Returning the Blessing

For the week of June 3, 2023 / 14 Sivan 5783

Message info over blessing hands with a Mogen David brick motif

Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 13:2-25

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them, the LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” (B’midbar/Numbers 6:22-27)

You may be aware of the recent three-week initiative to pray for Israel. At the beginning of this time, my wife and I, both Jewish believers, were in a small prayer group (the others aren’t Jewish). We were praying for Israel. We have rarely been in the presence of such precious prayers. One of the people had it on his heart to pray the priestly blessing from B’midbar/Numbers chapter six, which is part of this week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion), over the Jewish people.

You may or may not be aware how common it is for Christian leaders to recite this blessing, usually at the end of a service, over their congregations. The words are wonderful. The sentiment is great. It is certainly a blessing! You might remember the musical rendition of these ancient words around the beginning of COVID. It warmed my heart to hear God’s word through Moses sung over and over again in a multitude of languages by the peoples of the world amidst the fear that had gripped so many.

Let me try to unpack why I was so touched by the blessing being prayed over our people that Sunday evening. First, in my experience, most people who call themselves Christians see themselves as the new or true Israel. Whatever their personal feelings might be toward Jewish people, there is a tendency to view us as having been God’s chosen people at one time, but with the coming of the Messiah, that identity was transferred to the community of Yeshua followers, the “Church” in other words. This idea is technically termed, “supersessionism,” or more popularly “replacement theology.” Yet, even among those Christians who claim to reject such an idea and accept God’s ongoing faithfulness to the Jewish people, there is still a tendency to directly apply elements of Scripture that were particularly given to the people Israel to themselves. In many cases, perhaps most, I believe this is legitimate, at least to some extent. Let me explain.

Through the Jewish Messiah, the peoples of the nations have the opportunity to have a personal relationship with the one true God, the God of Israel. While there are ongoing distinctives between Jews and Gentiles, the way that non-Jews learn the truth of God and life is via sacred writings that are fundamentally Jewish. All people, Jews and Gentiles, learn about trusting God through Abraham’s willingness to follow God into the unknown. We learn to pray through David’s psalms. We understand God’s faithfulness through his commitment to the people of Israel. And on it goes.

While it is, as I said, legitimate for non-Jews to apply Scriptural truth to themselves, it is tragic that it is often done without ever acknowledging its original context or how it has come about that Jewish Scriptures can become God’s Word for all or the Jewish Messiah can be anyone’s Messiah. The result is the replacement theology I referred to earlier that regards the Church as the new or true Israel even among those who deny such an idea.

With all this in mind, let’s return to the Sunday evening prayer time. Against the backdrop of layers and layers of historic misrepresentation of and arrogance toward Jewish people; a precious and powerful blessing which has been appropriated by the Church unto itself for two thousand years was being returned to its rightful place as this precious man prayed for God’s favor to once more be poured out upon Israel.

You might think, “So what?” What difference does such a sentiment make? It’s because this gesture functions as a symbol of what I believe is the general change of direction that must occur among our non-Jewish fellow Messiah followers. One day we might realize the untold damage the Church has done both to itself and to the Jewish people for not heeding Paul’s words from Romans, chapter eleven, “do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you” (Romans 11:18).

It is time for the Church worldwide of every tradition to acknowledge, not only the primacy of Israel in the plans and purposes of God, but his ongoing faithfulness to Israel despite our spiritual condition. Great blessing has come to the Gentiles through, not only the Jewish Messiah, but through those early Jewish believers, who broke through unimaginable barriers to bring God’s blessing to the nations.

God’s heart of love and concern for the Jewish people has never changed. Therefore, let those among the nations who have been richly blessed by the God of Israel in the name of the Jewish Messiah rise up and declare to the people of Israel, “the Lord bless you and keep you!”

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Yet I Will Rejoice

For the week of May 27, 2023 / 7 Sivan 5783

Message info on plain black background

Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 14:22 – 16:17
Haftarah: Habakkuk 3:1-19

Yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation (Habakkuk 3:18)

This coming Shabbat (English: Sabbath) coincides with the festival of Shavuot (English: Weeks/Pentecost). As far as I know, no one knows for sure the exact reasons why the various Haftarah readings (portions from the Hebrew Prophets) were chosen to accompany the weekly Torah readings. Often, it is obvious due to content elements of each. This week’s reading from Habakkuk is not so obvious. Clearly, the Torah portion was chosen because it includes Shavuot, but why read the last chapter of Habakkuk? One source speculates that the description in Habakkuk of God’s dramatic exploits are reminiscent of the events at Sinai. But you might wonder, what does Sinai have to do with Shavuot? While there is nothing explicitly said in the Bible as to Shavuot’s connection to a historical event as is the case of Pesach (English: Passover), which commemorates the exodus, and Sukkot (English: Booths) which commemorates the wilderness wanderings, traditionally, Shavuot became associated with the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. As Shavuot occurred fifty days after Pesach, this association is reasonable.

