Choosing to be God Conscious

Parashat Toldot

What does this week’s Torah portion teach us about personal choices?

“Esau said to Jacob, ‘Pour some of that red stuff for me now, for I am exhausted. Jacob said, ‘Sell, as this day, your birthright to me.’ And Esau said, ‘Look, I am going to die, so of what use to me is a birthright?’ … Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, he ate and drank, got up and left; and thus, Esau spurned the birthright (Genesis 25:27-34).”

Esau was faced with a choice, soup or a birthright? When offered the opportunity for spiritual blessings and rewards, the only thing that mattered to him was his own immediate physical needs. Esau ended up selling his birthright to Jacob, for he had no regard for the spiritual. So why does he still end up hating and wanting to kill Jacob? (Genesis 27:41)

Just like Esau, we too often make irrational decisions in the spur of the moment, and end up hating ourselves and others as a result. We often cast off spiritual values in an attempt to satisfy an immediate need. Yet in the end it is futile. The thing we once cast off ends up becoming the thing we most desperately desire. And when we cannot have it, we end up hating those who do have it, resulting in a vicious cycle.

“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to G-d (Philippians 4:6).”

Instead of living by our own irrationality, like Esau, we must become like Jacob. We should never by too anxious to make a decision. But rather, we need to be “G-d conscious.” We need to constantly be reminded of a greater spiritual reality.

Yehudah HaNasi states, “Consider three things and you will not fall into the power of transgression: Know what is above you – a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and all your deeds are written in a book (Pirkei Avot 2.2).”

Being “G-d conscious” requires being in tune with spiritual values. It also requires us to train our minds to think about the consequences of our actions. We must choose to make good choices. 1 Corinthians 10:5 encourages that we must “take every thought captive to the obedience of Mashiach.”

We all make choices. Sometimes, we may not even make the best ones. However, I challenge each one of us to begin to train our minds to be “G-d conscious” in every way. So when the challenge arises to place our needs above the highest (and holiest) needs, we will be able to make the right decisions. May we, like our ancestor Jacob, receive the blessing to make choices of blessings and shalom, and in the end merit the righteous birthright of our Messiah Yeshua!

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“Get Out!”

Parashat Lekh Lekha

GET OUT!” – G-d makes it very clear to Avram that only through self-imposed exile can he attain his ultimate spiritual potential.

Parashat Lekh Lekha, unlike our first two portions in Genesis, emphasizes this convergence between G-d and creation. According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Torah thus far can be summarized as: Breishit describes the works of G-d; Noach describes the efforts of humanity; and Lekh Lekha describes the cooperation between humanity (Avraham) and G-d.

The opening phrase of our Torah portion, “Lekh Lekha” is usually translated “Go forth.” However, it can also be translated as “Go into yourself.” In this case, G-d is not just asking Avram to leave a physical place, G-d is asking him to delve into, and thereby, leave himself and enter into a covenant – a special relationship between himself and HaShem.

With a little help from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the opening phrase can be further broken down into these personal applications:

  • Lekh Lekha (Go forth) …” – We must leave ourselves to reveal our true identities.
  • From your land …” – Alludes to leaving behind all worldliness, and all physical desires which keep us from growing spiritually.
  • From your birthplace …” – Requires abandoning our comfort zones and those practices we often do by rote (including spiritual acts done by rote like prayer and mitzvot). We must especially leave behind those negative habits we were brought up to follow.
  • From your father’s house …” – Alludes to our own rationalization, and our own perceived wisdom.
  • To the land that I will show you …” – G-d desires that we all should reach our spiritual land. As such, only G-d will lead us to and reveal to us true spirituality.

However, the secret to finding our true identities requires sacrificing ourselves and our own comforts and finding ourselves in relation to G-d. “Going forth” requires abandoning those things which hold us back, and pressing on to that which lies ahead.

The primary jewel we can glean from Lekh Lekha is faith. Like Avram, we may not always be able to grasp G-d’s desires for us. We may even doubt, just as Avram did when G-d repeatedly promised he would have many offspring. However, in the end Avram believed. No matter his doubts, he had faith that G-d would indeed fulfill His promises.

“And [Avram] believed in HaShem, and it was accounted to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)

By faith, G-d revealed to Avraham the mysteries of heaven, blessed him and his family, and led him into the Promised Land. The author of Hebrews further emphasizes:

“Without faith, it is impossible to please G-d, for whoever approaches Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him.” (Hebrews 11:6)

It is not enough just to believe that G-d exists. We must also believe that G-d is faithful to reward those who seek Him, just as Hebrews states. We must “Go forth!” We must exile ourselves from our comfort zones and away from ourselves so that in the end, when we finally step into the Promised Land, we will step into the place of destiny and blessing.

