Not always what it Seems

Parashat Mikketz

Things are not always what they seem. Often we make assumptions, only to find out in the end we are wrong. This entire portion points out that we have to be careful about jumping to conclusions. We can additionally ask ourselves, what is the connection between Hannukah and this week’s Torah portion?

The context for this week’s parasha is actually set up in last week’s portion, in Vayeshev. It is full of assumptions. Frustrated with their annoying little brother, the ten eldest sons of Jacob decided their brother would never really amount to anything, and that “getting rid of him” would never come back to haunt them. Joseph, although innocent, was also assumed to be in the wrong when accused by Potifer’s wife of trying to seduce her and he was thrown in prison. And although it was assumed the baker and cupbearer would remember Joseph, that was not the case, and Joseph continued to remain in prison.

Turning to this week’s portion, Mikketz, Pharaoh had a dream that was assumed to be impossible to interpret. However, with the help of G-d, Joseph interpreted the difficult vision, and in the end was appointed the greatest leader in all of Egypt, save Pharaoh himself. Some assumed Joseph to be just some cocky and arrogant little kid. But Joseph turned out to be Egypt’s greatest savior, and an official with limitless power over the future of a generation.

The Hannukah story is also full of assumptions. It was impossible to imagine that a small group of poorly prepared Jewish farmers would be able to overcome a well prepared army of Greeks, or envision the recapture of Jerusalem and the rededication of the Temple. No one believed that a small amount of oil used to re-light the Temple Menorah would burn for an entire eight days. However, each of these assumptions were proven false. This truly is the season of miracles.

Things are not always what they seem. A small amount of oil, or an ill-considered younger brother, both of whom were thought of as never amounting to anything, could just as well turn out to change the world!

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Hanukkah: A Festival of Dedication

Tomorrow night (Tuesday, Dec. 16th) is the beginning of Hanukkah.

The word, Hanukkah, means “dedication” in Hebrew, and recalls the triumphant events of the Maccabees, and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem following its desecration by the forces of Antiochus and the Syrian-Greeks in the 2nd century BCE.

Hanukkah is first mentioned in the apocryphal books of Maccabees. According to 1 Maccabees:

“For eight days they celebrated the rededication of the altar. Then Judah and his brothers and the entire congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the rededication… should be observed… every year… for eight days (1 Mac. 4:56–59).”

The festival of Hanukkah recalls two primary miracles:

  1. That a small untrained and ill-equipped army of Jews were able to defeat the mighty forces of the Syrian-Greeks, and;
  2. The miracle of the oil burning for eight days.

According to the oldest traditions of Hanukkah, the heroic acts of the Maccabees and the rededication of the Temple are the primary points to the story. Interestingly, the “miracle of the oil” does not actually appear in the apocryphal books of Maccabees. The first place the miracle of oil appears is in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b).

The Talmud states that the forces of Antiochus were driven from the Temple, and that only a single container of ritual olive oil used to light the menorah was found which still contained the official unbroken seal of the Cohen Gadol (the High Priest). There was only enough oil for one day. However, the menorah miraculously burned in the Temple for eight days (the exact amount of time needed to create more oil).

The Gospels record that Yeshua himself observed the festival of Hanukkah:

“At the time the festival of Hanukkah took place in Jerusalem; it was winter, and Yeshua went up to the Temple and was walking in the portico of Solomon. Then a number of Jews gathered around him, and were saying to him, ‘How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’

Yeshua answered, ‘I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of me … I and the Father are One’ (John 10:22-30).”

 

As such, since the days of the Maccabees, the Jewish community has observed the eight days of Hanukkah. Hanukkah is indeed a Festival of Light. It recalls not only our redemption from tyranny and oppression, but is also a story of hope and covenant faithfulness. As we observe the eight nights of Hanukkah beginning tomorrow night, may we keep in mind our role to also be bearers of light. For just as our ancestors, the Maccabees, overcame the forces of an enemy power, so too are we able to overcome the forces in life that work against us. For as Romans 8:37 states, “We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”

Tyrants and enemies cannot quench the pintele yid (the Jewish spark), nor the light of Mashiach within each one of us. As we commemorate the rededication of the Beit HaMikdash (the Holy Temple), may we also use this time to rededicate ourselves to living a life of Torah, avodah (service unto HaShem), and ma’asim tovim (acts of loving kindness toward all).

