Passover, Elijah, and Shabbat HaGadol

Shabbat HaGadol

This week is Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat that occurs at the beginning of the week in which Passover will be observed (Passover begins Monday evening). There are five special shabbatot leading up to Passover. Each special Shabbat has special readings that are read in addition to the weekly portion. The exception is Shabbat HaGadol. Instead of an additional reading from the Torah, Shabbat HaGadol is highlighted by only a special Haftarah reading from Malachi which concludes with the words:

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and awesome day of HaShem” (Mal. 3:23).

Jewish tradition teaches us that Elijah is a messianic figure who will usher in Mashiach and the Messianic Age. This is purposely fitting at this season because Passover is our reliving and retelling of our redemption from Egypt. Both Jewish tradition and the New Testament portray Elijah as representing the coming of messianic redemption. That is why the figure of Elijah is so connected with Passover. Passover today commemorates our connection with not only our physical redemption from slavery, but our spiritual redemption as well.

The Besorah of Luke associates the personification of Elijah with John the Immerser:

“And it is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous; so as to make ready a people prepared for the L-rd” (Luke 1:17).

So John the Immerser was a partial fulfillment of this week’s special Haftarah reading from Malachi 3:23 in preparation for the incarnation and revelation of Yeshua the Messiah. Yet, the role of Elijah is still not complete, for there is an expectation that Elijah himself will yet return ahead of our glorious Mashiach. This is the reason Elijah is referenced so often in Jewish tradition, especially during Passover. During the Seder there is a whole place setting (or in some homes, simply a cup) that is specifically set aside. It is left untouched in the messianic hope that each year we will open the door during our Passover festivities, and welcome in Elijah, who will in turn usher in the return of our Messiah.

Next week during the Seder, we will proclaim, “Eliyahu HaNavi … Come quickly and speedily with Messiah the Son of David.” As we sing those words this Passover, let us also remember the words associated with Shabbat HaGadol – “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and awesome day of the HaShem.”

May we all merit the return of Mashiach and see that day fulfilled speedily and soon!

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Humility and the Calling of HaShem

Parashat Vayikra

The very first word in the book of Leviticus is Vayikra – “He called”:

… וַיִּקְרָא אֶל-מֹשֶׁה 1 And HaShem called unto Moshe

Interestingly, the last letter of this word – the alef – is always written in a Torah scroll much smaller than all the other letters. The obvious question is, why?

G-d’s instructions to the prophet Bilaam in Numbers 23:16 begins with a similar word –   וַיִּקָּר (vayikar). The only difference is there is no alef. This word has two connotations: It can either mean ‘chance’ (mikreh) or it can also mean ‘spiritual contamination’ (as in 1 Sam. 20:26 – regarding Kings Saul & David). Therefore, the very first word in Leviticus, Vayikra, is spelled with a small alef so that it resembles the word G-d used when speaking to Bilaam.

But again … Why? What is the Torah trying to teach us?

The small alef is a lesson in humility. If you remember back to Numbers 23, Bilaam acted in arrogance. He was being paid to curse Israel, however, every time he tried, HaShem caused him to speak a blessing (for example the beautiful blessing of “Ma Tovu …”).

Moshe must be reminded that although he too hears from G-d, he must not act like the wicked Bilaam. He must act without interjecting his own ego and self-interests. There is even a tradition that it was Moshe himself – who in his humility, first wrote this word with the small alef – reminding himself not to get puffed up “like all the other letters.”

1 Corinthians 5:6-8 also speaks about being puffed up (“It takes only a little chametz to leaven a whole batch of dough”). The point is that even the smallest amount of pride, arrogance, or sin can quickly overtake everything that surrounds it.

Therefore the small letter alef in the very first word of Leviticus was meant to remind Moshe – and remind us – to be humble in following G-d’s instructions, because in the end it is not about us, or how great we think are in observing the mitzvot – but rather it is about HaShem who desires that our actions lead to holiness.

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Holy Cow!

redShabbat Parah

This week is a special Shabbat, called Shabbat Parah. It is named after the special supplemental reading, called the maftir, from Numbers 19 that describes the process for sacrificing the Red Heifer. This portion is always read before the beginning of the Jewish month of Nissan.

