will inaugurate the final consummation at the end of the age when the Groom returns for His Bride, and ushers in the Messianic Age.

That love of HaShem for us, and us for HaShem is the picture of Elul. It is preparation not just for “some holiday.” It is our preparation time to meet with God. Elul is also our preparation for the coming of Mashiach, and preparation for the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (see Rev. 19). I hope we’re ready for the month of Elul and all that it brings.

L’Shana tova tikateivu – May you be inscribed for a sweet New Year!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Love, Hate and the Greatest Commandment

Parashat Va’etchanan

Why do we read this parasha every year after Tisha B’Av? Thought we were finished with all of the pleading already? This week, we spent a hungry evening on the floor reading Lamentations, remembering the horrific tragedies that have beset our people on Tisha B’Av: the destruction of the First & Second Temples, our expulsion from England and Spain, the beginning of World War I, the Chelmniecki pogrom in Ukraine, the beginning of deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto, a terrorist bombing at a JCC in Argentina … Indeed, I thought we were finished with all of the pleading. No, the time has come again to read Moses’ famous last words, beginning with “and I pleaded.” In this portion, Moses warns of the consequences of failing to hold up our end of the bargain – observing God’s commandments. If we fail to hear and to obey, we will be driven out from the Land of Israel and become scattered among the nations. Why did our sages choose the Shabbat following Tisha B’Av for the reading of this portion?

According to tradition, it was the corruption of our people that led to the destruction of the Second Temple (see b. Yoma 9b). “Baseless hatred” is the buzzword that’s meant to describe our undoing, and seemingly characterized Jewish national life during the Second Temple period. But what is baseless hatred?

It seems awfully vague and wholly unrelated to the minutiae of Jewish life – laws regulating our food, clothing, work, study, marriage, child rearing (even bathing habits!). What does baseless hatred have to do with God’s commandments?

The greatest commandment, according to Yeshua, is the love of God and the love of others (cf. Leviticus 19:6). Hillel offered a similar assessment. When asked to summarize the whole of Torah while standing on one foot, he said, “what is hateful to you do not do to another. All the rest is commentary.” The commentary of Yeshua and Hillel seem to draw a correlation between one’s love for God and one’s ability to love others. If love of God and love of others are intrinsically linked to each other, then “baseless hatred” of other people would imply a failure to love God, as well.

Indeed, the phrase “baseless hatred,” or sinat chinam, is literally “the hate of their chen.” A person’s chen is the quality that makes her unique. The part of her that is betselem Elohim, in the image of God. To commit sinat chinam is to deny a person’s right to exist and to believe that person has nothing valuable to contribute to the world. Sinat chinam, then, is the condition and the action of ultimate arrogance.

If I assume that you have nothing of value to contribute to this world, then my thoughts and deeds make the statement that God doesn’t know what he is doing in creating and sustaining you. When I perceive a person made in God’s image as worthless and treat her accordingly, I violate the greatest commandment to love God. In violating this commandment, I may as well have nullified the whole of Torah.

Perhaps it is fitting that, only days after fasting in memory of the destruction of the Temple, we are reminded of Moses’ words warning us about the very behaviors that bring about these sorrows. We violate the whole of Torah if we do not love each other and act accordingly. And if we violate the whole of Torah, we lose our entitlement to life in the Land. The challenge of Jewish life is to find the chen within each person, no matter how distasteful they seem. In acknowledging the dignity of people who seem to have no valuable purpose in this life, we honor the ultimate wisdom of God and God’s confounding yet generous act of creation. To love others is to love God. This is the whole of Torah.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Tisha B’Av: A Reenactment of Tragedy, a Glimpse of Hope

Tisha B’Av

Saturday night and Sunday is Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av).

The day itself can be summed up in one word: Tragedy. On this day we remember many of the most tragic events in the history of the Jewish people which all took place on Tisha B’Av (or within just a few days of it).

Judaism is a religion of sacred drama. We don’t just remember, we relive, re-experience, and reenact events of the past. This is also true of Tisha B’Av. In going through the four associated fast days, and their accompanying customs, we relive the stages of destruction of the First and Second Temples and the loss of Jewish sovereignty.

The primary focus of Tisha B’Av is mourning. As such, the Halachah of the day draws heavily on the imagery of the death of a family member, walking through the stages of grief and sorrow.