We have an opportunity to shine even brighter than the menorah which once stood (and will stand again) in the Temple through partnering with G-d in bringing redemption into the world, and preparing the world for the coming of Mashiach.

As we celebrate Hanukkah tomorrow night, and continue through the eight days, may each one of us experience the tremendous light of this joyous season.

Happy Hanukkah!

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Human Rights Day

Today marks the 66th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Led by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, 48 of the most powerful countries in the world signed this document, for the first time in history, agreeing on a set of common principles that would govern their respect for the rights of individuals. Included in the UDHR’s declarations were the following sentiments:

  • that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights
  • that a person’s race, sex, language, religion, political opinion, and nationality could not operate to restrict access to these rights.
  • That slavery and torture are illegal
  • That women are entitled to dignity, that we are not property to be bought and sold.
  • That people should be able to challenge their abusers in court … even if their abuser is their own government

Is it any coincidence that the creation of UDHR falls in the same year as the birth of the State of Israel? Of course it’s not just a mere coincidence! Let’s go back in our heads to 1948 … the Western world was emerging from the worst bloodbath of all history. 6 million people were murdered under the noses of the continent of Europe for the crime of being Jews … and nary a peep was uttered in protest by the citizens of Europe. Twenty million were murdered by Stalin. Countless more soldiers lost their lives in the two bloodiest wars in history – World War I and World War II.

And it was a host of “isms” that fueled these wars. Nationalism, racism, nativism, isolationism, Aryanism. In short, human nature at its very worst.

It is no mere coincidence that the state of Israel and the UDHR were brought to life in the same year. The Western world, in begrudgingly authorizing the establishment of the first Jewish state, and in enthusiastically embracing the principles of the UDHR … was attempting a form of penance, and carving out a new and hopefully brighter vision for the future.

But almost seventy years later, how far have we come? Does the world we live in reflect the UDHR’s vision for the future? Does our own government adhere to its principles? Sadly, it does not.

The genocide in Rwanda sparked an even more devastating conflict in the Congo (which is still ongoing), where six million people (mostly women and children … and a whole lotta refugees) have been murdered in the past 12 years. Genocide still rages in Darfur. Globally, it’s estimated that 27 million people are held in slavery – at least 17,000 of them are enslaved in the United States. 1 in 3 women faces some form of gender-based violence in her lifetime – rape, domestic violence, forced marriage, honor killing, female genital mutilation.

No. 66 years later, what has really changed? I’ll tell you what’s changed. Our capacity and our obligation to act has changed. The age of iPhones, blogs, “the internet,” cheap international travel … these things have brought news of atrocities, genocide, and abuses of power into our living rooms.

Fortunately … these tools of communication have also brought our living rooms into the global stage. As individuals, we have the power to speak up about injustice, to lobby our government for change, to pursue shareholder activism to stop corporate abuse, to send, with the click of a button, lifesaving resources and funds to human rights activists.

And as Jews, we have the call of Hashem. To seek justice, to defend the widow and the orphan, to free the captives, to comfort those who suffer … G-d commands us to act, because acting in the face of injustice is the only way to effectively remember.

Remember … we were slaves in the land of Egypt. Remember … we were pushed out of Spain during the Inquisition. Remember … we were hunted down in Europe during the Holocaust. And remember, that with G-d’s help, we have overthrown tyrants and established a home where we enjoy relative security. With G-d’s help, Haman was hung from a noose, Antiochus was pushed out of Jerusalem, Hitler was overthrown, and the state of Israel has survived for nearly sixty-six years.

Sixty-six years later, there is still plenty of work to be done. Let’s commit as a community to do more of it.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

In 1789, George Washington issued the first national Thanksgiving proclamation with these words:

“Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be….”

A couple years ago I read an article by Jewish radio personality, Dennis Prager, titled, “Here’s why Thanksgiving is good for the Jews.”

He points out that Thanksgiving is one of the most widely observed holidays, especially within the Jewish community. The majority of Jews across the spectrum observe Thanksgiving – from non-observant to Orthodox. The reason, according to Prager, “it is quintessentially American, it is deeply religious without being denominational and it is based entirely on one of the most important, and noble, traits a human being can have – gratitude.”