I would like to propose what I think is a more profound connection between Habakkuk and Shavuot. My thoughts also see a connection with the Torah but is based on the Shavuot’s primary function as a harvest festival. Here is Habakkuk 3:17-18:

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
    nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
    and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
    and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

Habakkuk praised the God of Israel despite the prospect of no harvest. For many of us today it is difficult to comprehend how a failing harvest necessarily meant starvation. This is a disaster of great proportions. The book of Habakkuk features the prophet’s anguish over God’s showing him the impending doom coming upon his people at the hands of the Babylonians. Through a most painful process, he resolved to rejoice in God.

Shavuot was designed to give thanks to God for the harvest, but what do we do when there is no harvest? Our tendency is to despair, to be angry, to lash out at God perhaps. Habakkuk wasn’t blind to the terrible prospects ahead. Far from it! He felt the anguish of the coming suffering deeply. Yet he would not give up on acknowledging God for who he is.

It is fitting to remember these things at the same time we remember the giving of the Torah. The Torah constituted Israel as a nation before God based on his rescuing them from slavery in Egypt. It declared that he was Israel’s God and Israel was his people. After much consternation, Habakkuk determined that he would not allow dreaded circumstances to get in the way of his commitment to God. He came to accept that the coming devastation was the just punishment for his people’s ongoing waywardness. God had been patient for a long time, but now, the results of misguided living were coming to fruition. Habakkuk would not blame God for the evil of his people. God was still good. God was still right. God was still worthy of praise. Even though occasions such as Shavuot are designed to be occasions to rejoice over God’s provision, he no less deserves praise when he pours out much deserved punishment.

For all sorts of reasons, some deserved, some not, we go through great hardships at times. How often have we reacted to such painful circumstances by doubting or even rejecting God? It’s no easy thing to come to the place that Habakkuk did, but with God’s help we can. To do so, we need to be willing to see the difficulties of life for what they really are, including our part in bringing them about and God’s ongoing faithfulness through it all.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Owned by God

For the week of May 20, 2023 / 29 Iyar 5783

Message information over an illustration of the ancient tabernacle of Israel

Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
Haftarah: 1 Shmuel/ 1 Samuel 20:18-42
Originally posted the week of May 15, 2010 / 2 Sivan 5770
Revised version from the book Torah Light: Insights from the Books of Moses

Behold, I have taken the Levites from among the people of Israel instead of every firstborn who opens the womb among the people of Israel. The Levites shall be mine, for all the firstborn are mine. On the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both of man and of beast. They shall be mine: I am the LORD. (B’midbar/Numbers 3:12–13)

The Levites (Hebrew, levi-im), the descendants of Jacob’s son Levi, fulfilled a special function among their people. Instead of being given territory within the Land of Israel like the other tribes, they were to be special religious servants. A subset of the Levites were the priests (Hebrew, cohanim), the descendants of Moses’s brother Aaron, who offered the sacrifices. The rest of the Levites assisted the priests in their duties and fulfilled other religious tasks throughout the nation. The Levites belonged to God in a way the rest of the people did not, for their daily concerns were consumed with the service of God rather than normal human endeavors.

The setting aside of the Levites was not simply because there was a need for religious ministers. Rather, they stood in the place of all the firstborn males who survived the Exodus. God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt by striking the Egyptians with ten plagues. The final plague was the killing of the firstborn males, both human and animal. To protect the people of Israel from this, God told them to sacrifice a lamb and apply its blood to the doorframes of their houses. When the Angel of Death came to strike down the firstborn males, he passed over the houses upon which the blood was applied. This is why the festival commemorating this event is called Passover (see Sh’mot/Exodus 11:1–12:13).