Some events associated with Tisha B’Av include:

  • The 10 Spies return with a bad report after spying out the land.
  • Destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. About 100,000 Jews were killed during the invasion of Jerusalem, culminating in the Babylonian exile sending many from the remaining tribes in the southern kingdom to Babylon and Persia.
  • Destruction of Second Temple by Romans the Roman in 70 CE, under Titus. Over 2,500,000 Jews were killed as a result of war, famine and disease. Over 1,000,000 Jews were exiled to all parts of the Roman Empire. Over 100,000 Jews were sold as slaves by the Romans, and Jews were killed and tortured in gladiatorial “games” and pagan celebrations.
  • In 132 CE the Second Jewish Revolt of Bar Kochba was crushed, and over 100,000 Jews were killed.
  • In 133 CE, Turnus Rufus ploughs the site of the Temple mount and builds the pagan city ofAelia Capitolina.
  • In 1095, the First Crusade was declared by Pope Urban II. In the first month alone, over 10,000 Jews were killed. The Crusades brought death and destruction to thousands of Jews, totally obliterating many communities in the Rhineland and France.
  • In 1290, Expulsion of Jews from England, accompanied by pogroms and confiscation of books and property.
  • As a result of the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, in 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain issue an edict expelling all Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. Families separated, many died by drowning, and there was a massive loss of property. What was once a major hub of Jewish civilization was decimated and scattered throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe.
  • In 1914, Britain and Russia declared war on Germany, beginning the First World War. Issues left unresolved eventually lead to the Second World War and the Holocaust. 75% of all Jews were in war zones. Jews served in armies on all sides – 120,000 Jewish casualties. Over 400 pogroms immediately followed the war in Hungary, Ukraine, Poland and Russia.
  • In 1942, the first of the Deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka concentration camp begin.
  • In 1994, the deadly bombing of the AMIA, the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires,Argentina, which killed 86 people and wounded some 300 others.

On Tisha B’Av it is traditional to fast, observe the customs of mourning, and hear the book of Lamentations and other mournful passages read in synagogue. The service is also accompanied by special liturgical readings known as Kinnot.

Although in our day, Tisha B’Av is associated with mourning and tragedy, according to the rabbis, when Mashiach comes the day will become of day of rejoicing. As followers of Mashiach, it seems appropriate that Yeshua applies the imagery of the Temple to himself:

“Yeshua answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” -John 2:19

Tisha B’Av carries that hint of redemption. For out of the ashes of tragedy our redemption will sprout forth, and we will see the return of our Messiah.

May that day come speedily and soon! Until then … we wait, mourn, yearn, and prepare for that day to finally arrive.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 2 Comments

Words to a New Generation

Parashat Devarim

Deuteronomy is unique. Firstly, the book is a retelling of the entire Torah.

Second, as the Vilna Gaon notes, the first four books of the Torah were heard directly from the mouth of HaShem. Whereas Deuteronomy is Moshe’s recounting of the events at a later date. In the first four books of the Torah, HaShem is the primary speaker. In Deuteronomy, Moshe is the primary speaker.

Lastly, the book involves a different generation than the rest of the Torah. Meaning, the whole reason Moshe is pleading with the people at the beginning of this parasha is because it is a new generation about to go into the Promised Land. This is not the generation who wandered in the dessert for forty years. This is not the generation that left Egypt and was involved in the sin of the golden calf. Many of these people were not even born when the Torah was originally given, and if they were, they may not have been old enough to fully comprehend the impact of the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. This was a new generation.

Many of us represent this new generation. There is a new land we are about to enter. As many voices in the Jewish world are declaring the demise of Judaism in America, we stand at the threshold of opportunity. We can either listen to the calls of those who only see the end of the Jewish community as we know it, or we can take hold of the vision cast by HaShem.

Deuteronomy is a voice to a new generation. It is a voice to us. You and I may not have physically stood at Mt. Sinai, but we did receive the Torah (Dt. 5:3). It is time to take hold of the Torah once again and step forward into a new land.

The generation of our Torah portion experienced the dying out of the pervious generation. We also do not have to look far to see Judaism diminishing among our parents’ generation. But it does not have to end here. If we are willing to look closely, there is a Promised Land ahead.

The great Jewish believer, Paul Phillip Levertoff once wrote:

It is the business of the Chasid to live now for the realization of this Messianic Age.

It is our destiny, as devoted Chasidim of our Messiah, to prepare the world for the coming of Mashiach.