In an age when we are often not thankful enough for the blessings we have, Thanksgiving is another reminder that we have so much to be thankful for.

From our home to yours, we wish you and your family a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Chag Sameach!

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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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The Binding of Isaac

Parashat Vayyera

This week’s Torah portion is action packed and full of Messianic significance.

But this is also a very troubling parasha:

  • Story of Sodom and Gomorrah
  • Abraham pawning off Sarah as his sister – A SECOND TIME!
  • During Lot’s escape from the city, his wife is turned into a pillar of salt
  • Daughters of Lot get their father drunk, and then sleep with him
  • Hagar cast into the desert, and Ishmael almost dies of thirst

The central story, of course, is the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22). There is more commentary written on this passage than on any other portion in the Torah. The rabbis struggled with this passage and its meanings. As we delve into the Akeidah, it is vitally important to keep in mind the words of German Bible scholar Gerhard Von Rad:

One should renounce any attempt to discover one basic idea as the meaning of the whole.  There are many levels of meaning.

This is especially true of the Akeidah. It has many lessons to be learned. Even the ‘WHY?’ is complicated. It is not just a test. It’s bigger than that!

Substitution

יא וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו מַלְאַךְ יְי, מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַיֹּאמֶר, אַבְרָהָם אַבְרָהָם; וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּנִי. 11 And the angel of HaShem called out to him from heaven, and said: ‘Abraham, Abraham.’ And he said: ‘Here am I.’
יב וַיֹּאמֶר, אַל-תִּשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֶל-הַנַּעַר, וְאַל-תַּעַשׂ לוֹ, מְאוּמָה:  כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי-יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים אַתָּה, וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ, מִמֶּנִּי. 12 And he said: ‘Do not lay a hand upon the lad, neither shall you do anything unto him; for now I know that you fear HaShem, seeing that you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.’
יג וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה-אַיִל, אַחַר, נֶאֱחַז בַּסְּבַךְ בְּקַרְנָיו; וַיֵּלֶךְ אַבְרָהָם וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הָאַיִל, וַיַּעֲלֵהוּ לְעֹלָה תַּחַת בְּנוֹ. 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram was caught in the thicket by its horns. And Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt-offering instead of his son.
יד וַיִּקְרָא אַבְרָהָם שֵׁם-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא, יי יִרְאֶה, אֲשֶׁר יֵאָמֵר הַיּוֹם, בְּהַר יי יֵרָאֶה. 14 And Abraham called the name of that place Adonai-yireh; as it is said to this day: ‘In the mount where HaShem is seen.’

The Torah states that G-d will provide Himself the lamb (vs. 8), an offering in place of Isaac. This is the reason we sound a shofar (a ram’s horn) on Rosh HaShanah and why this passage is read on the second day of Rosh HaShanah; to recall the substitution of the ram and to recall HaShem’s mercy. And the shofar itself contains a hint to Mashiach. According to the Talmud:

Rabbi Abahu asked, “Why do we sound the horn of a ram? Because the Holy One, Blessed be He, said, ‘Blow Me a ram’s horn that I may remember unto you the binding of Isaac the son of Abraham, and I shall account it unto you for a binding of yourselves before me (b.Rosh Hashana 16b).’”

Resurrection and Atonement

Although it may not be the majority position, there are a few commentaries that claim that Abraham really went through with it – that he really sacrificed Isaac. This idea is drawn from the text itself – they go up together, but Abraham returns alone:

יט וַיָּשָׁב אַבְרָהָם אֶל-נְעָרָיו, וַיָּקֻמוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו אֶל-בְּאֵר שָׁבַע; וַיֵּשֶׁב אַבְרָהָם בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע.  19 So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheva; and Abraham dwelt at Beer-sheva.

Interestingly, immediately after this Sarah dies (see next week’s parasha). The rabbis speculate that it is due to hearing the news of Isaac and seeing Abraham return alone. One reason for this speculation is that very little is mentioned of Isaac after this, and there is a very clear change in the Hebrew (as if written by someone else – a later revision).

However, even more interesting, there is another remarkable tradition that Abraham completed the sacrifice and that afterward Isaac was miraculously revived …

Ibn Ezra (12th cent.) quotes an opinion that Abraham actually did kill Isaac … and that he was later resurrected from the dead.