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Veterans Day

My paternal grandfather (pictured at left with my grandmother) served during WWII in the South Pacific in the Army’s searchlight and radar units. My maternal grandfather served in the Army in the Pacific during the Korean War.

My Dad also served our country as a Navy Seabee during the Vietnam War.

Monique’s maternal grandfather escaped Nazi Germany, joined the U.S. Army, and returned to Europe where he served in Army Intelligence during WWII, and helped liberate Dachau. Her paternal grandfather served as a midshipman in the Navy on the Battleship New Mexico.

From our families to yours, we want to thank all those who have served our country and wish you all a very Happy Veterans Day!

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Kristallnacht

Tonight, November 9-10, marks the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass.

It is called the “Night of Broken Glass” because on this night, in 1938, thousands of rioters stormed Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues causing enormous amounts of damage throughout Germany and Austria.

Just before midnight on November 9, the Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller sent a telegram to all police units informing them:

“In shortest order, actions against Jews and especially their synagogues will take place in all of Germany. These are not to be interfered with.”

Instead of arresting the perpetrators of these events, police began rounding up and arresting the victims – Jews all over German occupied territories. Fire companies stood by synagogues in flames with explicit instructions to let the buildings burn. They were to intervene only if a fire threatened adjacent “Aryan” properties.

In two days and nights, more than 1,000 synagogues were burned or damaged, over 7,500 Jewish businesses were looted and ransacked, and at least 91 Jews were killed. Rioters also vandalized Jewish hospitals, homes, schools, and cemeteries. The attackers were often neighbors.

Some 30,000 Jewish males between 16 and 60 were arrested, and deported to concentration camps. Kristallnacht marked the official beginning of the Holocaust.

78 years later we still remember and will never forget!

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Creation and the Hidden Light

Parashat Breishit

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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Sukkot: A Festival of Joy, Gladness and Redemption

The festival of Sukkot began last Sunday evening, October 16th.

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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Are You Listening?

 

Parashat Ha’azinu

The Hebrew word Ha’azinu means “listen.” It is a command to pay attention to the words of the song Moshe recounts to the Jewish people before his passing.

The verbs to “listen,” “hear,” and “pay attention to” are used many times, and conjugated in many different ways throughout the Torah; emphasizing the imperative to take the message seriously. It is also a beckon to delve into the words to hear what is not directly on the surface. It is a call to ask, “What is God really trying to say to me?”

All of us hear many things on a daily basis. However, how often are we truly listening? In any kind of relationship, whether it is a friendship or romantic relationship, there are often moments of miscommunication and lack of true understanding. This is often because we are not intently listening. We are often not paying attention to the subtle nuances, or to what is actually being communicated without being said (non-verbal communication). Due to so many distractions, we often let things go in one ear and out the other.

That is what God is warning the Jewish people against through the song in this week’s parasha. Moshe is pleading with the Jewish people not to stray from HaShem, but to listen to God’s instructions, and do all He commands us. It is vital that we not only heed the message of HaShem, but be careful to also put the words into practice. And not just for us, but for our children and all future generations to come. As this week’s parasha states:

Take to heart the words of my testimony against you today, so that you can use them in charging your children to be careful to obey all the words of this Torah. For this is not a trivial matter for you; on the contrary, it is your life! (Deuteronomy 32:46-47)

The role of the Jewish people is the responsibility of Kiddush HaShem – to sanctify the Name of God. This is what Moshe is charged with not doing at the end of Ha’azinu. Therefore, we must be careful to listen to the warning, to take heed not to stray from God’s commands, and to teach our children to follow God’s Torah.

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Yom Kippur: Life, Death and Proper Protocol

Tonight begins Yom Kippur – the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

Traditionally, Leviticus 16, which deals with the proper protocol for the High Priest during the special Yom Kippur service, is read in the synagogue on the morning of Yom Kippur. The Torah introduces the Yom Kippur service immediately following the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu. This demonstrates that there is a direct connection between this tragedy and Yom Kippur.

According to the Sages, part of the transgression committed by Aaron’s two sons is that not only did they offer improper offerings, but they entered into the Holy of Holies, which only the Kohen HaGadol (the High Priest) is allowed to do. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah (First Century) comments that either sin would have been enough to warrant their death. As a result, the entire rest of the chapter deals with the proper protocol of Yom Kippur and the order for the High Priest to enter into the Holy of Holies.

