The Heart of The Problem

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The Heart of The Problem

בס”ד

I often tell my children that a salvation will be found at the heart of a problem.

If a mistake is made they may believe that what I’m saying is that if we understand a problem at its core, if we know it well enough we can defeat it or circumvent it all together, but that’s not what I mean to say at all.

If there is one thing I’ve learned from the Torah its that the answer is actually hidden in the problem. The problem is the answer–almost.

Pursuing a Jewish walk with forbidden Yeshua is scary. It can mean getting phone calls and emails from friends, teachers, and family who no longer want you around. Sometimes it means having them scream in your face. Those of us wearing these shoes only survive by taking comfort in the Torah:

Jacob’s mother bound goat skins to her holy son so he would appear like another man. Esav knew that his father had been willing to lay on the altar. He wasn’t. 

“My life is a path of death. What is this birthright to me?” (Gen. 25:32)

So Jacob’s mother tied goat skins to her holy son, not hard dry hides laced with leather but the fleshy skins of fresh slaughter. 

The skin of a goat is removed like a surgical glove from a hand. It remains elastic and pliable for some time. Jacob pushed each hand into inverted skins that rolled back over his forearms snug and firm. He pushed his head through the neck of the animal in the same way; pulling his beard free removed any sight of a border separating himself from the new skin. 

In Hebrew the word for “surface" is פָּנִים (panim), the word for “inside” is nearly the same, פְּנִים (pnim). At once Jacob was both hidden and revealed. On the surface he appeared as Esav but deeper down and on another level altogether the skins were not hiding Jacob but revealing something from his depth; Jacob was the goat–the sacrifice. He was a true son of his father. 

Moses was a man from Pharaoh’s house and Esther saved the Jewish people from inside the enemy empire but no saint has come to symbolize the hidden savior in the same way that Joseph has…Joseph…because he was hated.

We take comfort knowing that Judah who had been willing to hand his brother over to gentiles was changed by the trauma of loosing sons. Now confronted with the suggestion that his small brother be left in Egypt Judah would sooner give himself. Its this that pierces Joseph’s heart and breaks his disguise.

The torah says that Judah “Went up” to Joseph before arguing for his brother. While the text would have Judah pleading with tact and eloquence the midrash describes Judah as ready with a sword and roaring in the face of what seemed a foreign adversary. It was a roar heard four-hundred miles away which shook the earth.

The salvation is found at the very heart of the problem. This will not only be true when our redeemer is found hidden as King of the Gentiles but it will also prove true when this salvation comes, not in spite of but because of the righteous anti-missionaries of Israel who are unwilling to loose even one more Jewish soul to exile. 

Joseph was pleased with the man Judah had become, more than that, his heart melted and tears fell from his eyes as he revealed himself to his brothers. Empty hatred will only extend the exile, but authentic ahavat Yisrael (love for Israel), even if it is expressed as anger by a holy brother screaming in your face, this will bring the redemption. 

Those of us following Yeshua have already seen some hand their blessing away. Like Esav they wanted a life of comfort not service. But others will prove true sons of Jacob who like his father was a willing sacrifice and ready for the altar.         

 

 

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Mary, Mary

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Mary, Mary

Before the destruction of the second temple one out of every four women bore the name Miriam. Our besorot make it clear that this was a popular name, no where does it become more obvious than near Yeshua’s death. In his besorah, Yochanan ben Zavdai records the following:

"There stood by the cross of Yeshua, his mother [Miriam], his mother’s sister-in-law, Miriam of Chalfai, and Miriam Magdala." (Yo. 19:25)

Of the notable female followers who witnessed Yeshua’s hanging, all were named Miriam. So often is the name used throughout our text it is difficult to distinguish one Miriam from the next. Chagiga 4b records an important and rather humorous account of similar confusions:

"…The Angel of Death told his agent to bring him the soul of Miriam the hairdresser and instead was brought the soul of Miriam, the children’s teacher. The Angel of Death told his messenger: I told you to bring me Miriam the hairdresser. The messenger replied: If that’s the case, I will take her back. The Angel of Death said: Since you already brought her, then let her be included in the quota of the dead ."(Chagiga 4b)

The word hairdresser found in the quote above is a translation of the original megaddlela (one who elevates the hair); it’s a euphemism implying a prostitute or other woman of ill repute. Although Rabbeinu Tam, a medieval master of Jewish law, informs us that this is not a reference to the follower of Yeshua who would have lived 100 years earlier, commentary on the text nevertheless adds profound insight into our messianic story. It was Rabbeinu Tam’s grandfather Rashi who gave clarification on the word megaddlela establishing our current definition and understanding of the word.