Furthermore, Saadia Gaon (10th cent.) states, “there are ten reasons for blowing the shofar … the sixth one is to remind us of the binding of Isaac who offered himself to Heaven.  So ought we be ready at all times to offer our lives for the sanctification of His name.”

According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, such views enjoyed a wide circulation in medieval writings. There are even a few references to Isaac’s sacrifice as an act of atonement:

-Philo (1st cent.) refers to Isaac as the son/servant of Isaiah 53, who provides atonement for both Jew and Gentile.

-Shir HaShirim Rabbah, quoting Song of Songs 1:14: “‘A bundle of myrrh (kofer) is my beloved.’  This refers to Isaac, who was tied up like a bundle upon the altar.  Kofer, because he atones for the sins of Israel (1, sec. 14).”

Within the Akeidah we see not only a message of faith, obedience and sacrifice, but also a message of resurrection and redemption. Within our Jewish tradition, the Akeidah carries a glimpse of an even greater hope, a greater redemption, and a greater Resurrection still to come.

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Abraham and the Amidah

Parashat Lekh Lekha

In the opening words of this week’s Torah portion, G-d speaks to Abraham, saying:

Lekh Lekha – Get yourself out of your land … and go to the place I will show you (Genesis 12:1).

At the age of seventy-five, Abraham left his home in modern day Iraq, and traveled all the way to the land of modern Israel. Included in the command to leave his homeland was also a promise that G-d would multiply Abraham’s descendants, and that they would inherit a new homeland.

This must have come as quite a shock. At an age where Abraham should have been settling down and enjoying retirement, G-d basically exiles him from his place of comfort. The place he had always known. The place where he speaks the language, knows the customs, and knows all his neighbors.

Through an act of great faith Abraham did it. He left all he had ever known and set out to a place he was not even sure of yet. But he trusted G-d would be with him, and would eventually reveal where this place would be. He trusted the calling.

What makes this act of faith even more remarkable is the fact that Abraham also trusted G-d’s promise of children. At the age of seventy-five, like most of us, he must have finally given up on any hope of a child.

Throughout the difficult years that followed – battles, wanderings, and expulsions – Abraham remained convinced that G-d would remain faithful to his promise. That is – until the day his faith gave out.

One day, at the age of ninety-nine – twenty-four long years later – G-d appeared again to Abraham and reemphasized the promise of blessing. That was enough! Abraham could not take it any longer! Abraham threw himself to the ground and scoffed:

Shall a child be born to a hundred-year-old man? And shall Sarah – a ninety-year-old woman – give birth? (Genesis 17:17)

By this point Abraham’s faith was so weak that it took an additional appearance by G-d found in next week’s parasha to finally convince him that he would indeed have a son (see Genesis 18:10-15).

In the end – in spite of all the trials – Abraham and Sarah did have a son. It took an exile to bring a blessing. So it is often with us. We often need to be removed from our comfort zones in order to see spiritual fruit in our lives.

When we stand before G-d at the beginning of the Amidah, it is traditional to take three steps back. We exile ourselves from G-d’s presence. It is G-d’s way of telling us, “Lekh lekha … get yourself out of that place of comfort … that place of stagnancy …” So that in the end, when we take three steps forward, like Abraham, we will step into that place of destiny, blessing, purpose and direction.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Three More Book Reviews!

Over the last few weeks three more book reviews have appeared discussing my new book, Jude: On Faith and the Destructive Influence of Heresy (Lederer: Messianic Jewish Publishers, 2014). The three reviews are by First Fruits of Zion, Emet HaTorah and Dr. Richard Harvey.

richardharveyDr. Richard Harvey’s Mapping Messianic Judaism Blog

Well-known and respected Messianic Jewish scholar Dr. Richard Harvey wrote a blog post today marking the date on which the Christian Church traditionally remembers Jude the Apostle and incorporated a review of my new book. It should be noted that Harvey was also one of my initial reviewers and wrote an endorsement which appears in the book itself.

According to Harvey:

Like the book of Jude itself, this short commentary punches above its weight. Brumbach introduces the book and its author in an easily accessible way, drawing from the cutting edge of contemporary biblical scholarship. He also, from his own distinctive Messianic Jewish perspective, takes us to the heart of the text and its meaning for Israel and the nations. If you want to understand more of the significance of Yeshua (Jesus) as seen by one of his own brothers then, and by a leading Jewish believer in Yeshua today, I thoroughly recommend his book.

