Monday, November 29, 2010

What is the mitzvah of Chanukah?

Here's a quiz from Jewish Treats:
Art by Randi Waxman of
If you think her work is as beautiful as I do,
please consider making a purchase!
(Prices very reasonable.)
What is the primary mitzvah of Chanukah?

a) Eating latkes (potato pancakes)
b) Giving Chanukah gifts or gelt (money)
c) Publicizing the miracle of the oil that lasted 8 days
d) Playing Dreidel
Get the answer here.

This Chanukah, remember the miracles God performed for our ancestors.  And don't forget to say the shehekiyanu prayer on the first night thanking God for bringing you to this season!

May your Chanukah be a time of personal rededication, joy, and light.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Shalom Sesame is back!

Announcing [drumroll]... the return of Shalom Sesame!

That's right (in case you hadn't heard): Shalom Sesame is back!

Folks in the blogosphere---including me---are pretty excited about this.  I have the best memories of watching episodes of Shalom Sesame (in Hebrew, Rechov Sumsum) in grade school.  Yitzhak Perlman, Jeremy Miller, Bert and Ernie (speaking Hebrew), Kermit haTzfardea.  And who can forget Moishe Oofnik?

Here's a quote about the new DVD series (released this year, just in time for Chanukah!) from
The new series follows our familiar friend Grover to Israel, where he joins the cast of Rechov Sumsum, as well as Jewish celebrities like Jake & Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ben Stiller, Natalie Portman and Matisyahu, in learning about Jewish and Israeli culture.
 Sounds like something you don't want to miss.  Here's a teaser from the new series, as well as a few favorites from the original:

Monday, November 22, 2010

Messianic Judaism in this month's Sh'ma

Have you heard of Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility?  It's a great monthly publication featuring a variety of Jewish voices on one unified theme.

The theme of this month's edition of Sh'ma is sound in Jewish life, and it contains a casual mention of Messianic Judaism on the front page.  From "Funny, You Don't Sound Jewish: Three Stories about Sound":
A few years ago, I was interviewing a Christian songwriter who told me that he had been commissioned to write a song for a Messianic Jewish congregation. He expressed curiosity as to why the congregation’s rabbi seemed to prefer songs in a minor key. I laughed and tried to explain how the terms “lament” and “mourning” (which, for the record, I don’t even believe to be inherent to Jewish prayer) have been woven throughout Jewish liturgy. A preference for the minor keys still seems synonymous with “Jewish music,” despite the fact that Jews have written songs as varied as “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” “Bei Mir Bist Du Sheyn” and “I Wanna Rock and Roll All Night (and Party Every Day).”
The author goes on to say that what makes a song Jewish is not "a Jewish songwriter, [minor scales], a clarinet, or a fiddler.  Nevertheless, there is something we can hear as Jewish music."

I think you readers who are involved in music in your communities will appreciate this article, as well as many others in this issue.  I particularly liked the very first story in the article linked above, about speaking Hebrew in your own dialect rather than trying to sound like someone else.  I have found Sh'ma to be a great read...and right now you can subscribe digitally for free.  Have at it, spark gatherers!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Quote of the Day: R' Isaac Lichtenstein on the Talmud

The latest issue of FFOZ's Messiah Journal contains a number of must-read articles, including biographies of Franz Delitzsch and Messianic luminary R' Isaac Lichtenstein.  The following quote is from "The Talmud on Trial," Lichtenstein's response to an anti-Talmud book published in his day called Netivot Olam ("The Old Paths").  Here's a brief excerpt from Lichtenstein's response:
Allow me to take this opportunity to demosntrate that the Talmud often agrees with the Gospels. Just as in all the main points of ethics there is agreement, so also both the Talmud and Gospels condemn pride, arrogance, and presumption. Consider the following concluding argument from the Talmud in regards to the above-cited quotation:
Whoever humbles himself, he will be lifted up by the Holy One, blessed be he; but whoever lifts himself up arrogantly in pride, he will be abased by the Holy One, blessed be he. Whoever covets positions of honor, from him honor retreats. Whoever shuns a position of honor, a position of honor pursues that one. Whoever tries to go against the“spirit of the times” (Zeitgeist), the current of time will oppose him; he will be pulverized by the flywheel of time. But whoever takes into account present-day conditions will find that time actually, regularly assists him and proves to be to his advantage. (b.Eruvin 13b)
This is the first time that Lichtenstein's "The Talmud on Trial" has been published in English.  Pick up a copy of the latest issue of Messiah Journal to read the whole thing!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Guest post: on Parashat Vayishlach

This guest post was excerpted from a drash written by none other than my wife!  Enjoy!

In last week's parsha, we read about how Ya'akov went out from his parent's house and settled in Haran to work for Lavan.  As he set out on his journey, he encountered God at the place he called Beit-El (house of God).  At that time, the Lord promised Ya'akov that He would give him the land in which he was lying and that his descendants would be "as numerous as the grains of dust on the earth." (Genesis 28:14)  This encounter prepared Ya'akov for the challenges that lay in the journey ahead.   While working for Lavan, Ya'akov's character is tested and shaped in order to prepare him to return to the land of promise. After twenty years of service, Ya'akov left the land of Haran to journey back to the land of his ancestors.  God used this time outside of the land of promise to mold Ya'akov.
This is where this week's parsha begins.  Ya'akov sends messengers ahead of him to meet Esav in order to offer gifts of peace.  While he is preparing to meet his brother, Ya'akov cries out in distress to the God of his fathers and appeals to the Lord based on the promises that He gave Ya'akov at Beit-El.  

Ya'akov and his family continue their journey and cross the Yabok River. While Ya'akov is alone, a Man wrestles with him until daybreak.  This is a second encounter from the Lord.  Determined once again to receive a blessing, Ya'akov says that he will not let the Man go until he blesses him.  Then, the Man asks an interesting question: "What is your name?" (Genesis 32:28) "Heel grabber - The one who supplants," says Ya'akov.  Whether this Man is God or an emissary of God, he makes an incredible pronouncement that changes Ya'akov and his descendants.  "From now on, you will no longer be called Ya'akov, but Isra'el; because you have shown your strength  to both God and men and have prevailed." (Genesis 32:29)  "Striven with God", "Persevered with God", and "Wrestled with God" are different translations of this name. Ya'akov leaves this encounter changed in two ways: his hip is dislocated and his name is changed.

The challenging experiences in Haran and his encounters with God transform Ya'akov.  The Ramban suggests that Ya'akov's new name means opposite of his old one:  "Thus the name Ya’akov, an expression of guile or of deviousness, was changed to Isra'el [from the word sar (prince)] and they called him Yeshurun from the expression wholehearted ‘v’yashar’ (and upright)."  Ya'akov moves from obtaining blessing through trickery to persevering with God to receive His blessing and promises.  
If Isra'el means "He wrestles with God" then what does that mean for Israel's future?  Ya'akov as a Patriarch foreshadows the life of Israel.  He sets the pattern for the future experiences of his descendants.   The children of Isra'el continue to have trials outside of the promised land.  Starting with his son, Yosef experiences tribulations in Egypt when he is sold into slavery by his brothers.  He serves as a slave and is thrown into prison, but the Lord is El Shaddai to Yosef and shows him favor.  God uses these challenging experiences to transform Yosef as well. 
Next, Moshe and the children of Israel are enslaved in the land of Egypt.  They cry out to the Lord, and He brings them out of Egypt to journey into the land that He promised their forefathers.  Due to their disobedience, they experience trials for forty years in the wilderness and are not allowed into the promised land.  These challenges mold and shape them.  Only then are they able to enter into the land that God promised.

Later, the northern and southern kingdoms are exiled under the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities.  Likewise, in the second exile period, the Israelites experience hardships and persecution outside of the land of Israel.  History shows that the children of Israel must wrestle with God and be changed by His encounters in order to experience the fullness of His promises.

When Ya'akov's name is changed to Isra'el, it foreshadows that the children of Isra'el will persevere with God and be changed by Him in order to receive His promises and blessings. Let's review God's promise to Ya'akov:
"I am Hashem, the God of Avraham your father and the God of Yitz'chak.  The land on which you are lying I will give to you and to your descendants.  Your descendants will be as numerous as the grains of dust on the earth.  You will expand to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south.  By you and your descendants all of the families of the earth will be blessed.  Look, I am with you.  I will guard you wherever you go, and I will bring you back into this land, because I won't leave you until I have done what I have promised you." (Genesis 28:13-15)
Throughout history, the children of Israel have exemplified the meaning of their name.  They have striven with God and have faced challenges, but we know that God's role as Consummator shows that His promises to Avraham, Yitz'chak, and Isra'el continue to be fulfilled.  Derek Leman writes that Isra'el has another meaning that speaks about God's role in the encounter with Ya'akov.  He says that Isra'el can also mean "God perseveres."  While the children of Israel wrestle with God and strive to be obedient to the Lord, God also perseveres with Israel and does not give up on them.  Our haftorah portion reveals this about the Lord when He says, "But I am the Lord your God from the land of Egypt: I will yet again make you to dwell in tents, as in the days of he appointed season." (Hosea 12:10)
God still has a plan and a promise for His children Israel.  He continues to bless Israel and through them bless all of the families of the earth.   

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

What is Grassroots?

"Grassroots is not a conference."

That's just one of the catchphrases I heard two weekends ago at Congregation Sha'arei Shalom in North Carolina, where over 80 100 (!) young Messianics gathered for a weekend of prayer, worship, fellowship, and discussion.  It meant that Grassroots doesn't offer famous speakers, well-known musical artists, or an extensive schedule filled with breakout sessions or activities.  But what Grassroots does offer is lots of space for relationship-building.

How did Grassroots start?  Sometime in the early/mid-2000's, four young Messianic believers met each other for the first time in Israel.  Two grew up in one large Messianic Jewish organization, and two in another.  After introducing themselves and beginning to talk, they quickly became astonished by how much they had in common.  "How do I not know you?" they started asking.

They realized that there was a whole parallel universe of fellow Messianic Jewish believers they didn't know, simply because they were part of a different organization.  This realization helped plant the seed for Grassroots, a movement for unity among Messianic believers in the U.S. and abroad.

This year was the sixth fifth Grassroots (and the second one I've attended).  Both years I heard the organizers tell everyone, "We honestly don't know what to expect"---while simultaneously encouraging everyone to be free and true to their identity in Messiah.

Each Grassroots takes on a distinctive flavor from the community which hosts it.  This year one young leader likened it to honey: did you know that one way to lessen your allergies is to have some of the local honey?  That's because the pollen residuals in the honey can soften the affects of the allergies.  Similarly, this young leader said, by being together and sharing the best of what we have to offer, we can lessen our "allergic reactions" to each other.  This was followed by another buzzword for the weekend, "cross-pollination"---which, as you can imagine, sent giggles through the mostly under-30 audience (especially as it was followed by an unintentional reference to "the future of the Messianic movement").

One thing that Grassroots does promote is honest dialogue.  One year, a dozen or so people who grew up in the UMJC sat down with a dozen MJAA people and basically said, "Here's what we (learned to) think about you."  The conversation led to a lot of repentance--changing minds and hearts about our fellow believers.

If you search for Grassroots online, you won't find a conference website or schedule.  There's no invitation committee or outreach wing; information about it spreads through word of mouth.  What makes Grassroots so disorganized ("We're not an organization!" was another catchphrase) is also what can make it spread. Grassroots is us.  If you want to see unity happen among Messianics, then start making it happen.  If there's another Messianic congregation in town, get together with them for Shabbat dinner and discussion or for prayer and worship.  Invite each other to things.  Think locally.  As one of my favorite captains from childhood once said, "The power is yours!"

(Some "local honey" from the worship team at Sha'arei Shalom in NC.)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Quote of the Day: Parsha Toldot and Divine Election

On this week's parsha, Toldot, Rabbi Russ Resnik writes the following thought on divine election:
The Messianic Jewish community is entrusted with a message to the rest of our Jewish people, and to the world beyond, that we describe as good news—the besorah, or gospel, of the life, death and resurrection of Yeshua. But, of course, this message is not often perceived as good news, no matter how well we express it. The besorah is hard for many
to receive, and one reason for this shows up in this week’s parasha, the scandalous idea of divine election. We proclaim a God who chooses according to his own purposes, not according to human priorities and values. That truth offends many, but also gives us hope that the besorah will in the end prevail among our people.
Read the full drash on the UMJC website.

Though Rabbi Russ doesn't mention recent events, you might consider this drash in light of the recent anti-Israel statements of by the Middle East Synod.  (Be sure to click that link to get a Hebrew Catholic perspective on the synod.)