In biblical times, every person was required to bring a Korban Pesach, a Passover Sacrifice on the eve of Passover that was to be eaten during the Seder. However, only people who were ritually pure were able to partake of it. Therefore, right before the month of Nissan (the month in which Passover falls) a public announcement would be made that every person who had become impure must purify themselves, and be extremely careful not to become impure before Passover.

The parah aduma (red heifer) represents the quintessential chok (a divine decree without any seeming rationale). The ashes of the Red Heifer were used for purification. Through the death of a calf, the Tabernacle, its furnishings, and those who served were purified and ritually cleansed to serve in the presence of G-d. The ashes were also used to purify someone who became ritually impure through contact with a dead body.

In Likutei Halachot, Rebbe Nachman explains why this special portion (Shabbat Parah) is read after Purim. In the course of our victory over Haman-Amalek, we become defiled through contact with death and evil, and need to be purified. The Sfat Emet further explains that tumat met (impurity from the dead) is a function of mortality, which entered the world as a result of the primordial sin of Adam who ate from the tree of knowledge. According to Rabbi Zvi Leshem, man’s desire to be all knowing like G-d, placing the value of knowledge over that of faith, led to his downfall, bringing death and impurity into the world. Ritual purity comes through the willingness to serve HaShem even in a reality permeated by doubts and confusion.

On this Shabbat Parah we focus on a cow. Although this does not make any sense to our rational minds in the modern age, there are significant reasons. For it is not about us, but about HaShem. The purpose of the red heifer is to to bring forth purification and life where there seems only death.

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Holiness, Justice and Reaching Out to Others

OutreachParashat Mishpatim

What can this week’s parasha, and the Torah as a whole, teach us about reaching out to others and drawing them close?

Our Torah portion begins:

Exodus 21:1

א  וְאֵלֶּה הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים לִפְנֵיהֶם.

1 These are the ordinances which you shall place before them.

The Torah then describes instructions for becoming a people of the covenant. But what does that mean exactly? To better understand, we’ll need to dig deeper into the Torah.

Justice as Holiness

Mishpatim is actually a continuation of last week’s parasha, Yitro. Therefore, we must go back to where Yitro leaves off … at the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. The point is that the commandments of this week’s parasha are a continuation of those same mitzvot on Mt. Sinai. What, then, follows are primarily matters of justice:

  • The ethical treatment of slaves
  • Crimes of murder and kidnapping
  • Personal injuries
  • Damages through neglect or theft
  • Unfair business practices …

Such seemingly civil and tort matters are further mixed with commandments of social justice …

Exodus 22:20-23:

כ  וְגֵר לֹא-תוֹנֶה, וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ:  כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.

20 You shall not taunt or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
21 You shall not afflict any widow, or orphan.
22 If you dare to cause them pain – for if they cry out to Me, I will surely hear their cry–
23 My wrath shall blaze, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives will be widows, and your children fatherless.

So, again, what is the purpose of these seemingly juxtaposed mitzvot? Mishpatim provides an important insight into Judaism, and into Biblical thought: To G-d, there is no separate realm between ritual and spiritual matters (unlike within Western thought which separates the two). All areas of life are intertwined and holiness potentially binds them together. According to the Torah, concern for justice is a concern for the Holy.

Holiness is not some mystical, esoteric state of being. Rather, it is a way of life and a pattern of action. To “do holiness” is to partner with G-d in bringing redemption into the world. For example: The Torah considers the treatment of strangers a matter of justice, and repeatedly calls us to stand up for the downtrodden. WHY?  Because every person is created b’tzelem Elohim – Created in the image of G-d (Genesis 1:26-27).

Therefore, We must recognize justice as essential to holiness. Before we can attain deeper levels of holiness within ourselves, we must be able to recognize holiness within others.

So what does this teach us about Outreach?

Bringing people into our community requires seeing the reflection of HaShem within them, and welcoming them into our community.

A Lesson from Avraham Avinu

One of the greatest examples of hospitality in the Torah is Avraham Avinu … our great Patriarch, Abraham.