For well over a thousand years there has been a debate regarding the identity of the woman who washed Yeshua’s feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. We’re given the name Miriam, but for generations it has been unclear whether or not this was the Miriam called Magdala. If we understand this name the way Rashi does. If we take the term to denote “one who elevates the hair” then perhaps the two characters are one and the same Miriam…it makes sense; we’re supposed to see the contrast. The story reads more beautifully this way. Miriam, the one who raised her hair above her convictions was transformed by the presence of the tzaddik Yeshua. Her hair, once treasured above all else, became like rags used to dry the feet of her master.

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Friends and Saviors

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Friends and Saviors

Gittin 56a

אבא סקרא ריש בריוני דירושלים בר אחתיה דרבן יוחנן בן זכאי הוה שלח ליה תא בצינעא לגבאי אתא א”ל עד אימת עבדיתו הכי וקטליתו ליה לעלמא בכפנא א”ל מאי איעביד דאי אמינא להו מידי קטלו לי א”ל חזי לי תקנתא לדידי דאיפוק אפשר דהוי הצלה פורתא א”ל נקוט נפשך בקצירי וליתי כולי עלמא ולישיילו בך ואייתי מידי סריא ואגני גבך ולימרו דנח נפשך וליעיילו בך תלמידך ולא ליעול בך איניש אחרינא דלא לרגשן בך דקליל את דאינהו ידעי דחייא קליל ממיתא עביד הכי נכנס בו רבי אליעזר מצד אחד ורבי יהושע מצד אחר כי מטו לפיתחא בעו למדקריה אמר להו יאמרו רבן דקרו בעו למדחפיה אמר להו יאמרו רבן דחפו פתחו ליה בבא נפק

"Abba Sikra, the head of the biryoni in Jerusalem was the son of the sister of Rabban Johanan Ben-Zakkai. [The Rabban] sent to him saying, Come to visit me privately. When he came he said to him, How long are you going to carry on in this way and kill all the people with starvation? He replied: What can I do? If I say a word to them, they will kill me. He said: Devise some plan for me to escape. Perhaps I shall be able to save a little. He said to him: Pretend to be ill, and let everyone come to inquire about you. Bring something that smells and put it by you so that they will say you are dead. Let your disciples carry your bed, but no others, so that they shall not notice that you are still light, since they know that a living being is lighter than a corpse. He did so, and R. Eliezer went under the bier from one side and R. Joshua from the other. When they reached the door, some men wanted to put a lance through the bier. He said to them: Shall [the Romans] say that they have pierced their Master"? They wanted to give it a push. He said to them: Shall they say that they pushed their Master? They opened a town gate for him and he got out..."

On Wednesdays we've been sharing with a small group of Christians teaching a gospel free of the anti-Semitism that sometimes gets packaged with that message. I’m blessed to have the opportunity. A few weeks back we discussed an issue of context which I think is fundamental in any dialogue between Christians and Jews. We asked some simple questions; who were those Pharisees described in scripture caring for the body of our King after His death? What became of Gamliel who protected Peter and John before the Sanhedrin? Who were these friends of Messiah and what became of them?

World Judaism finds root almost two-thousand years ago in a village of middle Israel called Yavneh. Jewish law and custom stem from an ancient school there described as Kerem B’Yavneh (Vineyard of Yavneh) where students learned in rows like those of a vineyard. Fourty years after the death of Christ, Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans and the Holy Temple was set ablaze; In an attempt to save the Godly tradition of authentic Judaism, a rabbi called Yochanan Ben-Zakkai, gathered the surviving sages of Israel and the family line of Rabban Gamliel (the same mentioned above) in that Galilean village after the destruction. 

Jesus said that his was a "wicked generation," and rabbinic sources agree. Judaism had been fractured into dozens of distinct factions each with its own approach to God and Jewish law; in practice these were different Judaisms. Roman occupational forces introduced an uneasiness and fear which permeated daily life, and if it wasn’t bad enough, the Jewish people were fighting amongst themselves. Chazal (our sages blessed memory) tell us that the Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred, hatred that continued even as Jerusalem was being surrounded by Roman troops. In a preemptive attempt to save their people, three wealthy benefactors had supplied enough wood, wine, oil and grain for a 21 year standoff; the Zealots (biryoni) speculated that the only show of faith God would respond to was a unified attack by the people of Jerusalem against the foreign enemy. Fearful that these supplies might encourage years of diplomacy and compromise rather than a show of Jewish force and faith, the biryoni burned the oil and torched the granaries. Controlling Jerusalem’s gates from the outside, the Romans were attempting to take the city by starvation. With their backs against the wall and starvation becoming a reality, the biryoni hoped those Jews inclined towards peace would have no choice but war. 