It is taught that Moses’ long process for seeking forgiveness on behalf of the Jewish people for the sin of the Golden Calf ended on the tenth day of Tishrei (Yom Kippur) when he returned with the second set of tablets. That day became associated with forgiveness. The Torah, in several references, goes into great depth as to the specifics of Yom Kippur and the proper way of observing the most holy day.

The obvious question is why the Torah goes into so much detail regarding the observance of Yom Kippur? The Jewish holidays are known as mo’edim. The word mo’ed, in Hebrew, is best translated as a divine set/appointed time. It is a time when G-d chooses to meet with us. Yom Kippur is our opportunity for a supernatural encounter, and the day G-d’s forgiveness and mercy is most abundant. G-d wants to be in relationship with us, and Yom Kippur is our opportunity to perfect ourselves and prepare ourselves to be used by G-d in the coming year.

According to Tosefta Rosh HaShanah 1.13:

“All things are judged on Rosh HaShanah, and their fate is sealed on Yom Kippur.”

Beginning on Rosh HaShanah, when 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 our souls to:

“Awake, you sleepers, from your sleep! Arise, you slumberers, from your slumber! Repent with contrition! Remember your Creator! (Hil. Teshuvah 3:4)

The shofar serves to call us to teshuvah (to repentance), and for G-d to act mercifully toward us and pardon us for our shortcomings.

G-d gives us the opportunity of the High Holiday period to prepare ourselves and make things right with both our Creator, and with those around us. The Torah is concerned about all these details because G-d cares about protocol. Each detail on Yom Kippur teaches us that it is not about ourselves. That the world does not revolve around us. Each one of us is reminded of our ultimate fate and judgment on Yom Kippur, and our individual, as well as corporate need for atonement.

Yom Kippur is also a reminder of G-d’s mercy and ability to bring atonement for our shortcomings. According to Hebrews 9:6-28, Yeshua is our Great High Priest, and it is through him that kapparah, that atonement for sin has already been made. By seeking to truly make things right this Yom Kippur, and to carefully observe G-d’s instructions regarding this most holy day, let us merit the sealing of our names in the Book of Life, and the ultimate assurance of our atonement through Yeshua. May the final shofar blast at the end of Ne’ilah, the final Yom Kippur service, truly be the blast which announces the arrival of our long-awaited and beloved Messiah!

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

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Rosh HaShanah

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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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Lost Property and Relationships

Parashat Ki Tetze

What can lost property teach us about relationships?

Parashat Ki Tetze contains seventy-two different mitzvot, the largest number in any Torah portion. From the outset, it seems to be just a condensed list of random instructions. However, the format of this portion encourages us to take a wider view so as not to miss the forest for the trees. After looking through the entirety of the mitzvot listed in the parasha, we find a common thread – the relationship between our physical possessions and our human relationships.

In this portion, the Torah clarifies our obligation to look out for the interests of others and to return to others what they have lost:

“You are not to watch your brother’s ox or sheep go astray and behave as if you hadn’t seen it; you must bring them back to your brother. If your brother is not close by, or you don’t know who the owner is, you are to bring it home to your house; and it will remain with you until your brother asks for it. Then you are to give it back to him. You are to do the same with his donkey, his coat or anything else of your brother’s that he loses. If you find something he lost, you must not ignore it.” (Deuteronomy 22:1-3)

According to Nehama Leibowitz, this commandment is one of commission, not omission:

“The mitzvah of returning lost property … involves, not only the passive taking charge of the article until the owner claims it, but also an active concern with safeguarding a neighbor’s possessions (Studies in Devarim, p. 214).”

An “active concern” includes doing everything possible to locate the owner of the lost property. The finder must not only care for the property, but may not profit from it. And if it was invested, the finder must also return all the earnings. The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman) makes it clear that the mitzva of returning lost property supersedes any inconvenience to the finder.

So why is this so important? What does lost property have to do with relationships? Rabbi Harvey J. Fields explains that:

“Property is an extension of each individual. It is like the limb of one’s body. Loving one’s neighbor means taking care of all that is important to them as you would want them to safeguard all that is important to you. Returning lost property is a demonstration of love and concern for one’s neighbors.”

Bachya ben Joseph ibn Pakuda agrees, explaining that the act of restoring lost property fulfills the Torah’s instruction to “love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18).”

Yeshua further clarified the importance of our relationships, and that nothing is greater than our relationship with G-d, and with each other. May we, with G-d’s help, demonstrate love and concern for those around us, seeing within our fellow human beings a reflection of the Divine Image.

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

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