Genesis 18:1-8 describes the story of “Abraham’s tent” and his welcoming of the three strangers. According to Jewish tradition, his tent was open on all sides, meaning it was open and welcoming to all. The rabbis are quick to point out that Avraham’s hospitality is not passive. He was looking for guests! And not only was he looking for guests … the Torah tells us that Avraham RAN to not only meet his guests … but he ran to meet their needs as well:

“(v. 2) On seeing them he ran from the door of this tent to meet them.”

“(v. 6) Avraham hurried into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Quickly, three measures of the best flour. Knead it and make cakes!”

“(v. 7) Avraham ran to the herd, took a good, tender calf, and gave it to the servant who hurried to prepare it.”

According to the Talmud, hospitality is a great mitzvah. It is considered more important to show hospitality than to attend classes or to greet HaShem in prayer (b. Shabbat 127a).

A young person once visited the famous teacher known as the Chofetz Chaim. The guest had arrived at the synagogue just as Shabbat had begun after having been on the road for many long hours. He was hungry and very weak from having walked so far. After the service he was invited to the home of the Chofetz Chaim for Shabbos dinner, who noticed how weak and hungry his young guest was.

To the surprise of all his guests, the famous Chofetz Chaim skipped singing Shalom Aleichem (a prayer where we welcome the angels) and after quickly reciting Kiddush and HaMotzi began to eat.

“Why did you skip singing Shalom Aleichem,’ the young man asked his host. The Chofetz Chaim replied, “I could see that you were very weak and hungry. A hungry person should be fed as soon as possible. The angles can wait to be greeted.”

Yeshua’s Final Instructions

Yeshua commands us to “make talmidim” (Matttew 28:16-20). One of the roles of a talmid, according to Jewish thought, is to make other talmidim for their Rebbe.

In Luke’s version of this event, Yeshua tells his followers he is to begin in Jerusalem and then go out to the nations. They are to continue the work first among our own people.

Conclusion

Since 1973, Ahavat Zion Synagogue in Beverly Hills, CA, where I serve as the Senior Rabbi, has been a vibrant spiritual home for Jewish and intermarried followers of Yeshua. We are now celebrating our 40th Anniversary. In continuing that commitment, I feel it is vital at this season to step-up our efforts at attracting other like-minded individuals and families to our community. But we need new and creative ideas for how to reach out to,  and bring-in other Jewish and intermarried people.

I might not have all the answers for how to do that, but what I do know, is that it must begin with recognizing justice and the way we treat others as an extension of holiness. Like Avraham, we need to run to greet those we feel would be a welcome addition to our congregation and to our movement.

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What does God expect of us?

Parashat Yitro

This week’s Parasha tells us that “Moshe went up to G-d, and then HaShem called to him from the mountain.” This phrase begins the retelling of the powerful story of G-d giving the Torah to Israel, and of the experience we had as a people standing before the presence of HaShem.

This interesting point is made before G-d actually gives any of the mitzvot. That point is simply that G-d expects something from us. All the blessings, mitzvot, and covenants rely on action from our part. The Torah specifically tells us that Moshe went up to G-d, and then HaShem called down to him. The giving of the Torah rested on Moshe taking the faith initiative to seek out G-d. To climb up the mountain in an expectancy to encounter the manifest presence of the Divine. It was an action, an action of faith. That is what all of the mitzvot really are – lessons in faith. Or as one rabbi once put it, the 613 mitzvot are actually 613 different ways to connect to HaShem.

Moshe did his part, so that G-d could do G-d’s part. And the response was just as tremendous. Before we as a people even had an opportunity to hear all of the mitzvot, G-d required that we first make a choice, by faith, to follow in His ways before we even knew what would be expected. And by faith, we the Jewish people accepted the Torah before it was even given:

All the people answered as one, ‘Everything HaShem speaks, we will do (Ex. 19:8).’

Judaism teaches us that we are partners with G-d in bringing redemption into the world. Of course G-d could have done it without our help. However, the most exciting thing is that HaShem gives us the opportunity for Kiddush HaShem, to sanctify the Name of G-d in the earth. We have been given the ability to see the world through a different set of lenses. Instead of viewing everything as either “holy” or “secular,” our mission as Jews is to see things as “holy” and “not yet holy.” We can either see the world as mundane, or take simple everyday acts and elevate them to a level of holiness.

