Creation and the Hidden Light

Parashat B’reishit

The Torah relates the story of the six days of creation in order to refute other theories that claim that the universe came into being through some cosmic accident or coincidence. As such, the story of creation speaks only in general terms to illustrate that nothing came into being except at G-d’s command. The Hebrew word, bara, emphasizes this. The word bara, used here for “create,” grammatically can only be used in connection to G-d (never for humans), and alludes to the creation of something from nothing.

The Torah’s narrative of creation is meant to directly establish G-d as the sovereign of the universe. Unlike other creation accounts circulating around the Ancient Near East, the Biblical account makes no attempt to explain the origins of G-d, or try to persuade the listener of G-d’s existence. The existence of God is an axiomatic fact. Therefore it immediately jumps to the explanation of G-d’s creation of heaven and earth.

In verse three, G-d says, “’Let there be light': and there was light.” However, if one reads more carefully, the sun and moon were not created until the fourth day of creation (see 1:14-19). Therefore, what is the “light” that is being spoken of? Interestingly, there are two possible answers.

Within Jewish tradition there are, of course, a wide variety of perspectives regarding Messiah. Yet, the pre-existence of Messiah, and the presence of Messiah at creation, has been discussed among certain Jewish writers throughout history.

A medieval rabbinic anthology commenting on this verse states:

‘And G-d saw the light, that it was good.’ This is the light of the Messiah…to teach you that G-d saw the generation of Messiah and His works before He created the universe, and He hid the Messiah … under His throne of glory. Satan asked G-d, Master of the Universe: “For whom is this Light under your Throne of Glory?’ G-d answered him, ‘It is for … [the Messiah] who is to turn you backward and who will put you to scorn with shamefacedness (Yalkut Shimoni on Isaiah 60).’

According to Midrash HaGadol, “The final goal of humanity is to attain the state of the days of Mashiach; therefore the name of Mashiach had to be formulated even before the world’s inception (Midrash HaGadol, 1:1).”

Another perspective in the Talmud relates:

It was taught that seven things were created before the world was created; they are the Torah, repentance, the Garden of Eden, Gey-Hinnom, the Throne of Glory, the Temple, and the name of the Messiah … The name of the Messiah, as it is written: ‘May his name endure forever, may his name produce issue prior to the sun (Pesachim 54a, Nedarim 39a, also Midrash on Ps. 93:3).’

The light, which some rabbis speak of as alluding to the Messiah can also serve as a representation of the “Ein Sof,” the hidden/unexplainable aspect of G-d. There is a midrashic legend that teaches that this light was hidden until the time of the Messianic Age, after which it will be once more revealed. When this happens, it will be like in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 21:22-23, 22:5, etc.), where there will no longer be any need of the sun, for G-d’s “Ein Sof,” His presence, will provide all needed light.

However, nowhere is the Messiah more clearly connected to the themes of light and creation than in the Gospel of John:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with G-d, and the Word was G-d. He was with G-d in the beginning. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing made had being. In him was life, and the life was the light of mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not suppressed it … the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw his Sh’khinah, the Sh’khinah of the father’s only Son, full of grace and truth (John 1:1-5, 14).”

May our divine Messiah, Yeshua, who was present at creation, continue to work in each of our lives to dispel the darkness, and make each of us into a new creation!

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Yahrzeit of Rabbi Lichtenstein

Today is Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot, and also marks the yahrzeit of Rabbi Ignácz (Isaac) Lichtenstein, one of our great Messianic Jewish forbearers.

Lichtenstein’s Early Life

Rav Lichtenstein was born in 1824, and became a rabbi before turning 20 years old. After officiating for several years in different communities in northern Hungary, he finally settled down as the Chief/District Rabbi in Tápiószele, where he remained for nearly 40 years.

Early in his career, one of his teachers in the communal school of the district casually showed him a German Bible. Turning the leaves, his eye fell on the name “Jesu Christi.” He became angry and reproved the teacher for having such a thing in his possession. Taking the book, he flung it across the room in a rage; it fell behind a shelf where, dusty and forgotten, it lay for some thirty-odd years.