We need to create communities that are focused on relationships, where people are valued for being created b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of G-d. We need communities where people are empowered to lead and to follow, and where leaders serve as guides, rather than as lone-rangers. We need to embody a vision of Jewish life that is infused with the power of Yeshua, and filled with the Spirit. We need to reclaim our identities as Israel declaring a corporate witness to the world of G-d’s continued unfolding plan for the Jewish people and the Nations.

There is yet a Promised Land ahead. Are you able to see it? And if you’re able to catch a glimpse of it, are you ready to help build it?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Organized Religion and a Zeal for God

decline_272870998Parashat Pinchas

According to a recent Gallup poll, the number of Americans who have faith in organized religion is at an all-time low. Only 44% of Americans today have “a lot of confidence in organized religion,” compared to 66% in 1973, when organized religion or church was the highest rated institution in Gallup’s confidence in institutions measure.

Did you know that organized religion continued to rank first in most years through 1985, outranking the military and the U.S. Supreme Court?

The confidence of Americans in organized religion began to change in the mid to late 80’s, when it fell below 60% for the first time. It has been in a consistent decline ever since.

One can also note the rise of large scandals and crimes associated with religious figures and institutions during this same time period, brought into a more public light through popular media.

A Healthy Dose of Skepticism

This may come as a surprise to some of you … but I am also sort of a skeptic of organized religion. I know … SHOCK … HORROR … And yet I am a rabbi. I am a bit of a skeptic because I know exactly how easy it is to use religion as a crutch … or to manipulate people … and how it can be used to take advantage of people in their most vulnerable times instead of being a positive force for change and assisting them on their spiritual journeys.

But it is also some of that skepticism that convinced me to become a rabbi. Because (a bit naively) I wanted to try to make a difference … and because I still believe that religion can have a positive role in our lives. My desire is to help re-infuse religion with the awe of the sacred … to renew that sense of “Wonder.” But to do so, we need to get our priorities back in order.

Spirituality vs. Religion

In many ways “spirituality” and “religion” got separated. We have all heard (possibly over and over again) the all too common response, “I’m just spiritual, not religious.” What people are implying is that “I feel connected to God, but not to all that binding legalism, manipulation, and control. “I’m a free thinker … and just want to seek out God in my own way.”

In my humble opinion, religion, and particularly Judaism, is failing our people … and failing the world. Although there are some great leaders and communities out there … we have largely lost our zeal.

Parashat Pinchas gives us a taste of that zeal.

י  וַיְדַבֵּר יְיְ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר.

10 And HaShem spoke unto Moshe, saying:

יא  פִּינְחָס בֶּן-אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, הֵשִׁיב אֶת-חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת-קִנְאָתִי, בְּתוֹכָם; וְלֹא-כִלִּיתִי אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקִנְאָתִי.

11 ‘Pinchas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the cohen, has deflected my anger away from the people of Israel by being as zealous as I am, so that I so that I didn’t destroy them in my own zeal.

יב  לָכֵן, אֱמֹר:  הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת-בְּרִיתִי, שָׁלוֹם.

12 Therefore say: Behold, I am giving him My covenant of shalom;

יג  וְהָיְתָה לּוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו, בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם–תַּחַת, אֲשֶׁר קִנֵּא לֵאלֹהָיו, וַיְכַפֵּר, עַל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

13 making a covenant with him and his descendants after him that the office of cohen will be theirs forever.’ This is because he was zealous on behalf of his G-d and made atonement for the people of Israel.”

Pinchas had a zeal both for HaShem and his people … a zeal which we must have as well. But how do we do that?

What is normally our Haftarah this week (1 Kings 19:9-21) provides an answer. Elijah, who was running to escape the wrath of Jezebel, flees to a cave where He has a powerful encounter with God, and God sends him back to confront his fear and to realize he is not alone.

Lessons from the Haftarah

From the Haftarah we learn three very important lessons:

  1. Rather than run in fear, we must confront what we fear the most
  2. We cannot do it alone … when we are convinced, like Elijah, that we’re the only ones left … God reminds us there are others as well who will stand with us.
  3. We need encounters with God

Often we are like Elijah, and desire to run away from our problems. However, the lesson we learn over and over again from our Scriptures is that we must face and confront our fears! Like Elijah, if you try to run, don’t be surprised if God tells you to go back and face your fears.

Religion today has taken on a modern vs. an ancient approach to faith  – it largely focuses on emotion and does everything to “make you feel good” (it is soothing), verses actually enabling you to deal with the difficult tasks at hand. True faith is a faith that demands something of you!