G-d gives us the privilege of partnering with Him in bringing redemption into the world. To do our part, so that G-d can do G-d’s part. G-d stands at the door and knocks (Re. 3:20). HaShem beckons us to be faithful to the mitzvot and faithful to the covenant. Through obedience to Torah, and the pursuit of G-d’s presence, it is possible to engage and change the world, and prepare the way for the coming of our righteous Mashiach Yeshua. Bimhera v’yamenu – May it be soon and in our days!

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The Road Less Traveled

Parashat Beshalach

Why does G-d lead the children of Israel to the sea, rather than guiding them down the well-worn highway?

Parashat Beshalach is unique in that it begins by telling us what G-d did NOT do.

G-d did not guide them to the highway that goes through the land of the Philistines, because it was close by – G-d thought that the people, upon seeing war, might change their minds and return to Egypt. Rather, G-d led the people by a roundabout route, through the desert by the Sea of Suf. -Exodus 13: 17- 18

Rather than guiding the Jewish people quickly down the well-traveled highway to present-day Gaza, G-d chose the less obvious route, leading to an eventual entry to the Land (forty years later) over the banks of the Jordan River. The text says that the children of Israel departed Egypt “fully armed,” and yet G-d led them away from battle. Why is this? It seems that before the people even began their journey out of Egypt, G-d already knew they lacked fortitude for the challenges ahead.

Much has been said about the generation of Jewish people that participated in the exodus from Egypt. Ibn Ezra discusses at length the “slave mentality” that left a generation of liberated slaves psychologically incapable of facing direct combat with their enemies. After all, it is this generation that later believes the bad report of the ten spies, and is prohibited from entering the Land as a result of their lack of faith in G-d’s promises. Later in this very parasha, these former slaves doubt G-d’s ability to meet their most basic needs – for protection from violence, water, and food – despite repeated miracles demonstrating G-d’s power.

Maimonides argues that G-d chose an indirect route in order to toughen the people and prepare them to enter the Land. In his Guide for the Perplexed, he says, “Ease destroys bravery while trouble and concern about food create strength. This strength that the Israelites gained was the ultimate good that came out of their wanderings in the wilderness.” (3:24) This would make sense, but for the fact that this generation of Jews never had the opportunity to exercise their supposed bravery. It was their children(who did not witness the miracles of Beshalach) who entered and conquered the Land.

It seems that G-d chose this route in order to demonstrate something fundamental about the way He works through the Jewish people and through history. It is not human ingenuity or warfare that produces redemption. Indeed, the people of Israel are given their freedom without the need to lift a single sword. It is G-d who turns the seabed into dry ground, who turns bitter water sweet, who rains manna and quail from heaven, and who routs the Amalekites’ attempt at blood sport. G-d admits that this choice has a didactic purpose when he explains to Moses that, “I will win glory for myself … and the Egyptians will realize at last that I am the LORD.” (14:4)

It often strikes the reader as a shame that the generation that witnessed awe-inspiring plagues and miracles struggled so vocally with their ability to rely on G-d for basic provisions. But it is not for our own satisfaction that the Torah itemizes their every complaint. Instead, the Torah reminds us that, regardless of our current position (whether it be characterized by relative affluence or relative deprivation), we remain dependent on G-d for our every need. Even those who are unburdened by a “slave mentality” are ultimately unable to accomplish anything of significance without G-d’s direct intervention. And that ultimately, G-d is working out His plan to redeem all creation through the trials and challenges faced by the Jewish people. By continually redeeming us, G-d tells the nations of the world that He is the LORD. Our highest calling as a people is not to toughen our own hides, but to place our trust in G-d. Paradoxically, it is through our uniquely vulnerable exercise of faith that G-d demonstrates His might.

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Responding to Calamity

Parashat Bo

Last week’s Torah portion, Va’era, introduced the first seven of the ten plagues. This week, Parashat Bo identifies the final three plagues and records the mitzvot concerning Passover.

Each of these plagues are devastating enough on their own, but added up together you can see why the result was the dramatic climax of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Each plague is a demonstration of HaShem’s might and omnipotence. And what most people miss in the story is that each plague carries its own unique message, as each plague was meant to bring a direct assault against a different Egyptian deity.