Ben-Zakkai led a school of Pharisees following the teachings of a man named Hillel the Elder who had been Gamliel’s grandfather and had passed in a previous generation. The rabbi saw the destruction of the Holy City as judgement from God and knew that if he did not escape beyond the walls of Jerusalem he would die with his sages and the authentic tradition they continue to represent. Ben-Zakkai instructed his students to wrap his body in linen grave clothes. They carried him motionless on a gurney to the city gate and cunningly requested permission to pass in order to bury their beloved rabbi outside the walled city in accordance to Jewish law. Confident the fate of the Jews had been sealed, soldiers allowed this small group to make its exit. When Ben-Zakkai rose and removed his grave clothes Judaism was raised from the dead.

Its here that I think we make an important observation. This group that survived Jerusalem’s destruction became the fathers of Jewish tradition after the loss of our Holy Temple. Those sages described as hidden followers of Christ were members of this same holy fraternity. The righteous survivors of Jerusalem had within their number the friends and defenders of Yeshua.

Often, people mistakenly endorse false assumptions about Jews and Jewish faith based on what they find within the pages of apostolic scripture. What they don’t realize, however, is that nearly all of the voices recorded in those pages were silenced with Roman aggression. We should understand this well; Modern Judaism does not trace its lineage to those Jewish groups whom opposed our Master and His disciples in that generation. It may come as a surprise to many Jews and Christians alike, but its true. Modern and living Judaism is an inheritance received from those disciples of Hillel the Elder and if we look for these students within the pages of Christian scripture we don’t find enemies, but instead, we find friends and saviors.

 

 

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Torah & Tea

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Torah & Tea

On any given Tuesday at the Habad nearest my home there is a diverse gathering of Jewish and sometimes non-Jewish seekers learning Torah at Formica and vinyl folding tables in the lower level of a home owned by a young rabbi and his wife. It’s advertised as “Torah & Tea.” My Styrofoam cup was empty. Not being a tea drinker, I fumbled with the hot water dispenser for an awkward moment before giving up. Knowing that I had arrived at this place with the intention of presenting my thoughts to a guy I had never met, I was a little anxious. However, I quickly realized that the rabbi was more nervous than me. As it turned out he and his wife had only recently moved to the area and this was his first public lesson.

I tried not to let myself be distracted by the rabbi’s uniform, the black hat and coat generally associated with classical Judaism; instead I made a conscious effort to see the whole picture. He wore well made designer shoes and trendy rimless glasses, but I got the feeling that his wife had made the purchases. He seemed a bit distant and distracted. The rabbi had only recently left Crown Heights which is the epicenter of Habad culture and serves as a comfortable incubator for members of this spiritual tradition. Looking beyond the unkempt beard I realized that this new rabbi was no older than me. We were in our late twenties, and none of his previous preparations had readied him for a conversation like the one we were about to have—not on the first day.

I asked the rav if he was a meshichist…if he believed that Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the messiah. He was reluctant to speak openly about the subject, but after a short hour of discussing admitted his convictions. I asked him if he had ever known any Elokists in his movement; he played dumb. “What’s an Elokist?” This question was at the same time ridiculous and understandable. On the one hand he was dodging me, on the other he was forcing me to define the term, to pry at my understanding. I intentionally provided the most abrasive definition, “It’s someone who believes a man can be God.” With that he opened up, simultaneously denying the existence of elokism and proclaiming the insanity of those who hold the view; he accenting his outrage with emphatic and wild gestures. I replied that if they’re insane then they exist.  Defending his community he was persistent in renouncing the doctrine. “What if they’re not totally crazy,” I asked? He was surprised by the comment, halted his rant, and asked what I was intending to say. “Well,” I responded, “the fourth chapter of the Tanya talks about the relationship between God and the completely righteous…” He interrupted, “Perhaps you mean the third chapter? The fourth chapter is discussing how the Infinite is contracted into this world and is found in the Torah.” So I explained my line of thinking, that a perfect tzaddik, a completely righteous person is nothing less than a living Torah, and I quoted the Tanya saying, “The Torah and The Holy One Blessed be He are one and the same”. We spoke together about the subject for nearly three hours. We spoke at depth regarding the Alter Rebbe’s parable about the king and his many robes and how the truest rebbe, a sinless and perfect soul, would be nothing less than a conduit for the divine. At the end of our talk the rabbi sat back in his chair. He said, “If this is what someone means to say when they speak of a divine moshiach (messiah)…this is Judaism…this is hasidus.” Then, slapping his hand on the table he punctuated the thought exclaiming, “And everybody knows it!” Leaning forward and with a voice pitched just above a whisper he said, “But just because we know something doesn’t mean we should put it on a billboard.” 