Moses was also asked to go back to where he was exiled from. Yeshua said, “Pick up your cross and follow me.” In other words, pick up your tool of execution … and carry it … let it become your symbol of faith. You cannot be victorious when running in fear … and then make all kinds of excuses for doing so.

Each difficult task we face in life can lead to either victory or defeat. It is how we deal with life’s circumstances when they are thrown at us that will determine the outcome.

Another important message from 1 Kings is that you cannot do it alone. An important element of faith is to teach us how to get through the difficult bumps of life. We need support from one another … you are not supposed to do it alone.

When Elijah thought he was the only one left, HaShem reminded him that He had preserved 7,000 others who in their zeal for God have also refused to worship Ba’al.

God’s Pursuit of Us

We were created to be in relationship with our Creator. This is the essence of Judaism, according to Abraham Joshua Heschel. We need to rediscover that sense of awe and wonder in our lives. Because it is that relationship with God that gets us through life’s difficult circumstances.

When we think that we can exist apart from God we are only fooling ourselves. Our souls are longing to be fed, and yet we often ignore the hunger pains, and instead try to soothe them through other temporal means.

We are constantly bombarded on the path of life … we need others … we need a vehicle for HOW TO confront our fears … how to learn to face what scares us and hurts us the most. When we feel a desire to pursue our spiritual journeys alone, Judaism teaches us that we actually need each other, and that we need to be interconnected to each other for support.

Renewing Our Zeal

Although we can encounter God anywhere, and at anytime, religion is is the vehicle for encountering God – in and through each other. This is what religion has largely lost. It has lost its zeal which Pinchas and Elijah are praised for … a zealous pursuit of God and the well-being of each other. Organized religion has largely become a soothing mechanism to make you feel good about yourself rather than equipping you to face life’s difficult challenges. It has become a faith which no longer demands anything. Therefore, it has also largely lost its ability to become a conduit for a radical, life-changing encounter with God.

Is it any wonder why so many Americans have lost faith in organized religion?

Parashat Pinchas teaches us that it is time to once again be zealous. Especially in a world that no longer think it needs God anymore. It is time to rise up and be zealous, but with a zeal that comes from love, rather than false pride or judgmentalism. True love. For as Yeshua stated, they will recognize us by our love.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Talking Donkey?

Parashat Balak

Parashat Balak tells the story of a non-Jewish prophet (Bilaam) who was hired to curse the people of Israel. Multiple times Bilaam attempted to curse Israel, and each time G-d caused him to speak a blessing instead of a curse.

In the middle of the parasha, Bilaam sets off on his donkey in another attempt to curse Israel. However, a strange thing happened. G-d sent an angel to bar the way of Bilaam. Upon seeing the Malach HaShem, the Angel of HaShem blocking its path, three times the donkey refrained from continuing and each time Bilaam beat the donkey. After the third time, G-d enabledthe donkey to speak, responding, “What is it I have done to you that you beat me these three times? (Num. 22:28)” It was not until G-d enabled Bilaam to see the Malach HaShem that Bilaam truly realized what was happening.

So what can we learn from this? Often many of us are like Bilaam. For one reason or another we become caught up in our own desires, blind to G-d’s purposes, and to the needs of the community around us. And when anyone or anything attempts to keep us from doing something in pursuit of those desires, we beat them too. So in the end, we are hurting not only ourselves, but those around us without any consideration.

And yet, other times in life we feel like the donkey. We are working so hard to do the right thing, and to avoid the entrapments along life’s path. However, it seems life just keeps beating us and beating us despite our best attempts. Like the donkey in the parasha, many of us often feel like screaming out, “Why do you continue to beat me?”

In either situation, we are letting our circumstances get the best of us. When we lose faith, lose hope, and lose sight of where HaShem is leading us, we end up getting beaten down by the world around us. We need to be people of clear vision. After all, the book of Mishlei (Proverbs) states, “Trust in HaShem with all of your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge G-d, and G-d will make your path straight (3:5-6).”

May all of us be blessed to truly listen and follow G-d’s path for our lives. May we be followers of HaShem’s Torah, and heralds of the message of Messianic redemption. May we no longer kick against the goads, lost and beaten down by our own misguided desires. Rather, may each of us merit a prophetic vision for our unique purpose, and may we all witness the fullness of Israel in Messiah Yeshua.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The Rock of … What?

Parashat Chukat

Without water, the community began grumbling against Moses and Aaron. Leaving the community, they went to the entrance of the Tabernacle and fell on their faces in the presence of HaShem. Moshe was commanded to take his staff and speak to the rock, which would produce water in response to the cries of the children of Israel.