Tisza Eslar Affair and Franz Delitzsch

In April of 1882 a fierce wave of anti-Semitism broke out in Hungary, culminating in the now historic “Tisza Eslar affair.”  As is often the case, the blood libel was ultimately demonstrated to be false and baseless – thanks largely to a number of prominent Christian leaders, most notably Dr. Franz Delitzsch, a Biblical scholar and Professor at Leipzig University, who rose to the occasion to defend the Jewish people against the outlandish blood libel.

This act of defense by Delitzsch, such a prominent Christian, played a key role in Rabbi Lichtenstein beginning to rethink his position on Yeshua and the Brit Chadashah:

“In articles written by [Delitzsch] in defense of the Jews of Hungary, I often met with passages where Jesus was spoken of as He Who brings joy to man, the Prince of peace, and the Redeemer; and His Gospel was extolled as a message of love and life to all people. I was surprised and scarcely trusted my eyes when I espied in a hidden corner the New Testament which some 30 years before I had in vexation taken from a Jewish teacher, and I began to turn over its leaves and read. How can I express the impression which I then received? Not the half had been told me of the greatness, power and glory of this Book, formerly a sealed book to me. All seemed so new, arid yet it did me good, like the sight of an old friend who has laid aside his dusty, travel-worn garments, and appears in in festive attire, like a bridegroom in wedding robes, or a bride adorned with her jewels.”

Lichtenstein’s New Boldness

Lichtenstein’s synagogue in Tápiószele.

For two or three years Rabbi Lichtenstein kept these convictions a secret. However, in time, he slowly began to teach some of these strange and new doctrines in his synagogue which both interested and astonished his hearers. At last he could contain himself no longer. On one Shabbat, while teaching on a parable of Yeshua, he openly proclaimed that his subject was taken from the New Testament and spoke of Yeshua as the true Messiah and Redeemer of Israel.

He ultimately embodied his ideas in three publications appearing in rapid succession which created a tremendous sensation within the Jewish community, not only in Hungary, but throughout Europe. Here was an old and respected Rabbi, still in office, calling upon his people in burning words to align themselves under the banner of the long-despised Yeshua of Nazareth, and to hail Him as their true Messiah and King.

Opposition and Persecution

A storm of persecution quickly broke out against him. From the Jewish pulpit and in the Press, insults were hurled against Lichtenstein, and he who but a few weeks before was considered among the noblest leaders and teachers was now described as a disgrace to his nation.  Falsehoods were spread against him and he was eventually cited to appear before the assembled rabbinate in Budapest.

On entering the hall he was greeted with the cry, “Retract! Retract!”

“Gentlemen,” said Rabbi Lichtenstein, “I shall most willingly retract if you convince me I am wrong.”

Chief Rabbi Kohn proposed a compromise. Rabbi Lichtenstein might believe whatever he liked in his heart, if he would only refrain from preaching about Yeshua publicly. The Synod of Rabbis would draw up a document stating that what Rabbi Lichtenstein wrote was done in a temporary fit of insanity and all he would have to do would be to add his name to this statement. Rabbi Lichtenstein answered calmly but indignantly that this was a strange proposal to make. When it was clear he would not sign the document, they demanded that Lichtenstein should resign his position and be formally baptized to indicate that he was leaving the Jewish people. But he replied that he had no intention of joining the church and had found in the New Testament the true Judaism, and would remain as before with his congregation, and teach it in the synagogue.

And he did so … in spite of tremendous persecution and reproaches. From his official position as the District Rabbi he continued to teach and preach from the New Testament. This was also a testimony to the strong commitment of his own community, which alone had the power to request his dismissal. In fact, much pressure was brought against members of his congregation, and relatives of his wife were completely ruined financially; but still they supported their esteemed rabbi.