The thought hung in the air for a minute. The rabbi’s face lightened. He continued, “I have a verse from Torah to prove it.” Opening one of the books we had been learning from earlier, he turned to Exodus 14:31;

[T]he people believed in the LORD and in His servant Moses.

The rabbi explained the line, “Now, it sounds like idolatry doesn’t it? The Torah says here that the people believed in Moses…in the same way they believed in God, they believed in Moses.” He continued, “But its not idolatry, because Moses was nothing, he was nothing at all…just a vehicle. To believe in Moses was to believe in God.” 

 “Interesting,” I said.

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Love like Mashiach

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Love like Mashiach

A master of Jewish law came to Jesus and asked what the greatest commandment in the Torah was. Jesus answered with a verse called the Shema; faithful Jews recite the Shema multiple times a day. It’s a passage proclaiming the absolute oneness of God and how we are to love him with all that we are and all that we possess. But that wasn’t all Jesus had to say. He continued and explained that “the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself.” The scribe asked for the greatest commandment and Jesus told him to love the only God, but he felt that it was important to continue. Loving God is where we begin but we need to go further; we need to love humanity. Christ even says that this commandment is like the first. Loving humanity is like loving God because we have all been formed in His likeness; one relates to the other. 

We find another story in the gospels that seems unrelated but is similar at its depth. A woman had been caught in the act of adultery; she was with a man who wasn’t her husband. That morning Jesus was teaching publicly and a group of Pharisees dragged her to him in order to put Jesus to the test. You see, this was a difficult situation; the Torah commands that an adulterer should be stoned. The rabbis of that time frowned on capital punishment and there were several lines that had to be crossed before someone would be stoned. Nevertheless, if all conditions were met the punishment prescribed by the Torah was death by stoning. At times the Roman government withheld the right of the Sanhedrin to execute this kind of judgment. If the Sanhedrin stoned the woman it would be seen as an act of rebellion against the empire and people would die because of it; the only other option anyone could see was for Jesus to contradict the Torah which he wasn’t willing to do. With the stage set, people gathered, and everyone watching, Jesus stooped down and wrote with his finger in the dirt. They wanted an answer so Jesus straightened up and said, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then he stooped down again and wrote a second time on the ground. One by one, from oldest to youngest, they dropped their stones and walked away. What was he writing? 

In the Jewish tradition the ten-commandments are called the Ten Words. The Torah explains that these Ten Words were written on two stone tablets by the finger of God. By describing Jesus as writing with his finger the gospel most likely intends to give a hint at what he was writing. Now, in that same Jewish tradition the Ten Words are understood as two sets of five. The first group is those commandments which relate to God. The second group, the last five of the ten-commandments, relate to humanity. These are things like, no murder and no adultery, no theft, no false witness, no wanting for things that aren’t yours. While the people during that time were very careful concerning ritual observances which relate to God, you’ll remember that, according to the Talmud, this generation was filled with baseless hatred or sinat chinam (Yerushalmi, Yoma 1:1, Bavli Yoma 9a-b). While Jesus wrote in the dirt initially the woman’s accusers stood their ground, but as he stooped to write the second time each man recognized his guilt. Our love for God is not complete if it does not extend to humanity and these men realized that they had fallen short of observing the second half of the law…the part that demands that we love humanity like we love God. These men were so caught up in testing Jesus’ legal abilities they had forgotten to care about the woman trembling at their feet.            

When we talk about dying to ourselves so that Christ can live through us, we need to understand what that looks like. It’s clear from his teaching and deeds that the main thing, as far as Christ is concerned, is love.  Jesus said, “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:12, NIV). God’s love is made complete when we love those who bare his image. When we love people; sinners and saints. This love isn’t some arbitrary, up-for-grabs emotional expression; it is emotional, but beyond that it is practical and has been well described. 

 

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