Thursday, December 24, 2009

How to honor your parents?

Daniel over at the Christian4Moses blog has an interesting post on the halakha of honoring your parents. As kibud av va em is another one of the positive mitzvot, it's definitely something worth thinking about, especially for those of us endeavoring to live faithfully to Torah.

What are the most important ways of honoring our parents?

Monday, December 21, 2009

What is the Talmud? (Do you know?)

If someone had turned to me after class one day in high school or college and asked me, "What is the Talmud?" I probably wouldn't have been able to give more than a vague answer--something along the lines of "traditional Jewish commentaries on the Bible."

Now technically that answer's not wrong, but if you came from a Christian (or even Messianic) upbringing, you might expect that, as a Bible commentary, the Talmud would have the following basic characteristics:
  • Exposition and background information on the books of the Bible
  • Commentary, ordered according to books/passages of the Bible
  • Verse references backing up statements that are made
  • (What other characteristics do you readers think someone might expect?)
If you've read any of the Talmud (60+ tractates!), you know that these don't adequately describe it. Rabbi Joshua from Yinon gives us a better definition of the Talmud in a recent post:
The Talmud is really just volumes of case law, setting prior precedents for understanding, interpreting, and establishing halachah. Attorneys, and those familiar with legal codes really get this. One of the major aspects that separates Judaism from other religions like Protestant Christianity is this notion of halachah (of Jewish law). Jewish life and practice is established on prior communal precedent. One cannot just do what one sees fit. There are accepted previous understandings and interpretations that determine Jewish life and observance. And proper innovation and creativity should be established based on communal understanding of these prior precedents. [Emphases mine]

Thus, anyone who opens the Talmud expecting something like the Jewish version of Matthew Henry's commentary on the Bible or Calvin's Institutes is in for a surprise. (In fact, they might be tempted to chuck the whole thing and conclude that, since the Talmud is full of "traditions of men," it would be useless--or even dangerous!--to allow it to influence the way we think about Scripture. Hopefully that person would think twice, and choose to learn more about what the Talmud is before rushing to judgment.)

Rabbi Joshua's post has reminded me that I have several introductory books on the Talmud on my shelf which I've been meaning to read. If you want to join me, the books are Adin Steinsaltz's The Essential Talmud and Abraham Cohen's Everyman's Talmud. (If you have others to recommend, do chime in!)

Even if you don't have time to read a whole book, you at least owe it to yourself to read a little bit (or a bissel, as they say in Yiddish). I recommend checking out Derek Leman's articles over at Messianic Jewish Musings:
I'll close with a teaser from Derek's Talmud, Messianic Judaism, and Imperfect Truth (in fact, I may have subconsciously stolen the idea for this post from him!):
Talmud is not what you think it is.
I say that because Talmud is not what I thought it was. I had done a fair amount of reading in Talmud and about Talmud before taking a class, which I am half-way through, at the Messianic Jewish Theological Institute (
Wow, was I ever wrong. So I will just assume that you are wrong as well about what is in Talmud and what it’s purpose is.
I don’t intend to go in depth here and give you examples. I intend only to open your mind to something and perhaps create a desire for further study (guided study, by a qualified instructor — it is foolish to think you can learn Talmud on your own or by reading a few books).
Duly noted, Rabbi Derek. However, for now, "a few books" will have to do!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Post-Hanukkah Post

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf (from DC synagogue Adas Israel) asks (with the rabbis of the Talmud), "Mai Chanukah?"--what is Hanukkah? He writes:
I once heard a wonderful story about a man whose Native American friend came to visit him in New York City. The Native American had never before been to New York, or to any big city. All day he gave his friend a marvelous tour, the East Side, the West Side, uptown, downtown. When night fell, he took him to see—what else?—Times Square, with its dazzling spectacle of lights and sounds. And as they stood there, gazing at it all, the Native American suddenly started looking up with a troubled, bewildered expression, his gaze darting here and there erratically. The man became concerned about his friend: “Are you alright?” he asked. “I just heard the call of a yellow-bellied warbler bird somewhere around here, and I’m trying to find him,” said the Native American. The man laughed, “My friend, there are many noises here, and maybe lots of pigeons, but I doubt that what you heard was a yellow-bellied…” He didn’t finish his sentence when his friend excitedly pointed “There he is!” And indeed, there on a ledge was the yellow bellied warbler! The New Yorker was flabbergasted! “How could you possibly do that!?” he asked. The Native American showed him. He reached into his pocket and scattered all his change on the sidewalk. Immediately, 150 heads turned and looked for where the sound of the change was coming from. “All these people come to the city in search of riches and bargains, so their ears are trained to listen for money. On my reservation, I spend my whole life listening for the sounds of the animals and the birds. It doesn’t matter where I go. I am always listening for their voices.”
What's Rabbi Steinlauf's point? The essence of Hanukkah is this: seek out the light. That certainly resonates with me, and I hope it does with you too.

Read the whole post over at Rabbi Steinlauf's blog, Dover Emet.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Happy Hanukkah!

To all the Gathering Sparks readers: Happy Hanukkah!

Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
Matthew 5:16
The Dedication Dreidlers--a jazz-esque quartet my friends and I threw together for our congregation's Hanukkah party. (Do me a favor and rate our picture to help us win CustomInk's Photo of the Week contest! It only takes a second!)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

New album from Roman and Alaina - Sounds of Prayer!

Judah Gabriel over at Kineti L'Tziyon has a great review of the new album Sounds of Prayer from Roman and Alaina.

If you're a hip young person in the Messianic Jewish movement, you're gonna want to check this out. Plus--Judah was authorized to post a free download!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Being "Godly" 2

Continuing our thread on being "Godly":
"Follow the Lord your God" (Deuteronomy 13:5). What does this mean? Is it possible for a mortal to follow God's Presence? The verse means to teach us that we should follow the attributes of the Holy One, praised be He. As He clothes the naked, you should clothe the naked. The Bible teaches that the Holy One visited the sick; you should visit the sick. The Holy One comforted those who mourned; you should comfort those who mourn. The Holy One buried the dead; you should bury the dead.

Rabbi Simlai taught: The Torah begins with deeds of lovingkindness and ends with deeds of lovingkindness. It begins with deeds of lovingkindness, as it is written, "And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them" (Genesis 3:21). It ends with deeds of lovingkindness, as it is written, "And He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab" (Deuteronomy 34:6).
~Talmud, Sotah 14a
Siddur Sim Shalom, p. 19

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Second Soul of Shabbat

When G-d drove Adam from Paradise, he retained part of his soul to remain there. On Shabbos, G-d releases that part and gives it back to man. This is our extra soul of Shabbos. On this day we are given the opportunity to return to Paradise.

Now, I must be satisfied with Paradise on Shabbos; in the future we hope to be brought to Jerusalem of High.
There is a tradition within Judaism that on Shabbat we all receive an extra soul with which to enjoy the Sabbath. As I said in a previous post, in the past I had found this idea intriguing and even beautiful, but I didn't see any way to integrate it into the rest of my beliefs. However, recently an idea occurred to me which I want to share with you.

The Talmud says that Shabbat is "a taste of the world to come." (Berachot 57b) The author of the letter to the Hebrews made a similar point when he or she wrote "So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God." (Hebrews 4:9a) The point is the same: the Sabbath is a sign pointing not just to the past, but also to the future.

So what about this second soul? Well, if in order to experience the joy of Shabbat, God gives us each week a neshama yiterah, a second soul, how much more does this imply that we should receive a neshama yiterah gedolah in order to experience the joys of the world to come, where we will enjoy an even greater rest and know an even greater delight?

In fact, since the sages say in that same passage of Talmud that "Shabbat is one sixtieth of the world to come," then that implies that the neshama yiterah we receive on Shabbat must be one sixtieth of the neshama yiterah we receive from God in order to enter into the World to Come!

I believe this is in fact a teaching of Yeshua, when he said in a discourse to one of the teachers of Israel:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God. (John 3:3)
Yeshua taught that in order to see the kingdom of God, a person had to receive from God a second soul. This is no less than the fulfillment of the promise God made to Israel through the prophet Ezekiel
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. (Ezekiel 36:26a)
So, when we sanctify the Shabbat, let's thank God for the little neshama yiterah with which we can enjoy the beauty of the day. And let it also remind us each week to thank God for the greater neshama yiterah by which we will one day enter into the great Shabbat which is the World to Come.

Shabbat shalom, friends.

Have you heard of the Jewish Audio Bible?

If you go to the iTunes store and search "Jewish," then click "All podcasts," one of the results that will come up is David Rudolph's Jewish Audio Bible podcast, where you can listen to the entire Bible in daily selections. Dr. Rudolph is proceeding through the Torah in one year, the Nach (Prophets and Writings) in two years, and the Shlichim (Apostolic Writings) in one year.

For the next few days, I'll be filling in for David Rudolph while he attends SBL New Orleans. Check it out and let me know what you think!

Click here to subscribe to the podcast...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Being "Godly" 1

During my Days of Awe postings, I wrote about the 13 midot and what it means to be truly "Godly." There are several great passages from the rabbis on this in the daily prayers of the Siddur, and I want to share them with you.*
"To walk in all His ways" (Deuteronomy 11:22). These are the ways of the Holy One: "gracious and compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, assuring love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon. . . ." (Exodus 34:6). This means that just as God is gracious and compassionate, you too must be gracious and compassionate. "The Lord is faithful in all His ways and loving in all His deeds" (Psalm 145:17). As the Holy One is faithful, you too must be faithful. As the Holy One is loving, you too must be loving.
Sifre Deuteronomy, Ekev
Siddur Sim Shalom, p. 19
In a previous post we discussed the positive mitzvot. Interestingly, this verse in Deuteronomy is not correlated to any of the 248 positive commandments.** And yet the sages see in this verse an injunction to imitate God in His qualities.

To me this teaching is both inspiring and very challenging. Not only that, but I believe that for Messianic Jews, this teaching should be particularly emphasized as a fundamental feature of our community. In the coming weeks, I hope to continue posting on this topic and to present some reasons for why I think it's important.

What say you?

* Don't worry, I haven't forgotten about my follow-up post on the second soul of Shabbat--I decided to save it for tomorrow as it will be a good post leading into Shabbat for this week.

** At least, so far as I could find. If I'm wrong, help me out here!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Shabbat and Jerusalem on High

Another great Shabbos quote from Reb Shlomo (z''l):

When G-d drove Adam from Paradise, he retained part of his soul to remain there. On Shabbos, G-d releases that part and gives it back to man. This is our extra soul of Shabbos. On this day we are given the opportunity to return to Paradise. The question is asked, where would Adam have gone on Shabbos if he had not been driven out of Paradise? G-d would have taken him to Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of High, which has not yet been revealed to us. Paradise is a place I know from before; Jerusalem above, I have never experienced. Now, I must be satisfied with Paradise on Shabbos; in the future we hope to be brought to Jerusalem of High.
from The Soul of Shabbos.

I have always thought that the idea of an 'extra soul' received by all Jews on Shabbat is a beautiful idea. At the same time, I wasn't really sure what to do with it--that is, until recently. After Shabbat I will post some more thoughts on this subject. Until then, perhaps thinking over this idea will lead you to insights of your own! If so, please share them!

Shabbat shalom.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Shabbos Test

From Reb. Shlomo Carlebach z''l, whose 15th yahrzeit passed this week:
If you want to know how much you like a person, see if you can sit with the person without doing anything. Shabbos is therefore given to you. Do nothing and show your love for Hashem.
from The Soul of Shabbos.

This Shabbos I'm thankful to have recovered from my bout with illness. Good Shabbos everybody!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Power of Positive Doing

There is a popular book from the 1950's called The Power of Positive Thinking. I've never read it, but since Sukkot ended I've been musing about something else: the power of positive doing.

Of the 613 mitzvot, Judaism recognizes 248 of them as positive commandments. That means that instead of starting with "Thou shalt not...", these mitzvot start with "Thou shalt..." and go on to tell you something to do.

Not all 248 mitzvot are for everyone. There are positive mitzvot for men and positive mitzvot for women, positive mitzvot for priests and positive mitzvot for kings. There are positive mitzvot for society as a whole, and there are positive mitzvot to be performed in each household.

Take Sukkot, for example. In the Torah, Jews are commanded to build a Sukkah and then to live in it for seven days. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that there's a big difference between reading or thinking about building a Sukkah and actually doing it. It takes planning, effort, and, not least,
a little help from your friends!

Sometimes we might be tempted to think that being faithful to God is simply about not doing certain things. But commandments like Sukkot teach us that just as often, being faithful to God means picking up a hammer and a nail and doing some work. "For we are God's workmanship, created in Messiah Yeshua for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them..." (Eph 2:10)
Judaism is unabashedly a religion of doing. Not doing in order to score points with God, but doing because G-d has covenanted with us to be His partners in making the world into the kind of place where He wants to live.

But the Torah teaches that changing the world doesn't start far off. No, "it is in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it." (Deut. 30:14) Changing the world starts simply:
  • And with joyous celebrations like Sukkot.
So, friends, let's remember the power of positive doing. "Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain." (1 Cor. 15:58)

Now it's your turn to share. Here are some questions:
  • What positive commandments do you find particularly meaningful or important?
  • What positive commandments are you thinking about integrating into the practice of your faith this year?
  • Do you tend to be drawn to certain types of commandments as opposed to others? (For an interesting political take on this question, see this article by Jewish blogger DovBear.)
  • No one is perfect, but are there some mitzvot you have an especially hard time with?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

What are you waiting for?

Yeshua taught:
If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matt. 5:23-24)
Jewish tradition says that at Yom Kippur, God only forgives sins we've commited against Him. The sins we've committed against other people, we have to go and ask forgiveness for. Yeshua taught the same thing, and he was pretty serious about it:
Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matt. 5:25-26)
It takes a lot of courage to go to someone and apologize, or even to ask, "Is there anything I've done over the year which I should apologize for?" But it sends a message to your loved ones that their friendship is important to you, and it sends a message to God that you truly love Him by loving your neighbor.

So what are you waiting for?

May all of the readers at Gathering Sparks have an easy and meaningful fast.


The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah--the Sabbath of Return. There are two special haftorah readings* for this week which have to do with repentance. Some excerpts:

Hosea 14:1-2

Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God.
Your sins have been your downfall!

Take words with you and return to the LORD.
Say to him: "Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously,
that we may offer the fruit of our lips.

Micah 7:18-19

Who is a God like you, who pardons sin
and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance?
You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.

You will again have compassion on us;
you will tread our sins underfoot
and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.

On Shabbat Shuvah, Micah reminds us of something crucial during this season of repentance: Where is God in all of this? Delighting to show mercy.

Yeshua told a famous parable about return: the story of the prodigal son. The point of the parable is that God's response to us when we make to welcome us back to Him.

To read more about Yeshua's parable, I invite you to check out my first contribution to The Set Table--a commentary on Yeshua's parable of the prodigal son.

May you find shalom as you make your way back to God on this Shabbat Shuvah.

*Hosea 14:2-10, Micah 7:18-20

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Tashlich now we've probably devoted a significant amount of time putting into practice all the things we've been talking about: examining ourselves before God, going to other people to apologize for things we've done wrong over the year, repenting for sin, and making resolutions for a better new year...

If that describes you, Baruch Hashem!* If not--well, you're in good company.

Let's face it: our lives are busy. Once we get done at work, there's tons to do at home. And if you're student, well...

Our tradition has a solution for this. It's called tashlich. Haven't heard of it? It's simple: take some bread** (and a few friends if you want) and go to a stream or river. As you throw the pieces of bread into the water, think over the past year--about the things that have come between you and God, or you and other people. Then remember God's promise:
As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us. (Ps. 103:12)
"That's it?" you ask leadingly. "That's it," I reply. There's no special blessings, no particularly prescribed way to do it.

In a season filled with many beautiful prayers aimed to assist us in voicing our heartfelt repentance to God, tashlich stands out as an action so basic that the simplest child can do it, even without fully understanding its meaning.

So if you're feeling like you haven't had enough time this season, I want to encourage you: try doing tashlich before Erev Yom Kippur on Sunday night.

*Bless God.
** You can also do tashlich with pebbles or stones if you feel that using bread is wasteful.

A Simple New Years Resolution

One of my favorite blogs is A Simple Jew. Here's a great example of why:
אתה. I have resolved that this one word, comprised of just three letters, is going to be the focus of my avodas Hashem for 5770. I have rushed over the word אתה so many times... Beginning with the new year, I have made it a practice to slow down anytime I encounter this word... It is my sincere hope that by doing this that my kavana [intent] and deveykus [devotion] will increase significantly over the course of the next year; allowing me to come even just a small step closer to shleimus hatefilla (perfected prayer).
What simple resolutions can you make during these days to help you come closer to God?

(A word of advice: if you make a resolution to do something better this year, tell a friend! I've done this several times over the past few years, and it's made all the difference. Special thanks to those friends--you know who you are!)

Friday, September 18, 2009

L'shana tova!

As we enter into Rosh Hashanah tonight and begin the coming year, may we be strengthened in the message of Yeshua (thanks to Derek Leman for these verses):

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news. (Mark 1:1)

And also in his universal message of repentance and forgiveness.

Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.(Matthew 6:12)

L'shana tova!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The 13 Midot

A major component of selichot prayers is the 13 Midot, the list of the 13 attributes of God, from Exodus 34:6-7. After the children of Israel sin with the golden calf, Moses is interceding with them before God. When it seems Moses has said all he can say, then God passes before Moses and makes this proclamation about Himself. Jewish tradition says that God wrapped Himself in a tallis when He passed before Moses, and that the Holy One was demonstrating to Moses how to intercede to Him. (If the idea of God wearing a tallis is weird to you, ask yourself, "Why?" It would probably make for a great discussion...)

I have read that the Torah is the basis for how man should behave, but the sages said that to be truly Godly means to emulate these 13 Midot. I believe that Yeshua was not only perfectly adherent to the Torah, but that he revealed through his life
Hashem, Hashem, God, Compassionate and Gracious,
Slow to Anger, and Abundant in Kindness and Truth,
Preserver of Kindness for thousands of generations,
Forgiver of iniquity, willful sin and error, and Who cleanses.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

God be merciful to me, a sinner!

The week before Rosh Hashanah, it is custom to say special selichot, or penitential prayers, as part of preparing our hearts for the holidays. At certain points during these prayers, it is customary to strike one's chest with one's fist as a symbol of remorse.

This reminds me of the parable told by Yeshua about the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14):

[Yeshua] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Yom Kippur, or "Don't Judge Me, Man!"

No one likes being judged. "She's so judgmental," is probably one of the most condemning ways you could describe a person. And judgmental religious folk are the worst--don't they know the saying "Judge not, lest ye be judged?"

If we let judgmental people hijack our understanding of God as judge, we're the ones who end up losing out. The ancient Israelites had a different view of judgment--they longed for it. When they were oppressed by foreign nations, they cried out to God: "Rise up, judge of the earth, give the arrogant their deserts!" (Psalm 94:2)

"Give the arrogant their deserts." How many times have you wished for that to happen? How many times have you had something unfair happen to you, or to a friend, and wished that someone with authority to fix it would step in? How much do the injustices in the world make you wish for justice? If you can't relate, ask around; I guarantee you know someone who's been treated unfairly and can tell you about the very real feelings that come when you feel like you're being treated unjustly.

"God will judge." This is ultimately a message of hope, especially for the poor, for the defenseless, for those who have no one to defend them.

But before we're ready to wholeheartedly call for God's judgment, we have to ask ourselves some honest questions. Have I done wrong by my neighbor? Am I a loving person? Have I been a part of the solution, or a part of the problem? As the Psalmist wrote:
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Psalm 139:23-24
When we're honest with ourselves, I think almost everyone is conscious of ways in which we don't live up to what we know to be right. Fortunately, there is an even better message of hope than "God will judge"--and that is that "God loves mercy." Again, the Psalmist wrote:
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Psalm 51:16-17
This is the theme of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement--that the God who created the world, who loves justice and hates wickedness, also loves mercy. As one of Yeshua's talmidim wrote:
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Learning to Dance, Learning to Pray

Have you ever wanted to take dance lessons?

I'm not talking about the electric slide. I mean the kind of dancing when you're at a wedding and an old standard comes on, and somebody's aunt and uncle go over to the dance floor, and they start doing a foxtrot. Or swing dancing. Both partners are moving together, they know the right moves to make, and it just looks...beautiful.

I've always liked dancing, but when a song requires a specific step, more often than not I choose to sit and watch. Not because I don't want to join in, but because I don't know the steps.

So how is praying like dancing?

When it comes to prayer, many of us are the same way. We're great at freeform or spontaneous prayer, but when it comes to liturgical prayer, we'd just as soon sit it out. Perhaps you've even wondered: why would anyone want to pray a prayer that's already been written down?

The answer is: for the same reason that couples learn the steps in order to be able to waltz, tango, or foxtrot. The same reason that playwrights write down lines and actors learn them. The same reason that jazz musicians learn standards.

Improvisation, freedom, and spontaneity...

...all three are key ingredients in all three of these activities (dancing, acting, and music). But without the form (steps, scripts, standards), all the spontaneity in the world can still end up feeling rote and tired.

Jewish prayer is rich with liturgy. To really understand it, you must try to think of the siddur (the Jewish prayerbook) as the steps to a dance. It's merely the outline, to show you where to place your feet. But you're the one and God.

And there's more: by supplying you with words to pray, the siddur doesn't just give voice to things you want to say to God. It also teaches you new (old) ways to talk to God--not only individually, but as part of a people who have had an ongoing relationship with the God who first called them into peoplehood.

Prayer and the High Holy Days

The high holy day services have their own special prayers. All of these prayers have important meanings, and without understanding the meanings behind the prayers, we may find ourselves feeling unmoved...or bored. However, if we take the time to learn the meanings behind the traditions, we may discover a wealth of meaning...which will help our own relationship with God.

To learn more about Jewish prayer as "dancing through history," and how the siddur facilitates our "participation in a sacred drama," I recommend reading Rabbi Joshua Brumbach's two part series on rethinking Jewish prayer at the Yinon blog.

As you read Rabbi Joshua's articles, you can think about these questions:
  • What is prayer?
  • What are some of the obstacles that hinder us from praying? In what ways can the siddur help us to surmount these obstacles?
  • In what ways can liturgical prayers enable us to pray together with one voice as a community?
  • How does praying the traditional prayers of the Jewish people allow us to connect with Jewish history?

The Shofar 2, or 10 Reasons Why We Blow the Shofar

Why is this night different from all other nights? Why are we commanded to blow the shofar? Why do we eat kosher? Why, why, why?

If the Jewish tradition were like an annoying older brother, he would probably say "Sheket!"* to all your questions, and then go back to working on his blog whatever he was trying to say about how the spiral of the ram's horn resembles the intricacies of life's entanglements and blah blah blah blah bla...

Luckily for all of us, Jewish tradition isn't like a know-it-all older brother.

It's more like a zeyde...a twinkly-eyed Jewish family patriarch who loves to scoop you onto his lap and tell you stories about the time when Uncle Moshe led the entire family across the scalding hot sand, and how the manna tasted like borscht on Tuesdays and matzah brie every second Friday. Just like a zeyde, sometimes the tradition can tell stories that get kinda long, or go over your head, or even seem a bit gruff. But the older you get the more you realize that just as your bubbe or zeyde was an authentic link to the Jewish past, so the tradition is. And that without that link to the past, your Jewish present and future will be...well, let's just say more boring than a stage adaptation of Leviticus.

Jewish tradition is all about "Why?"

The midrash is all the "Why?"s asked by the great sages of Jewish history about the stories in the Torah. The Talmud is the "Why?s" asked by the sages about halakha (how we "walk out" the commandments in Torah). Why does the youngest child learn to sing "Ma Nishtana?" (the four questions) at the Passover seder? So she will be taught to ask "Why?"!

So why are you telling me this?

I'm glad you asked. On Rosh Hashanah we blow the shofar--great! But why? Why did God command us to blow the ram's horn on this day once a year?
The Saadia Gaon (9th century Jewish sage) suggested not just one, but 10 reasons. You could say that this is part of a long tradition of "top ten" lists that goes back to Moshe Rabbenu and the Ten Commandments. I was going to write out the list myself, but Derek Leman beat me to the punch.
So go ahead, check out Derek's article on the Saadia Gaon's ten reasons why we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Top that, Dave!

When you're finished, ask yourself:
  • Are the Saadia Gaon's reasons for blowing the shofar relevant to me today?
  • Which reason most resonates with me? What does that tell me about myself?
  • Which reason least resonates with me? Why? Does it point to an area in my beliefs where I could stand to learn more, or grow a bit?
  • How can I make sure to remember these reasons when we sound the shofar this Rosh Hashanah?

*Hebrew for "Quiet!"

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Shofar 1: "Awake, O You Sleepers"

What is the meaning of the shofar which we blow on Rosh Hashanah? A quotation garnered from S. Y. Agnon's Days of Awe:
Despite the fact that the blowing of the ram's-horn on Rosh ha-Shanah is an explicit decree in the Scripture, it is also an allusion, as if to say: Awake, O you sleepers, awake from your sleep! O you slumberers, awake from your slumber! Search your deeds and turn in Teshuvah. Remember your Creator, O you who forget the truth in the vanities of time and go astray all the year after vanity and folly that neither profit nor save. Look to your souls, and better your ways and actions. Let every one of you abandon his evil way and his wicked thought, which is not good. [Maimonides, Hilkhot Teshuvah III.4]
For more on the past, present, and future meanings of the shofar, from a Messianic Jewish perspective, check out Derek Leman's article Elul: Preparation, Reflection, Spiritual Discipline.

Repent one day before your death

Rabbi Eliezer would say: Repent one day before your death. (Pirkei Avot 2:10) He asked his disciples: Does a man know on which day he will die? Said he to them: So being the case, he should repent today, for perhaps tomorrow he will die; hence, all his days are passed in a state of repentance. Indeed, so said Solomon in his wisdom (Ecclesiastes 9:8): "At all times, your clothes should be white, and oil should not lack from your head' '' (Talmud, Shabbat
For more thoughts on teshuvah, repentance, from the prophet Haggai and from the teachings of Yeshua, check out David ben Avraham's article 'Tis the Season to Repent.

How do I go about doing teshuvah?

Elul is a season of teshuvah (repentance, turning). Last week we ended the week with the question, "And have you nothing to mend?" I want to start the week off with a different question: how do we do teshuvah?

The dangerous irony is that I could spend all month blogging about Elul and repentance and never actually get around to doing it. But how do I go about doing teshuvah?

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach ("Reb Shlomo" to his followers) was known as "the singing rabbi." He was one of the most influential Jewish religious songwriters in the 20th century. He was also a pioneer in the baal teshuva movement, through which countless Jewish young people have returned to the Jewish faith and way. Reb Shlomo told two stories:
The first one is someone came to the Holy Rizhner* and said, “Can you please teach me how to repent?” and he answered, “Listen, man, when you did your sinning you didn’t come to me to ask me how to do it. If you know how to sin. You also know how to repent.”
The other story is, someone came to the Mittler Rebbe**, who’s like a master of Teshuva and has written many books on Teshuva. “You have written so many books; please teach me how to do Teshuva.” So the Mittler answers, “To tell the truth, after all the books I’ve written, I still don’t know.”
Reb Shlomo said "Even if you study all the books in the world about repentance, nobody can tell you how to do it, just you alone."

I think the truth Reb Shlomo was communicating is that teshuvah is something that comes from faith--it comes from the heart. Thus, there's no fool-proof formula that can be prescribed.

But just because there's no exact formula for teshuvah doesn't mean we should be discouraged. Rather, we should see it as an opportunity to serve God. Most of the practical advice I've read on doing teshuvah during the season of Elul has involved several things:
  • Set aside time to prayerfully consider your life before God. Go somewhere where you can be in solitude for a time.
  • Ask yourself questions like, "What regrets do I have from the previous year? What mistakes did I make? Is there anyone I need to ask forgiveness from? Are there any wounds in my heart that affect how I think of or relate to certain people--my spouse, my family, friends?"
  • Be specific--list out your realizations so that you can take them with you and continue to do the process of making things right. Then at the end of the high holy days you can dispose of the list as a way of showing that God forgives sin and accepts the penitent.
  • Don't go overboard in being introspective! Teshuvah isn't about beating yourself up. As much as possible, let your teshuvah be characterized by gratefulness (to God for revealing these things to you) and joy--the kind of joy you get when you return home after a time away.***
I'm committing to putting my money where my mouth is (as it were), by working through these practical steps in order to "bear fruits in keeping with repentance." (Matt 3:8) How about you?

For more practical advice on doing teshuvah, I recommend checking out Rabbi Russ Resnick's article "The Month of Elul."

* Yisroel Friedman (1797-1850) (Der Heyliger Rizhiner)
** Dov Ber of Lubavitch (1773-1827)
*** Returning home is how Reb Shlomo described the most fundamental way of teshuvah.

Friday, August 28, 2009

And have you nothing to mend?

Whew! My last few postings have been pretty chock full of information. That's all well and good, but I really don't want to lose sight of the spirit of Elul--the main point of doing these daily postings.

So, let's take inventory. I myself have definitely been swept into the preparatory spirit of Elul this week as God, in His mercy, has been bringing to light unresolved issues in my heart, and giving me the impetus to repent, to forgive, to make a change. How about you?

As we continue to allow God search our hearts this coming Shabbat, I thought I'd finish out the week with the following encouraging story:

Once on the New Moon of Elul, the zaddik* Rabbi Levi Isaac of Berditchev [18th cent] was standing at his window. A Gentile cobbler passed by and asked him, "And have you nothing to mend?"

At once the zaddik sat himself down on the ground and weeping bitterly cried, "Woe is me, and alas my soul, for the Day of Judgment is almost here, and I have still not mended myself!" (Days of Awe p. 26)
As you continue to prepare for the high holy days, make sure to take time to ask yourself before God: "Have I something to mend?"

* A zaddik (or tzaddik) is a righteous or saintly person. Within Hasidic Judaism particularly, the tzaddik is seen as a true spiritual leader and guide, a person to whom the Hasidim should cling in order to strengthen their relationship with Hashem.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Why do we celebrate the new year at Rosh Hashanah?

Yesterday we ended with the question of where we got the name Rosh Hashanah [lit. "head of the year"] for the first day of the seventh month. Why do we observe the new year celebration in the middle of the year, on Rosh Hashanah?

The answer was alluded to in one of the footnotes from
yesterday's post:

There were two celebrations of a new annual cycle in ancient Israel, one in the spring month of Aviv (later called Nisan), 'the first of the months of the year' (Exod. 12:2), and another in the fall at 'the turn of the year' (Exod. 23:16, 34:22)." (Entering the High Holy Days, p. 4)
Did you catch that? In ancient Israel, there were actually multiple new years!

While this may at first seem strange, it actually is not. Here in the United States, we also have multiple new years: on January 1 we celebrate the turning of the year, while the government (and many corporations) have a fiscal year for accounting purposes. And schools start a new year each September!


In Judaism, Nissan 1 is the new year for the purpose of counting the reign of kings and months on the calendar, Elul 1 (in August) is the new year for the tithing of animals, Shevat 15 (in February) is the new year for trees (determining when first fruits can be eaten, etc.), and Tishri 1 (Rosh Hashanah) is the new year for years (when we increase the year number. Sabbatical and Jubilee years begin at this time). (
Thus, in the mishnah* we find:

The first of Tishre is the beginning of the year [Rosh Hashanah] for years, sabbatical cycles, and the jubilee. (M. Rosh Hashanah 1:1)
Similar to New Year's Day in the United States, Rosh Hashanah is the time in the Jewish calendar when the year number increases. But while in the U.S., the year increases on the first day of the first month, in the Jewish calendar, the year increases on the first day of the seventh month--at the "head" or "turn" of the year! Thus, it's become the custom to wish each other 'L'shana Tova!' (literally "To a good year!") at Rosh Hashanah, and to eat apples and honey in hope for a sweet year.

If this was new to you, let me know in the comments section below!

* The mishnah is the earliest written codification of Jewish oral traditions (compiled c. 200CE by Judah haNasi). It contains the details of how the people of Israel kept the commandments of the Torah in practice. The mishnah is the core around which the Talmud is organized.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Biblical Origins: Rosh Hashanah

The following passages in the Torah concern the first day of the seventh month:
In the seventh month on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts. You shall not work at your occupations; and you shall bring an offering by fire to the Lord. (Lev. 23:24-25)

In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded. You shall present a burnt offering of pleasing odor to the Lord. (Num. 29:1-2)
The Torah prescribes complete rest, loud blasts of the horn, and burnt offerings . . . yet it doesn't seem to provide an explanation of why. So where did we get all the central themes of Rosh Hashanah--the New Year, the proclamation of God's kingship, examining ourselves in anticipation of divine judgment, peoples' names being inscribed in the Book of Life?

Here's what I found:

First: Rosh Hashanah is the only holiday in the Jewish calendar to fall on a new moon. Reuven Hammer points out that the number seven seems to be of particular importance here:
Just as the seventh day of the week is holy, so the seventh month of the year has special significance. Since each new moon is a sacred time, it is logical that the seventh new moon--counting from Nisan, in the spring--should also acquire a special aura of holiness. (Entering the High Holy Days, p.4)
many scholars have suggested that the first day of the seventh month was popularly celebrated in ancient Israel as a divine coronation day, the time of God's assumption of the kingship and the beginning of a new cycle of the year.* (Ibid)
Scholars find allusions to such a "divine coronation day" in Psalms 93-100**, liturgical songs which focus on God as creator, king, and judge:
The LORD is king, He is robed in grandeur. (Ps. 93:1)

Rise up, judge of the earth! (Ps. 94:2)

For the LORD is a great God, the great king of all divine beings. In His hand are the depths of the earth; the peaks of the mountains are His. His is the sea, He made it; and the land, which His hands fashioned. (Ps. 95:3-5)

Let the rivers clap their hands, the mountains sing joyously together at the presence of the LORD, for He is coming to rule the earth; He will rule the world justly, and its peoples with equity. (Ps. 98:7)

The Lord, enthroned on cherubim, is king. . . Mighty king who loves justice, it was You who established equity, You who worked righteous judgment in Jacob. (Ps. 99:1,4)

Acknowledge that the LORD is God; He made us and we are His; His people, the flock He tends. (Ps. 100:2)
Specific references are also made to one of the sounds of the shofar--the teru'ah--in Psalms 95:1, 2; 98:4, 6; and 100:1. This sound is connected to the proclamation of God's kingship.

So where did the holiday get the name Rosh Hashanah? More tomorrow...

* "There were two celebrations of a new annual cycle in ancient Israel, one in the spring month of Aviv (later called Nisan), 'the first of the months of the year'
(Exod. 12:2), and another in the fall at 'the turn of the year' (Exod. 23:16, 34:22)." (Hammer, p. 4)

** According to tradition, Psalms 90-100 were composed by Moses (see Ps. 90:1).

Friday, August 21, 2009

Rosh Hashanah and Judgment

We began our preparations for the high holy days by considering the proclamation of God's kingship at Rosh Hashanah, and what making such a proclamation requires of us. In fact, it doesn't take long to discover that the central theme of Rosh Hashanah in Jewish practice is the theme of judgment.

Jewish scholar Reuven Hammer writes:
The notion of judgment is nowhere mentioned in the Torah in connection with Rosh Hashanah. What, then, inspired it? When we examine the psalms connected with a possible ancient New Year celebration, we see that they already embody this concept. After describing the proclamation of God as king, Psalms 96 and 98 conclude with the idea that God is coming "to judge the earth; He will judge the world in righteousness and its peoples in faithfulness." In God's role as judge and ruler of the world, God is responsible for judgment. There is, then, a direct ideological connection between the New Year, marking the beginning of God's reign, and the idea of a godly judgment of the earth. (Entering the High Holy Days, p.22)

Next week we will continue exploring the history of Rosh Hashanah practices. Until then...Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

אני לדודי ודודי לי

Tonight begins the month of Elul. The sages pointed out that Elul can be read as an acronym for Ani L'Dodi V'Dodi Li--"I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine." (Song. 6:3) This is the spirit of Elul--a time of soul-searching, reconsecration to God, and preparation for the high holy days.

In twenty-eight days we will hear the sound of the shofar, summoning us before the Ribono shel Olam. In twenty-eight days we will reverently acknowledge the Holy One as King over all.

But the proclamation that God is King cannot be made lightly. Psalm 99:4 describes Hashem as the mighty King "who loves justice." And in this week's Torah portion, Shoftim, God tells the people of Israel, "Justice, justice, you shall pursue." (Deut. 16:20)

The Reform prayerbook Gates of Prayer says it well:
A people which seriously calls God Himself its King must become a true people, a community where all members are ruled by honesty without compulsion, kindness without hypocrisy, and the brotherliness of those who are passionately devoted to their divine leader. When social inequality, distinction between the free and the unfree, splits the community and creates chasms between its members, there can be no true people, there can be no 'God's people'. (#30, p.13-14)
A true king will call his subjects to account. Thus, the month of Elul is dedicated to searching and preparing ourselves to stand before God and reaffirm the ancient declaration of His kingship: Hashem Melech L'Olam Va'ed.


Shalom and welcome to Bedikat haGetz!

In Jewish thought, the spark represents a connection to the divine. Sparks also signify the potential for light.

It has been said that within every Jewish soul there is a pintele yid, a hidden spark. A mystical Hassidic teaching even calls this 'the spark of the Mashiach.'

The purpose of this blog is to share 'sparks of light' which inspire me as I endeavor to study my Jewish heritage. I hope that by sharing these with you, I can fan the spark within your soul, inspiring you to greater devotion to God and His Messiah, the true light of the world.

The sages say that when Moshe saw the burning bush and turned aside to take a closer look, God was pleased and judged him worthy to reveal Himself to him. We who are followers of Yeshua have been instructed to 'test everything; hold fast to what is good.' I believe that the pages of Jewish tradition are rich with good. It is a heritage we will be blessed to receive--if, like Moshe, we are willing to turn aside to take a closer look.

But don't take my word for it...