Rabbi Lichtenstein and his writings become widely known across Europe and different church and missionary organizations sought his services with tempting offers – including the Pope.  However, to all Rav Lichtenstein had but one reply:

“I will remain among my own nation, I love Messiah, I believe in the New Testament; but I am not drawn to join Christendom. Just as the prophet Jeremiah, after the destruction of Jerusalem, in spite of the generous offers of Nebuchadnezzar and the captain of his host, chose rather to remain and lament among the ruins of the holy city, and with the despised remnant of his brethren, so will I remain among my own brethren, as a watchman from within and to plead with them to behold in Yeshua the true glory of Israel.”

Lichtenstein’s Resignation as Chief Rabbi of the District

Finally, after losing all his abilities to save the members of his congregation from total ruin, and with his health greatly deteriorating as a consequence of his bold stand, he voluntarily resigned his office as District Rabbi. He then settled in Budapest, but the opposition to him was relentless. He was shadowed and even physically attacked on the street. His barber was bribed to disfigure his beautiful beard. His landlord kept a close watch on everyone who visited him and reported to the rabbinical authorities. But, with all of this opposition also came interviews and discussions from fellow Jews from every walk of life.

The Final Years 

Rav Lichtenstein’s recently restored tombstone in the Central Jewish Cemetery in Budapest. Courtesy of Zsolt Marton.

Over the next twenty years Rabbi Lichtenstein traveled to many parts of Europe to speak about the truth as he saw it in Messiah. However, the storms of controversy, of misunderstanding and antagonism, began to take their tole on him. But his spirit remained undaunted. In his An Appeal to the Jewish People, Lichtenstein wrote:

“At the very outset I make my honest and public confession, the result of earnest thought and inward struggle, that it is my steadfast, unalterable conviction … Yes, as a Rabbi grown grey in office, as an old Jew faithful to the Law, I confess candidly, Jesus is the predicted Messiah of Israel … for whom we long, and for whose Advent our people have ever expected. He is come! This is now my shout of rejoicing, which my lips and pen, and, if God wills, my prolonged life shall serve to make known.”

Quite unexpectedly he became very ill. As he realized that his end was approaching, in the presence of his wife and the nurse, he said:

“Give my warmest thanks and greetings, to my brethren and friends; goodnight, my children; goodnight, my enemies, you can injure me no more. We have one God and one Father of all who are called children in heaven and on earth, and one Messiah who gave up His life on the cursed tree for the salvation of men. Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.”

On the morning of Hoshanah Rabbah, Friday, October 16, 1908, at the age of 85, Rabbi Lichtenstein entered into Paradise. On this Hoshanah Rabbah, a day of joy and celebration, we also remember Rabbi Lichtenstein.

A collection of his writings, The Everlasting Jew: Selected Writings of Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein, is now available through First Fruits of Zion.

Zichrono livracha … May his memory continue to bless and inspire us until Mashiach returns!

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A Divine Encounter


Shabbat Sukkot

This Shabbat falls during the festival of Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles). As such, we drift away from the normal weekly Torah reading cycle and read passages specifically for the holiday. Tomorrow’s special readings (Exodus 33:12-34:26 and Numbers 29:26-31) describe the mo’edim, the appointed festivals when G-d chooses to meet with us in a greater manifest way. We also read the direct instructions relating specifically to the observance of Sukkot.

The word mo’ed, in Hebrew, means a set apart time, or literally, an appointment. Each of the Jewish holidays are meant to carry a specific message and theme, and interact with different aspects of who G-d is. They are opportunities for an encounter of the deepest and most spiritual kind.

We just observed Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Unlike the rest of the world, we Jews interestingly do not begin our New Year with joyous celebrations. Instead, the High Holidays are a solemn time of Cheshbon HaNefesh – reflection, repentance, and standing before Our G-d and King, the Creator of the Universe.