But how does this relate to the Levites? The tenth plague was not limited to the striking down of the Egyptian firstborn only, but rather all the firstborn of the land of Egypt regardless of nationality. The stubborn disobedience of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, brought general destruction upon his land. There were certain plagues in which the people of Israel experienced special protection, but not all of them. With regard to the tenth plague, if any Israelite home did not follow God’s instructions, their firstborn males would have perished as well. Therefore, the preservation of the Israelite firstborn males was due to God’s special grace upon them. Thus, the firstborn males of Israel were indebted to God to a much greater degree than the rest of the nation. While the whole nation was indebted to God for their freedom, the firstborn males were also indebted to him for their very lives.

The preservation of the firstborn males and their special relationship to God was to be remembered throughout future generations. Instead of the actual firstborn males of the whole nation being called into religious service, God determined that the Levites should stand in their place. Their service to God, therefore, represented God’s unique ownership of the firstborn males.

Just as the Levites were God’s special possession, so are all followers of the Messiah. Like Egypt of old, God’s judgment is coming upon the whole earth. Due to our stubborn refusal to obey God according to his standards, God condemns everyone to eternal destruction unless we apply the blood of Yeshua’s sacrifice to our lives. Like it did over the firstborn males, God’s judgment will pass over us if we follow his instructions and entrust ourselves to Yeshua the Messiah.

Like the firstborn males, if we believe in Yeshua, we are indebted to him, not just for our freedom, but for our very lives. Therefore, like the Levites, we are owned by God. We no longer have the freedom to live however we wish, pursuing our own goals and desires. Rather, as his special possession, we are set apart to serve his interests alone.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Covenantal Foundations

For the week of May 13, 2023 / 22 Iyar 5783

Message info over wooden tablets of a Hebrew representation of the Ten Commandments

Behar & Bechukotai
Torah: Vayikra/ Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34
Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19 – 17:14
Updated version of message posted the week of June 4, 2016 / 27 Iyar 5776

But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, so that I walked contrary to them and brought them into the land of their enemies—if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land. (Vayikra/Leviticus 26:40-42)

Here in the last weekly portion of the third book of Moses, we read of the conditions under which God would restore the people of Israel to a right relationship with himself and return them to their land. The covenantal reference in the verses quoted above is key to understand God’s unique arrangement with Israel.

This week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion) describes the blessings of obedience and the consequences of disobedience under the covenantal arrangement established through Moses by God at Mt. Sinai. As long as Israel adhered to God’s commands, they as a nation would thrive. But should they reject God’s ways, breaking this covenant, they would experience terrible circumstances, culminating in oppression by their enemies and removal from their land.

Should this occur, which indeed it did, God made provision within the Sinai covenant for restoration to himself and to the land. But note that this provision is not based on the Sinai covenant, but on the earlier one made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Israel’s existence as a people, including their habitation and their role among the nations of the world, was established, not by Sinai through Moses, but through God’s unconditional promise to Abraham (see Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-3) and passed down to Isaac and Jacob. The Sinai covenant with its conditions of blessings came about as a result of God’s deliverance of Israel from their oppression in Egypt, a deliverance also rooted in his earlier covenant with the patriarchs. This is what we read in Shemot (the Book of Exodus):

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. (Shemot/Exodus 2:23-24)

The earlier covenant is the driving force behind all of God’s dealings with Israel. So that even if Sinai resulted in failure, which it did, the covenantal foundation would survive. That’s why God’s judgment upon Israel could never be his final word to them. Even after rejecting God by turning to other gods and suffering the threatened consequences, there would always remain a right of appeal to unconditional promises that predate Moses.

This is also why a new covenant would one day be necessary. Jeremiah in chapter thirty-one of his book looked beyond the day when these words of judgment would be fulfilled towards a new covenantal arrangement that would finally resolve the sin problem that continually beset Israel under the Sinai covenant (see Jeremiah 31:31-33). That God’s affirmation of his ongoing faithfulness to Israel is based on their being the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is eloquently stated immediately following:

Thus says the LORD,
who gives the sun for light by day
    and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
    the LORD of hosts is his name:
“If this fixed order departs
    from before me, declares the LORD,
then shall the offspring of Israel cease
    from being a nation before me forever.”