Messiah Journal #117 (Published by First Fruits of Zion)

117

In the recent Fall 2014 issue of Messiah Journal, published by First Fruits of Zion, Jeremiah Michael wrote a very positive review of the book.

He begins his review by highlighting various parts of the text as he walks his readers through the book. In his conclusion, Michael writes:

The commentary is easy to read, not heavily academic, and it encourages a practical application of the epistle. Brumbach highlights differences of opinion amongst his sources, which gives the reader a firm grasp on the breadth of scholarship on Jude. Brumbach does a great job of drawing out the practical and ethical implications of Jude through easy-to-understand exegetical commentary … This commentary can be used for serious study of the Epistle of Jude as well as for personal devotion … The short Epistle of Jude contains a very powerful message for believers today, and Rabbi Brumbach has done an excellent job of helping us understand it.

image (2) Huckey ReviewEmet HaTorah Fall Newsletter

Darren Huckey, of Emet HaTorah, also wrote a very engaging review. Huckey writes in Emet HaTorah’s 2014 Fall Newsletter, “In his commentary on Jude, Rabbi Joshua Brumbach … presents compelling evidence of the importance of Jude’s epistle from both historical and theological positions.”

He goes on to discuss the brevity of both the epistle and my commentary (since it is only 79 pages) and notes, “The author has packed a surprising amount of research and interpretation in a few short pages. It is not only informative, but engaging as well.”

Huckey continues:

When I first saw this work I was curious as to how the text of Jude would be handled from a Messianic perspective. I was particularly interested, because of Jude’s use of non-canonical, apocryphal texts and how most Christian commentary seems to gloss over these important connections Jude makes with these texts. I was pleasantly surprised at Brumbach’s treatment of the connections between the text of Jude and these sources, as well as his conclusions of Jude’s purpose for weaving these allusions and direct references into his message.

Huckey ends his very positive review with saying, “I highly recommend this book for both personal and group study, for both academic and practical application.”

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A Flood and a Tower

Parashat Noach

A Flood and a Tower. These are the two central narratives within this week’s parashah. Noach is rich with lessons for our day, connections to other biblical events, and full of historical allusions within the greater ancient Near East.

The most central narrative within the parashah is of course the account of the flood, of Noah and his family, and the salvation of all living creatures through the building of an ark (a wood vessel).

The Ark

The ark that Noach builds is called in Hebrew a Tevah (תבה). This word only appears in two places in the entire Torah. The only other time the word Tevah is used is in reference to the reed “basket” Moshe is placed in by his mother and hidden in the river, only to be later discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter.

This was intentional. The use of the word Tevah is meant to connect these two stories. So what are the connections between the two narratives? Both of these are mysterious “vessels.” They are literally boxes. When you look at the dimensions of the ark in the Torah, it is not a typical ship. It is a box. They are both covered with pitch. Both are also “divinely directed.” Meaning, neither of them are guided by human means. The ark has no oars, or any type of steering mechanism. The reed basket Moshe is placed in is also divinely directed, left to the current of the river.

Both figures emerge from their respective Tevah to become a type of redeeming figure – a savior of humanity. And both are recognized for their obedience and faith to HaShem. The Torah wants to make clear that Noach is a redeeming figure similar to Moshe. The use of these connections also ties the whole narrative (and all the intermediate narratives) together.

I have not even touched on the connection of the Biblical flood account to other flood accounts known throughout the world, let alone the Ancient Near Eastern flood account of Utnapishtim.

The Tower of Bavel

The other narrative central to this week’s parashah is the Tower of Bavel. According to the Torah, a great “tower” was built in the plain of Shinar, intended to reach up into the heavens. G-d destroyed the tower and scattered the people across the earth, and confused their languages because of their intentions.

Ziggur9The reference to Shinar is believed by scholars to be ancient Sumer (one of the earliest great civilizations), and more broadly to Mesopotamia as a whole. Interestingly, the tower is called Bavel, most likely a reference to the Mesopotamian city with the same name – Bavel (Babylon).

According to the Biblical account, the purpose for building the Tower was to reach the heavens so they could make a name for themselves (Gen. 11:4). Scholars have long connected this story with the great Mesopotamian temples, known as Ziggurats – which were massive stepped pyramid structures. Ziggurats were places where priests offered prayers, offerings, and sacrifices to the Mesopotamian pantheon of gods.