Although the themes and prayers of the High Holidays are solemn and serious they are also filled with joy and with hope. Judaism teaches that G-d is ready and very willing to forgive the transgressions of those who come in sincere repentance. As such, there is a very deep connection between the High Holidays and Sukkot. The festival of Sukkot is also known within our texts and liturgy as Z’man Simchateinu – the “Time of our Rejoicing.”

We begin our New Year with reflection and repentance so that we can more deeply and sincerely rejoice during Sukkot. When one has been forgiven much and knows their slate has been wiped clean before G-d, there is an even greater cause for joy and celebration.

On this holiday we are to dwell in Sukkot – reminders of the temporal nature of our lives, and take up the Four Species (the Lulav and Etrog) to praise HaShem. Sukkot is our time to rejoice and take hold of the fact that G-d is in control. It is our time to delve deeper into G-d, His Torah, and his purposes for each one of us. The Etrog represents those characteristics about us that are sweet and pleasant. Like the Etrog – May each of us embody that sweetness and exude that fragrance throughout this special season and into the rest of the year.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Same’ach!

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Sukkot: A Festival of Joy, Gladness and Redemption

Tonight begins the festival of Sukkot (Sunday, September 27th).

Sukkot is one of the most joyous occasions on the Jewish calendar. It is deeply connected to the earlier High Holidays of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and is the culmination of the Fall festival period.

But on the fifteenth day of the seventh month (Tishrei), when you have gathered the produce of the land, you are to observe a festival to HaShem for seven days; the first day is to be a complete rest and the eighth day is to be a complete rest. On the first day you are to take a choice fruit [an etrog], palm fronds, thick branches, and river-willows, and celebrate in the presence of HaShem your G-d for seven days. You are to observe it as a feast to HaShem seven days in the year; it is a permanent regulation, generation after generation; keep it in the seventh month. You are to live in sukkot for seven days, every citizen of Israel is to live in a sukkah, so that generation after generation of you will know that I made the people of Israel live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am HaShem your G-d (Leviticus 23:39-43).

Sukkot is an agricultural festival, and recalls several themes:

  • Our wandering in the desert for forty years
  • Our dwelling in temporary shelters (sukkot)
  • Of G-d’s faithfulness in providing for us and our crops
  • Our regathering back to our Land
  • And of a future in-gathering of the Nations.

By dwelling in sukkot every year, we are faced with the reality of our human frailty and immortality. Just like the sukkah, our earthly bodies are but temporary dwelling places. When forced to dwell in a sukkah during the festival days, we find ourselves exposed to the elements, eating our meals without certain familiar comforts, and spending time in a shelter that at any moment could be brought down by weather.

So too it is with us. Our gufot, our bodies, are also fragile temporary dwelling places, where at any time, could be brought down. This reality forces us to recognize our dependence upon HaShem, who daily causes us to live. When we arise every morning, we say “Modeh ani … I am grateful unto you, O King who lives forever, for having once again, as I awaken, restored my soul unto me.” In this prayer, we acknowledge every morning that if G-d so willed, He could have chosen not to restore our souls unto us another day. So for giving us another opportunity to do His will, we give thanks to our Creator.

Sukkot is our ability to appreciate HaShem’s blessings. It is the recognition of our constant dependence upon G-d, and the culmination of the High Holiday season. Sukkot additionally marks the final conclusion of our pleas to G-d for a sweet new year, and for blessings in the seasons to come.

Sukkot also marks our ultimate messianic hope of salvation. For Sukkot is also known as Chag Ha’Asif, the Festival of Ingathering. For it is in this festival, we are taught, that a day will come when all nations will be gathered to Jerusalem and worship the one true G-d, the G-d of Israel. It is also the hope of the greatest Hoshanah Rabbah, when we will see Yeshua our Righteous Messiah return in all His Glory and regather the scattered remnant of His people.

Chag Sameach!

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Why Remember?