“… and I will execute judgment against all the gods of Egypt, I am HaShem (Exodus 12:12b).”

The Nile River in Egyptian mythology carries a sacred aura about it. It is the life source of the country. It alone represents life and sustenance in an otherwise dry and parched land. Blood is a symbol of death. Therefore the first plague represented a direct assault upon the Egyptian’s sole source of life.

The Egyptian deity, Heqet (or Isis), is often represented as a frog. She represents fertility and sustenance. As a result, the second plague of frogs was a direct assault against this specific deity, demonstrating that HaShem, the G-d of Israel, was more powerful than Heqet and that HaShem alone is the source of all life.

The ninth plague, darkness, was a demonstration against Egypt’s primary deity Amen-Re, who is often represented as the sun. Three days of darkness so thick it could be felt (Ex. 10:21) established that the G-d of Israel was even greater than Egypt’s primary deities.

So, you get the idea … each plague directly correlated with a particular deity or central tenet of Egyptian mythology. But the final plague – the death of the firstborn – was the most catastrophic. Pharaoh would not have let us go on his own. Sadly, it took ten deadly and disastrous plagues to get Pharaoh to let the Jewish people leave Egypt. Although the result of these plagues would be our exodus from tyranny, slavery, and oppression; we do not rejoice over the suffering of the Egyptians or the havoc brought upon them.

Wine is a symbol of joy. So during the Passover Seder, when we recall the ten plagues we deplete the wine in our cups by placing drops of wine onto our plate. When havoc is wrought upon any people – be they helpless victims or our enemies, we do not rejoice over their fate. Our tradition teaches us that their suffering decreases our own joy.

So although we do not rejoice over the fate of the Egyptian people, we do commemorate our redemption from Egypt. We also look forward to our ultimate redemption – when our Messiah, Yeshua, returns and ushers in the world to come. The Messianic Age will bring with it not only our redemption as a people, but a permanent end to oppression, disease, and the suffering of others.

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A Modern Day Prophet

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

I have always admired Dr. King’s life and work. And of course, his words have always motivated and inspired me. In fact, Dr. King (in a very roundabout way) even played a role in how my wife and I got engaged. However, this year it truly hit me what lies at the root of his great legacy. Dr. King was more than a great figure, a great leader, or a great orator. Dr. King was also more than a visionary.

There was something much deeper which caused people to either admire or despise him. Dr. King was a prophet. He was one of our generation’s greatest prophetic voices in the line of the great prophets of the Tanakh – along with such modern giants as Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel (see our post, Praying With Their Feet).

If we look at the prophets of the Tanakh, their role was to call Israel back to covenant faithfulness, and rally against injustice and oppression. For more on this you can read my post, Justice as Holiness, Part II: The Prophets.

In today’s Charismatic Christian circles, people are all too quick to throw around the labels of “prophet” and “prophetic” without understanding what the role and message of a biblical prophet truly was. Often people get caught-up in the sensationalism of the prophet as a messenger of G-d. However, what does it really mean to be a messenger of G-d?

Let’s not forget … Dr. King was a radical and not so different from the prophets of old. Jeremiah was considered a nudnik … Hosea married a harlot … they too were often considered eccentric and controversial.

One of the cardinal lessons of a prophet is that they are not motivated by social protocol, but by the leading and prompting of G-d. They will proclaim their message despite praise or persecution. And that was certainly the case with Dr. King. Many who praised him at one point often despised him at others. His stance on an issue was based on his true convictions, not because he sought to be popular. And what many do not often discuss is the fact that Dr. King was clearly motivated by the voice of G-d.

Dr. King was a great visionary, a great leader, a great man … and a great prophet to our generation. And like the prophets of old, in his own time many heeded the call … yet many more were repulsed. It is only after his death that he is truly appreciated.

In closing, I’ll just end with a few of the most memorable quotes of Dr. King:

-“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

-“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

-“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

‎-“Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated.”

-‎”Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity. I see Israel as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality.”

-“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

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Praying With Their Feet

Tomorrow, and really all of this weekend, we remember the inspiring legacy of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his role in not only the civil rights movement in America, but for his contributions to humanity, and his leadership to a generation.

But why discuss MLK on a Jewish blog?