Another interesting possible connection is that the great ziggurat in Babylon was called “E-sag-ila,” meaning, “the head that reaches the gods,” the same concept behind the biblical account. Maybe this is further insight into the reason G-d destroyed the Tower of Bavel???

So, what are we to make of all this?

The Scriptures contain a wealth of historical allusions and references. It is fascinating just how many there really are when you are familiar with ancient Near Eastern civilizations. But these narratives were included for particular reasons – theological reasons. They were meant to demonstrate to their ancient listeners (our ancestors) that the G-d of Israel was in fact the G-d of the flood account, which was known throughout the world. And the narrative of the Tower of Bavel is meant to demonstrate that the G-d of Israel is greater then the pantheon of Mesopotamian gods, and was meant to explain the reason for various people and languages spread throughout the world.

May we, like Noach, learn to hear from HaShem. May we also be bold enough, like Noach, to act on whatever G-d asks of us. HaShem may not ask us all to build an ark, but sometimes G-d asks of us tasks that are often just as difficult in faith and action. The lesson of this parashah is that difficult faith is rewarded, and that the same all powerful G-d is also active in the world around us today to help us through life’s most difficult trials.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Genesis in Context

I love the book of Genesis! Not only as a religious Jew, but as an academic. I value the theological understandings gleaned through thousands of years of Jewish interpretation. However, I also value the rich tradition of Genesis from its historical and literary understanding, which is also teaming with Ancient Near Eastern allusions, language, and places.

The Bible is a product of the Ancient Near East. When we view the Bible also from the perspective of literature, we can appreciate the context out of which it was birthed, the particulars of the people who brought it forth, and its similarities to other ANE texts.

Although the creation account in Genesis differs from other creation accounts and has its own unique characteristics, there are also many ANE allusions. The idea of “tohu v’vohu,” of the earth being in utter chaos prior to Creation, of the “firmament (or dome)” above the earth, the separation of the “upper” and “lower” waters, and of course even the concept of the Garden of Eden. Interestingly, the word Eden itself is not Hebrew. It is a borrowed Sumerian word that finds its way into the Bible through Akkadian influence.

Ancient Sumer (the Biblical “Shinar”) was the cradle of civilization. It is the earliest known complex civilization in the world and spanned over three-thousand years – from the 6th millennium to the 2nd millennium BCE. Sumer was the birthplace of complex society, the wheel, and of agriculture. It was also the birthplace of writing (ca. 3500 BCE).

The heart of ancient Mesopotamia is between the two great rivers of the Tigris and Euphrates, which are mentioned in Genesis as two of the rivers bordering the Garden of Eden. Several of these earliest cities are mentioned in the first three Torah portions – Bavel, Uruk (Biblical Erech), Akkad, Nineveh, and Ur (just to name a few). The biblical patriarch Abraham, himself, came from Ur in Southern Mesopotamia.

The flood story of Noah is also interestingly paralleled in earlier ANE versions; however, I will not expand on this as my friend and colleague, Rabbi Derek Leman, has blogged on it extensively in the past.

Even the idea of the Tower of Babel is believed to be an allusion to the great Mesopotamian temples, known as Ziggurats – which were massive stepped pyramid temple structures. Ziggurats were places where priests offered prayers, offerings, and sacrifices to the Mesopotamian pantheon of gods.

As a religious Jew I obviously attribute theological truth to Genesis as Scripture and I absolutely believe HaShem literally created all that exists. However, it is important that we also understand Genesis for what it is, and what it is not. We should not try to read especially the creation account too literally. It was never intended to be a scientific account of creation (although it may contain scientific and historical information). Rather, Genesis is a theological account of Creation. As I mentioned last week, Genesis is meant to directly establish God as the sovereign of the universe. As such, the Torah speaks only in general terms to illustrate that nothing came into being except at God’s command. Unlike other origin stories circulating around the Ancient Near East, the Biblical account makes no attempt to explain the origins of God, or try to persuade the listener of God’s existence. The existence of God, in Judaism, is an axiomatic fact. Therefore it immediately jumps to the explanation of God’s creation of heaven and earth, and to what God expects of His creation.

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