Thus says the LORD:
“If the heavens above can be measured,
    and the foundations of the earth below can be explored,
then I will cast off all the offspring of Israel
    for all that they have done,
declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 31:35-37)

The establishment of the New Covenant on the foundation of the patriarchs provides hope for Israel’s full eventual restoration. It’s in Romans 11:28 that we read despite Israel’s behavior, “they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” More than that! Knowing that the New Covenant is rooted in unconditional promises to Israel assures all its participants, Jew or Gentile, of God’s ongoing faithfulness to them.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible


Cultural Appropriation

For the week of May 6, 2023 / 15 Iyar 5783

Message info over an illustration depicting Santa Claus wearing a kippa and lighting Hanukkah candles

Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 21:1-24:23
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-31
Originally posted the week of May 5, 2018 / 20 Iyar 5778 (updated)

Thus Moses declared to the people of Israel the appointed feasts of the LORD. (Vayikra/Leviticus 23:44)

According to Wikipedia, “Cultural appropriation is the inappropriate or unacknowledged adoption of an element or elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity.” When cultural appropriation first came to my attention some time ago, I thought the strong objection to it was a bit strange, not because I don’t understand the concern, but because I am so used to it – sort of!

As a Jewish believer in the Messiah, whose spiritual relationships are mainly among non-Jews, I encounter cultural appropriation constantly. In fact, Christianity is and has always been an exercise in cultural appropriation. Generally, Jews and Christians are not aware of this, however, since most Christian cultural expression wouldn’t be recognized as Jewish. The fact is there is almost nothing within Christianity’s core beliefs that isn’t derived from the Jewish world. Some are more obvious than others. The primary document for Christians is the Bible, both Old and New Testaments written almost exclusively by Jews and focused on activities happening to or done by Jewish people. Even as global outreach developed, its development and implementation was in Jewish hands. The God of the Christians is the God of Israel. The religious and theological concepts adhered to by Christians are all Jewish in origin, such as sin, righteousness, sacrifice, and holiness. Then there’s the very center of all core concepts, the Messiah. While the Jewish and Christian worlds have traditionally been divided over the Messiah’s identity, Christianity is founded on the conviction that Yeshua (Jesus) is the Jewish Messiah. Using Greek-oriented instead of Hebrew-oriented terminology obscures the cultural connection. That many Jews and Christians aren’t conscious that Christ and Messiah, for example, are synonyms doesn’t negate the Jewish nature of the messianic concept.

Other key Jewish components of Christianity are not as obvious. Most people don’t realize that baptism was originally a Jewish custom that was done as part of the conversion process as well as when an estranged Jewish person wanted to return to God. The development of the church as the place of community teaching and prayer was based on the synagogue. Communion, also called the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, is taken from Passover. The hope of the resurrection of the body was an exclusively Jewish concept. We could go on.

The early Jewish believers went out of their way to allow the Good News about the Messiah to function freely and fully in a non-Jewish context. Through God-given wisdom they freed the core of biblical faith from Jewish cultural control, allowing the nations to work out the essentials of biblical spirituality within their own contexts. What I don’t think the early believers envisioned is how far from a Jewish frame of reference the Church would go.

Many non-Jewish believers over the past hundred years or so have sought to re-contextualize Christianity within a Jewish frame of reference. Some correctly understand that the freedom to adapt biblical teaching within foreign cultures, while helpful in many ways, can tend to skew biblical truth, especially when cut off from its Jewish roots. At the same time, however, the passion to restore biblical faith to its ancient roots can go overboard. This is where appropriate cultural adaptation can become misappropriation. This happens in two ways: first, by confusing Jewish culture with biblical truth. Not everything that is Jewish is necessarily biblical. Much of Jewish culture found in the world today is recent in origin. While we don’t know the tunes of King David’s psalms, we are fairly certain that they were not anything close to what is thought of as Jewish music today. Similarly, Jewish foods are normally adaptations of local fare throughout the world where Jewish people have lived. Apart from the limits of kosher laws, there is nothing intrinsically biblical about the vast majority of Jewish cuisine.

The second type of misappropriation is in regard to actual biblical material. For example, take the feasts as listed in this week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion). It is tragic that this key component of the Books of Moses, like most of the Hebrew Scriptures, has been virtually ignored by Christians. There is so much to learn from the feasts as they teach us about God’s character and activities. Yet it is easy to go from a healthy renewed focus on Scripture to a misguided emphasis on cultural expression. Much of Jewish festival observance today is based on tradition, not Bible. Tradition isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is culturally bound to the people who developed it. People don’t often possess the level of sensitivity necessary to adapt cultural forms. That doesn’t mean it should never be done. Perhaps what needs to be done, be it non-Jewish Christians in relation to Jewish people or between other cultural groups is to truly get to know the people whose culture it is before we treat it as our own.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version