Parashat Ha’azinu

When I call out the name of Hashem, ascribe greatness to our God.  The Rock!  Perfect is His work; for all His paths are justice; a God of faith without iniquity, righteous and fair is He.   Corruption is not His – the blemish is His children’s, a perverse and twisted generation.  Is it to Hashem that you do this, O vile and unwise people?  Is He not your Father, your Master?  Has He not created you and firmed you?  Remember the days of yore, understand the years of generation after generation.  – Exodus 32:3-7

“You’re going to die today,” G-d says to Moses.  “So write down the entire Torah, and sing a song to the children of Israel before I strike you dead like I did to your brother.”  The Torah should say here “and Moses gulped.”  If you knew you were going to die today, how would you spend your last few hours on earth?  Would you jump off a bridge?  Gorge on chocolate desserts?  Declare your undying love to someone you’ve been too shy to approach?  Given a final opportunity to leave a lasting legacy, what words would you impart on the next generation?

Moses, upon hearing of his impending death, chose his dying words carefully. “Zechor yemot olam, binu shenot dor va-dor.”  “Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past.” Zachor.  Remember.  We’re commanded to do this at least 169 times in our Scriptures.  In our festivals, we remember critical events in the life of our people.  During Pesach, and every time we say Kiddush, we remember our liberation from Egypt.  On Sukkot, we remember our wandering through the desert.  On Shavuot, we remember the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

Why are we commanded to remember?  What’s the value in constantly reciting events of the past?  Why did my grandparents, who survived the Holocaust, insist on passing on to their children and grandchildren the very traditions that landed them in the crosshairs of the Gestapo?  Why in the world did Moses feel that commanding the children of Israel to remember the past would prepare them for the future?  There’s a saying by the great Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.  It is inscribed in huge stone letters on the Yad va-Shem in Jerusalem.

In remembering is the secret of redemption.

Now, this all sounds very cute and Zen-like, but bears tremendous meaning.  We must remember, because God turns away from us when we forget.  Moses says as much a few verses down the page:

You ignored the Rock who gave birth to you, and forgot God who brought you forth.  Hashem will see and be provoked by the anger of His sons and daughters, and He will say, ‘I shall hide My face from them and see what their end will be – for they are a generation of reversals, children whose upbringing is not in them.’

A nation that does not remember the days of old, according to Moses, is a nation “bereft of counsel,” and lacking “discernment.”  (verse 28)  Forgetting, it turns out, is a recipe for falling off the derekh.

Apparently, our dedication to remembering the days of old matters quite a lot to Hashem.  It is in remembering that we gain wisdom, which guides us into the future.  According to Rashi, understanding the past helps us appreciate God’s power and presence today.  Remembering what God has done in the past maintains our hope that Mashiach will return.

Simchat Torah is fast approaching, and we’re almost ready to roll the Torah scroll back to the beginning.  The end is near.  What if we, as a community, knew that Simchat Torah was our last opportunity to gather and pray together?  What legacy would we leave, and what words would we impart on the next generation?  Let’s commit now, as a community, to do more in this new year to pass on our faith, our history, and our traditions to the next generation – the children, teenagers, and young adults in our midst.  Not because it’s a novel exercise.  Remembering the past is not just an interesting hobby.  Let’s not treat six thousand years of history as a cute piece of cultural trivia.  Let us remember together because remembering is vital to our survival as a people, our allegiance to the God of our ancestors, and our continued faith in the return of Mashiach.

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Kol Nidrei: Tensions and Paradoxes of Yom Kippur

4991049347_74422fe281_m“All vows, obligations, oaths, and anathemas, whether called ‘ḳonam,’ ‘ḳonas,’ or by any other name, which we may vow, or swear, or pledge, or whereby we may be bound, from this Day of Atonement until the next (whose happy coming we await), we do repent. May they be deemed absolved, forgiven, annulled, and void, and made of no effect; they shall not bind us nor have power over us. The vows shall not be reckoned vows; the obligations shall not be obligatory; nor the oaths be oaths.” -Kol Nidrei Prayer

Tonight begins Yom Kippur – the holiest day on the Jewish/biblical calendar. The holiday always begins with Kol Nidrei, one of the most well-known Jewish prayers. Yet, the mysterious question is … why do we begin Yom Kippur with this strange prayer? What seems more bizarre is that it is not even a prayer at all but rather a technical legal formula.

Throughout the centuries, great rabbinic and halachic minds have actually tried to get rid of this prayer. The first mention of it is in an 8th century responsum by Rav Natranai Gaon. Most of the gaonim and rishonim apposed this prayer. Rabbeinu Tam, the grandson of Rashi, thought it was scandalous and should not be recited. Even Samson Raphael Hirsch, the father of Modern Orthodoxy, tried to do away with it in his first congregation in Germany. Yet this prayer has outlived all of its critics. Despite the repeated attempts in every generation to exclude this prayer, it’s still there. And interestingly, instead of the rabbis, it has largely been the common people who have chosen to keep it.

So what is it about this beloved and quintessential Jewish prayer? In my opinion, Kol Nidrei, and the halachic declaration right before it, can serve as an illustration of what Yom Kippur is really about, for within them are hidden lessons of the mysterious nature of this special evening.

wvkc3356176Tension, Mystery, and Paradox

First of all, Kol Nidrei teaches us about the tension, mystery and paradox of Yom Kippur. It has already been mentioned that Kol Nidrei is not even a prayer at all. Rather, it is a halachic declaration for the annulment of vows. For example, with all the beautiful parts of a wedding, it’s like singing the Ketubah. And yet, we “pray” it. Furthermore, Kol Nidrei actually begins our holiest day of the year.

On this holiest day when we stand before HaShem, you would think we would literally hear the sound of angels wings, float on clouds, and be engulfed by an incredible aura of God’s manifest presence. Although a degree of that does exist, we rather celebrate our holiest day by praying through long lists of sins, repeating ancient words in a foreign language, and discussing at length the role of the High Priest and sacrifices.

There is a tension that exists between our participation in heavenly worship with the angels on Yom Kippur and the realities of the earthly world we inhabit, with all its limitations. On Yom Kippur when we enter the synagogue and hear the sound of Kol Nidrei, we sense that something is different … something special … something holy.

On this holiest night of the year we stand before HaShem and are confronted by the same tensions within ourselves. Between the part of us that is holy and yearns to be re-united with our Creator, and the other part of us in need of atonement. Within each one of us is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a tension … a war within ourselves.

A Perceived Paradox

What is even more jarring than Kol Nidrei itself is the halachic formula we recite just before hearing the actual prayer:

With the approval of the Heavenly court and with the approval of the congregation; in the convocation of the Omnipresent One and with the consent of this congregation, we declare it lawful to pray with sinners.

Right away you should be struck by the wording, “we declare it lawful to pray with sinners.” It makes you want to look around the room, hushed, and wondering who this is referring to … when you realize this prayer is about you. That each one of us is a transgressor and sinner in need of atonement.

This tension is summed up nicely in a great teaching by Rabbi Bunim of Peshischa: Every person should carry two slips of paper. In one pocket should be a slip of paper which reads, “I am but dust and ashes,” and in the other pocket, a slip of paper which reads “the world was created for me.”

Throughout most of the year we are, as Paul writes in Romans (8:37), “more than conquerors through Him who loved us” and we “can do all things through Him who strengthens us (Phil. 4:13).” But on Yom Kippur, as the opening phrase of our service reminds us, we are all sinners in need of God’s grace and redemption. On Yom Kippur we are confronted not by our strengths, but our weaknesses. And the plural language of our prayers reminds us that we are all in this together and that we are only as strong as our weakest link. Each one of us is responsible for one another … and the sin of one of us, affects all of us.

It says in the Talmud (b. Shavuot 39a):

כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה … All Israel is responsible for one another.

That is why when we stand and recite the sins in the Al Chet, Ashamnu or Avinu Malkeinu, it does not matter whether you personally committed each sin, because someone in the room did and we are now all responsible. On Yom Kippur we are confronted by the reality that each one of us, as individuals, sin, and are personally accountable. But we are also reminded that there is a corporate accountability as well.

Paul wrote in his letter to his young disciple, Timothy:

So here is a statement you can trust, one that fully deserves to be accepted: the Messiah came into the world to save sinners, and I’m the number one sinner! But this is precisely why I received mercy – so that in me, as the number one sinner, Yeshua the Messiah might demonstrate how very patient he is, as an example to those who would later come to trust in him and thereby have eternal life. So to the King – eternal, imperishable and invisible, the only God there is – let there be honor and glory for ever and ever! Amen. (1 Timothy 1:15-17)

On Yom Kippur, we are reminded of the tensions and competing themes of the day, and the tensions and perceived paradoxes within ourselves. As stated above, on Yom Kippur we are confronted by the reality that each one of us is a “Chief sinner.” Within each one of us there is an inner-struggle and a battle between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On Yom Kippur we must ask, which one are you?

On Erev Yom Kippur we recite Kol Nidrei, and the halachic declaration right before it that it is now lawful to pray with sinners. And by doing so we are reminded of what Yom Kippur is really about and the hidden lessons of the mysterious nature of this special day.

G’mar chatimah tovah … May you be sealed for a great new year!

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Days of Awe

We are currently in the Yomim Nora’im - the 10 days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur – known as the Days of Awe. During these 10 days, we are to focus on Teshuva (Repentance) and preparation for Yom Kippur. Special insertions are added to our daily prayers, emphasizing the themes of G-d as King, G-d’s judgement, and G-d’s holiness. We also recall prayers referring to the Book of Life.

Remember us for life, O King Who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life – for Your sake, O Living G-d … Who is like You, Merciful Father, Who recalls His creatures mercifully for life … Blessed are You, our G-d, the Holy King. (From additions to the Amidah during the Days of Awe).

These 10 Days of Awe (and the whole High Holiday period) are meant to particularly recall G-d’s mercy. As Rabbi Wayne Dosick notes, although our “prayers are solemn and serious, they are also filled with joy and with hope. For Judaism teaches that G-d is ready and very willing to forgive the transgressions of those who come in sincere repentance.”

HaShem’s desire is for relationship with us and the High Holidays are opportunities to meet with G-d in the most intimate of times. The 10 days help us to more intently focus on, and deal with, those things which hold us back in life, and from the presence of HaShem.

Although we should be focusing on repentance, forgiveness, and overcoming life’s obstacles every day – G-d, also knowing the procrastinate nature of humanity, has built into the calendar specific times in which we are obligated to deal with those shortcomings. Otherwise we might just continue to sweep them under the rug. For most of us, the last thing we want to do is go to someone we may have hurt in the last year to seek forgiveness. Or confront a person for the hurt they have caused us. But by doing so, and allowing forgiveness to take place, we remove more of those spiritual stumbling blocks. We are able to break free of the weight of guilt, shame, anger, and inadequacy.

The Days of Awe are awesome days because they are what you make of them. My deepest prayer is that they would be for you a time of blessing and restoration.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah – May you be sealed for a wonderful New Year!

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Rosh HaShanah


HaShem spoke unto Moshe, saying: “Tell the people of Israel, ‘In the seventh month, the first day of the month is to be for you a day of complete rest for remembering, a holy convocation announced with blasts of the shofar.  Do not do any kind of ordinary work, and bring an offering made by fire to HaShem (Lev. 23:23-25).’”

Tonight begins Rosh HaShanah.

The festival of Rosh HaShanah is intimately connected to the sounding of the shofar. It is so bound together with the imagery of the shofar, that the Biblical term for the holiday is actually Yom Teruah – “the Day of Sounding.” The English reference to the holiday, the Feast of Trumpets, also reflects this relationship. So how did this come to be?

The Torah speaks of Rosh HaShanah as a holy convocation to remember, announced with blasts of the shofar. According to the Gemara (Rosh HaShanah 16a) and expounded on by Rashi, remembrance is to be understood in conjunction with the shofar blasts, which call upon God to remember the deeds of the Jewish people for good.

According to Tosefta Rosh HaShanah 1.13, “All things are judged on Rosh HaShanah, and their fate is sealed on Yom Kippur.” Being that Rosh HaShanah is the day that the Book of Life is opened, and judgment begins, the shofar is sounded to call our souls to repentance.  The Rambam states that the shofar beckons to our souls: “Awake, you sleepers, from your sleep! Arise, you slumberers, from your slumber! Repent with contrition! Remember your Creator! (Hil. Teshuvah 3:4)” As such, the shofar serves to call us to do teshuvah, and for God to act mercifully toward us and pardon us for our shortcomings.

The shofar is also sounded on Rosh HaShanah to announce the arrival of our Righteous King.  To recognize God’s sovereignty and His creation of all that exists. The shofar blasts serve as a reminder of the time to come, when Yeshua, our righteous Messiah, will ultimately return and regather the exiles of Israel.

For the Lord Himself will come down from heaven and with a rousing cry, with a call from one of the ruling angels, and with God’s shofar; those who died united with the Messiah will be the first to rise; then we who are left still alive will be caught up with Him in the air.  And thus, we will always be with the Lord.  So encourage each other with these words (1 Thess. 4:16-18).

During this Rosh HaShanah, let us hear the calling of the shofar, and let it beckon our souls to repentance. As we seek God to remember us for good in the coming year, let us do so with the confidence that one day that same shofar will sound, and it will bring with it the return of Messiah Yeshua. L’Shanah tovah tikateivu – May each and every one of us be inscribed for a sweet New Year, and may this be the year that we merit the coming of Mashiach!

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A Leap of Action

Parashat Nitzavim

People often assume the impossibility of observing all the mitzvot in the Torah, and therefore, make no effort to even try. In our modern world of “doing what we want,” and “answering to no one,” the idea of living within a holy framework of ritual observance seems backward. Freedom is what we all desire, right? As such, what is the purpose in keeping the mitzvot?

The Torah teaches us that there is a great purpose in keeping G-d’s commands:
The purpose is that you should enter into the covenant of HaShem your G-d and into His oath which HaShem is making with you today, so that He can establish you today for Himself as a people, and so that He will be your G-d – as He said to you and as He swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Deut. 29:11-12)

G-d’s desire is to set us apart. To establish His covenant with us, and be in relationship with us. Through the observance of G-d’s will for our lives, He imparts vision and blessing unto us and to our children. This responsibility to walk in the halakhah, in the way of G-d’s instructions, is not simply for our ancestors. It is an act that involves each of us today:

For I am not making this covenant and this oath only with you. Rather, I am making it both with those who are standing here with us today before HaShem our G-d and also with those who are not here with us today. (Deut. 29:13-14)

G-d gives each one of us, in every generation, the opportunity to walk out His Torah. It was not meant to cause us to stumble, but rather, to give us the opportunity to be in connection with G-d. To be partners with G-d in bringing redemption into the world.

According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Torah is an answer to the supreme question: What does G-d demand of us? G-d is in passionate pursuit of a relationship with us. For Heschel, God’s search of man, not man’s quest for G-d, was conceived to have been the main event in Israel’s history. The way to G-d is the way of G-d, and the mitzvot are 613 ways of G-d, a way where the self-evidence of the Holy is disclosed.

Observing the mitzvot is the opportunity to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought. HaShem never promised that it would be easy, but He did promise that it would be possible.

For this command I am giving you today is not too hard for you, it is not beyond your reach…On the contrary, the word is very close to you – in your mouth, even in your heart; therefore, you can do it! (Deut. 30:11, 14)

As we prepare for Rosh HaShanah beginning Sunday night, may we truly see the value of keeping G-d’s mitzvot, and may we grow exponentially in our pursuit of HaShem in the coming New Year!

“L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu – May you be inscribed for a sweet New Year!”

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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!
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