Many people today are unaware that Jewish individuals and clergy played a tremendous role in the civil rights movement. One of the most prominent Jewish figures in this struggle was none other than Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel – one of the greatest Jewish theologians of our time (Heschel is pictured at far left in the above picture, along with Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath (carrying the Torah), and Rabbi Everett Gendler).

In a tremendous article on the two great figures, Dr. Susannah Heschel (Heschel’s daughter) points out that “Heschel and Dr. King marched arm in arm at Selma, prayed together in protest at Arlington National Cemetery, and stood side by side in the pulpit of Riverside Church.”

According to Susannah Heschel:

“The relationship between the two men began in January 1963, and was a genuine friendship of affection as well as a relationship of two colleagues working together in political causes. As King encouraged Heschel’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement, Heschel encouraged King to take a public stance against the war in Vietnam. When the Conservative rabbis of America gathered in 1968 to celebrate Heschel’s sixtieth birthday, the keynote speaker they invited was none other than King. When King was assassinated, Heschel was the rabbi Mrs. King invited to speak at his funeral.”

For Heschel, the march from Selma had tremendous spiritual significance. Following the march, he wrote:

“For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

Here is also a great video clip discussing the special relationship between Reverend King and Rabbi Heschel (view HERE), and comments from those close to King about their relationship, and the influence Heschel had upon them and the civil rights movement.

And for more about Abraham Joshua Heschel check out this great video and article from PBS.

On this day, as we remember the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., we also recall his friend and colleague, Abraham Joshua Heschel – a holy pair who truly learned to pray with their feet – and taught others to do so as well.

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A Mysterious Encounter

Parashat Shemot

As Moshe was attending his father-in-law’s sheep in the wilderness, near the base of Mt. Sinai, the Torah tells us that an angel appeared to him in the form of burning bush (3:2). As Moshe approached the bush to discover why it was burning, and yet not being consumed, HaShem called out to Moshe from the bush (3:4).

This encounter between Moses and G-d is one of the most exciting stories in the entire Torah, and is rich with so much meaning and imagery. HaShem instructs Moshe to return to Egypt to deliver a message and liberate the Jewish people from slavery. During their encounter, Moshe asks G-d what he is to tell the people when they ask who sent him, and what G-d’s name is. And HaShem responds with one of the most amazing, mysterious, and mystical answers ever recorded – “Ehiye Asher Ehiye.”

This phrase, “Ehiye Asher Ehiye,” is one of the easiest, and yet most difficult passages of the Torah to translate. The reason is because it carries nuance, mystery, and an ever present reality. Many translations render the passage in the present tense, either as “I AM,” or “I AM Who I AM.” Many Jewish translations translate it in the future tense, “I Will Be Who I Will Be.” The Complete Jewish Bible renders it as both “I am/will be what I am/will be.”

The most fascinating thing is that they are all correct. The way this phrase is constructed renders it timeless and eternal. In Jewish mystical understanding, the phrase “Ehiye Asher Ehiye” can actually be translated in every tense, and in every combination of tenses. It can be “I am who I am,” “I will be who I will be,” “I was who I was,” “I am who I will be,” “I will be who I was,” etc.

My point in offering some various possible renditions of this phrase is not to place one particular rendering over another as a “more correct” translation, but rather to emphasize the point that all English translations struggle to convey the depth of the phrase.

The Midrash acknowledges this and also denotes that the word Ehiye describes G-d as timeless and eternal. The Aramaic Targum Onkelos alludes that this phrase is itself one of the divine names, for he does not even translate the three words into Aramaic, but leaves the phrase in Hebrew.

The response G-d gives to Moshe is itself one of the divine oracles meant to be a sign to the people. But this is often missed by non-Hebrew speakers. By G-d’s response, He is telling Moshe that He is in control of everything. That all is consumed in, by, through, and from Him. An answer that is just as deep and mysterious as G-d is. Yet, it is close and simple at the same time.

When we get into positions like Moshe, and feel overwhelmed, and that we can not possibly do all that G-d asks of us, we must remember that our G-d is not only a consuming fire, but is the source of everything that exists. And that nothing has being apart from Him. We must always be reminded of the assurance that through HaShem, we can do all things.

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