However, leaving the Tabernacle Moshe went before the people. “You rebels,” he shouted, “Are we supposed to bring you water from this rock?” Moshe raised his staff and struck the rock twice, and water flowed in abundance.

Displeased, G-d said to Moshe and Aharon, “Because you did not trust in Me, so as to cause Me to be regarded as holy by the people of Israel, you will not bring this community into the land I have given them (Num. 20:7-12).”

So what’s the big deal?

G-d’s Name is intimately linked to the people of Israel. So much so that G-d has chosen to associate His Name with the Jewish people – i.e. “the G-d of Israel.” As HaShem’s remnant, the Jewish people have a specific role to play in the cosmos. This role is something called Kiddush HaShem – the Sanctification of the Name of G-d.

We are to be Or L’Goyim – a Light to the Nations. As Israel, we are partners with G-d in bringing redemption into the world. We are the harbingers of a cosmic message with cosmic ramifications.

The real issue is not that Moshe struck the rock. This is supported by Rashi, and other rabbinic commentators. The issue is that Moshe did not sanctify the Name of G-d in the presence of the people. Moshe’s actions were more than an “oops … I was supposed to speak to the rock, not hit it.” This was so serious that Moshe was forbidden to lead the children of Israel into the Promised Land. In some way, HaShem was dishonored in front of the entire people. Rather than Kiddush HaShem, Moshe performed a Chilul HaShem (a desecration of the Name of G-d).

The task of the Sanctification of G-d’s Name has been handed down to us. Our job in this world is to bring about glory to HaShem, and prepare the way for the coming of Mashiach. May we truly recognize the implications of what is at hand. G-d has chosen each one of us to partner with Him in bringing redemption into the world. We need to rise up, take our staffs in hand, and not only bring water to a parched people and land – but prepare the way for the coming of Mashiach. And may our righteous Messiah (who we eagerly await) lead us out of exile and into the Promised Land speedily and soon!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Rebellion and Selfishness … or a Message of Hope?

Parashat Korach

This week’s parasha begins with an outright rebellion against Moses and Aaron. So what do we learn from this?

Korach, a first cousin of Moses (and also a Levite), and those with him are presented in the parasha as having selfish motivations for their rebellion, as exemplified in their accusation:

“You take too much upon yourselves! After all, the entire community is holy … So why do you exalt yourselves above HaShem’s community?” (Numbers 16:3)

It seems Korach felt he could do a better job leading the people of Israel than Moses and Aaron. So he set out to overthrow them, and usurp their authority by assembling a group of people to follow him.

Pirkei Avot teaches:

“Any dispute that is for the sake of heaven will have a constructive outcome; but one that is not for the sake of heaven will not have a constructive outcome … And what sort of dispute was not for the sake of heaven? – The dispute of Korach and his entire community (Avot 5:20).”

In the end, Korach and his family were swallowed up by the earth, and the 250 people with him were consumed by fire. What is even more unbelievable is that the very next day the people started grumbling against Moses again – after just having witnessed the fate of Korach and those with him. So G-d sent a plague that ended up killing another 14,700 people in addition to those who died along with Korach.

We learn from Parashat Korach that G-d takes selfishness very seriously. Because whenever we think we can “do it better,” we need to be careful. There are times when it is true – maybe we can do it better. But the real question is our motivation. Is our motivation to do a great job? Or, is it a matter of a selfish ambition based on jealousy, insecurity, or rebelliousness?

“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that G-d has assigned.” (Romans 12:3)

We are supposed to be confident in our abilities. But a mature confidence is not arrogance. Paul warns that we should never take ourselves too seriously. For if we do, and begin grumbling against those around us, we risk the fate of Korach.

To be clear, the message of Korach is not one of utter hopelessness. For interwoven in the story is also a message of redemption. Although Korach himself chose to rebel against G-d, Moses, and Aaron; his descendants chose to follow in the ways of HaShem. How do we know this? There are eleven Psalms all written by “the Sons of Korach.” As G-d so often does, He took a negative experience and turned it into a story of hope.

The descendants of Korach deliberately chose not to walk in the ways of their ancestor. Rather, they took upon themselves the burden to walk in the ways of HaShem. We are instructed elsewhere in the Torah to be holy just as G-d is holy. Holiness is a choice. We can either choose our own selfish ambitions, or we can be like the sons of Korach, and (despite any negative reputation and associations) choose righteousness, holiness, and the way of our Messiah. I hope we choose wisely.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment