Chaya Sarah

There is a bit of irony in the name of this Torah portion. The English translation is “life of Sarah.” The irony is that the narrative is about the death of Sarah. In fact, this Torah portion reports the deaths of both Sarah and Abraham. The text has already recorded the highpoint of the life of Sarah in giving birth to Isaac. The highpoint of Abraham’s life was the akedah – the binding of Isaac described in chapter 22. In the portion for this week, we have the conclusion of the life of Sarah and Abraham as well as a description of finding a wife for Isaac. Chapter 23 describes the death of Sarah and Abraham’s purchase of burial ground. This narrative teaches us some important lessons about death and our reaction to it. Gen. 23:2  says  Sarah died in Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan; and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.  Abraham did not live in denial. It is sad when a loved one dies. Abraham did not simply say that it was the will of God; he did not say that Sarah is with the Lord so it is a celebration. He missed his wife and grieved over the loss. Grieving is a healthy response to death. The fact that we read so much detail about the process of obtaining proper burial ground for Sarah tells us how important the act of death is and how important it is to respond well.  We could say that the death of Sarah was part of the “life of sarah.”  We also  learn about how important  burial rites are to the Jewish people. We learn that Jewish people traditionally bury the deceased and do not  cremate. There is great respect for the body. Second, Jewish people do not normally embalm the deceased. The body is to be buried as soon as possible and in the most natural way as possible. There are exceptions such as Joseph but the norm is not to embalm. Another reason for such a detailed account of the purchase of burial ground is because the cave at Machpeleh is where the patriarchs and their wives are buried.  Much emphasis is placed on the purchase of the cave. The purchase of the cave is the first purchase of land in Canaan by the father of the Jewish people. Abraham’s insistence on owning the land forever is an expression of faith that his descendants would inherit the land.

The legacy of Abraham is the life of faith that he lived.  Abraham’s faith is demonstrated in this portion in his sending Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac. Finding a wife for Isaac is important if the promise of descendants to Abraham was going to come to pass.  Chapter 24 begins with Abraham entering into an oath with Eliezer his trusted assistant. This is the same Eliezer that  Abraham was going to choose for a “son.” Abraham tells him to go to the land of his father to find a wife for Isaac.  Abraham is convinced that Eliezer will find a son for him there.  Even though he gives his servant a release from the oath if he cannot find the girl, Abraham himself believed that the servant would have success.  Once again we see the faith of Abraham in action. Notice that in verse seven, Abraham acts on the promise that God had made to him. God had promised him many descendants and that they would live in the land. Abraham tells Eliezer that he cannot bring a Cannanite girl for Isaac. Notice also that Isaac was never to leave the land of Canaan. These statements reinforce Abraham’s belief that the promise would come to pass. Abraham saw himself as participating in the promise by giving Eliezer these important guidelines.  Eliezer is the picture of a model servant. He does just as his master asks.  He trusts the faith of Abraham. Upon arriving at his destination he prays that the right girl would come along. In his prayer Eliezer asks for a specific sign. He was a man of prayer.  Before he even finishes his prayer, God is answering him! As he finishes his prayer, Rebekah appears at the well. The main thrust of this whole narrative is to show the providence of God – that God is at work bringing these events to pass. In the narrative we are able to see how Eliezer responds to this answered prayer.   Then the man bowed low and worshiped the Lord. He said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken His lovingkindness and His truth toward my master; as for me, the Lord has guided me in the way to the house of my master’s brothers.”  Eliezer worshipped the Lord as he realized that God had brought about his discovery of Rebekah.  This narrative teaches us some important lessons about faith.  We need to exhibit the faith of Abraham.  He believed that his servant would find the right girl from  among his relatives. This is interesting because earlier in Abraham’s life there are two episodes where he was not so convinced that he would have his own son of promise. The first is when he thinks that Eliezer will be the “son he never had” and the second time is when he has a child with Hagar.  Now he is old and almost ready to die. His faith has grown over the years. So too with us. For most of us faith is something that is cultivated over time.  We start our life with the Lord with a measure of faith – believing in Yeshua, but as time goes on we grow in our faith believing God for more.  We also learn in this portion what it means to be a faithful servant.  Eliezer followed the desires of Abraham. He was obedient and faithful.  Upon seeing the hand of God at work he was driven to worship. What is our response to seeing the hand of God?  Overall this narrative teaches us that God is the one bringing to pass the promises that He has made. He promised a redeemer and He provided one in the person of Yeshua. As we live out our lives in faith, we will see the hand of God at work.     As we serve the Lord the way Eliezer served Abraham and follow through in our service,   we will see the hand of God work in this world. Finally like Eliezer we will be driven to worship. May  our eyes be opened to the hand of God at work in our lives and in the world. The portion begins and ends with the death of godly people. We must learn that even death – both its timing and circumstance are in the hand of God.


The Way of the Lord

This week’s Torah portion continues the saga of Abraham.  We learned last week that Abraham was chosen to be the father of the Jewish people in order to be a blessing to “all of the families of the earth.”  This week we learn more about the process of how this  is to take place.  It is revealed to us by the Lord when he is describing the unique calling of Abraham. We read in Genesis 18:19   “For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.”

This verse reveals the process by which the nations of the earth would be blessed by Abraham and his descendants. Abraham and his descendants were to live in a way that reflected the character of G-d. By living this way, G-d would fulfill the covenant calling and promise.  While the covenant itself is unconditional, there is the necessity of living a certain way for the effects of the covenant to take place.  This means that when the Jewish people are living faithfully as a people, it benefits the world – the nations of the earth will be  blessed! Abraham and his children were to live according to the “way of the Lord.”   In Hebrew “way of the Lord’ is derech adonai.  “Derech” is a road or a path or a journey. The Way of the Lord is the path or journey  of life. The phrase is often used in conjunction with  a reminder to live according to the commandments of the Lord.  See Deut 30:16 as an example. This helps us to understand that the “commandments” are not a list of laws but rather a description of the kind of life that we should be living.  The laws describe God’s ways.  The verse tells us that the way of life is the way of righteousness and justice. This includes an attitude of faithfulness and loyalty to god.  Abraham demonstrates the way of the lord in his concern for the righteous people of Sodom (“Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Gen 18:23) as well as his attitude of concern toward Hagar and Ishmael when Sarah told him to send them away (“And the matter distressed Abraham greatly because of his son.” Gen 21:20) and in his obedience to the command to sacrifice Isaac. Perhaps we could say that these three illustrations of the “way of the Lord” could be translated in our world as a concern for social justice, concern for family and loyalty to G-d.

The obedience of Abraham in taking Isaac up the mountain for sacrifice is considered the highpoint of Abraham’s life of faithfulness to G-d.  This is an excellent example of the “Way of the Lord.”  Abraham  is not simply obedient to a command. He trusts G-d for the outcome even though he does not know exactly what the outcome will be.  First he says  I and the lad will go yonder; and we will worship and return to you.” (Gen 22:5 NAS) so he knew that they would both return.  He also says  “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”  (Gen 22:8 NAS).  But Abraham does not know how this will work out but he is obedient because he trusts God. It is an obedience of trusting God.

When we are walking in the way of the Lord we are moving along the journey of life in a way that reflects the character of god in our lifestyle and in our attitudes and in the decisions that we make.  We do not simply keep a list of things we have to do and things we cannot do. We follow the path of god in all of our circumstances. The way of the Lord means being concerned for this world and the people in it; it means taking responsibility for our families; it means following the Lord because we trust him even if we do not know the outcome.  In all of the narratives in the Torah – the stories of the patriarchs, we learn that what is pleasing to G-d is an attitude of devotion to G-d and a following of his ways. We see in every story both victory and failure in the lives of godly people. What they all have in common is a devotion – a loyalty to G-d and his ways.  As Messiah followers, we have a calling on our lives to make a difference today…by  walking in the way of the Lord. If you want to make a difference in this world; if you want to be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth….walk in the way of the Lord.

By living in this way, we make a difference in the world…Abraham and his descendants are called to live this life in order to bless the world. May we have a world view that includes living in such a way that reflects the character of god and brings blessing to the world. Thy word is a lamp to my feet, And a light to my path. (Psa 119:105 NAS) 


Attributes of Mercy

One of the most prevalent prayers on Yom kippur is called Midot Rachamim or the “attributes of Mercy.”  It is said at variety of times during the Yom Kippur services, invoking the mercy of God so that he will forgive our sins.  It comes from the book of Exodus in the Torah when Moses pleads with God to know his ways and to see his glory. The text says that God reveals his “goodness” to Moses.  This is a dramatic moment in the history of Israel.  The context is the aftermath of the great debacle when the Jewish people built a golden calf.  God relents from killing off the whole nation and he also changes his mind in deciding not to abandon them in the wilderness. But in neither narrative do we read that God actually forgives the people. Perhaps we can infer forgiveness from his favor in not destroying the people and in not abandoning them.  But it is not until this moment when God reveals himself to Moses that we read that God forgives the people….and not only forgives…but is merciful…slow to anger and full and overflowing with loyal love and faithfulness….   It is only after this   sure word of forgiveness that  we see a reinstatement of the Ten Commandments and a renewed covenant relationship focusing on the complete devotion of the people to God.   How appropriate for Yom Kippur!    As Messiah followers we know that God has indeed made atonement for our sins, but the fact of the matter is that we still need to seek  forgiveness knowing that the provision has been made.  I like to view our services on Shabbat and on holidays as opportunities for covenant renewal.  We come together as a community with one voice.  This gives us the opportunity to renew the covenant as a community.  A covenant renewal is not a brand new covenant being made but rather reiterating the promise that has already been made.   Yom Kippur is a moment when we can say again to God “thank you again for your continued forgiveness and love toward us…”  As a result we can move forward as a community into a deeper relationship with God. This allows us to make a greater difference in each other’s life and demonstrate to the world around us that  the forgiveness of God makes a real difference in our lives.  With the empowerment of the Ruach HaKodesh we are  able to reflect the image of likeness of God – in these attributes of mercy.

For our ancient ancestors to be able to fulfill their calling and to move forward to the promised land they needed to know that they were forgiven.  It was not enough for them to know that God would show them grace and mercy by letting the live and that he would be with them – they needed to clearly know that they were forgiven and that God did indeed love them.  They needed to know that they were loved to move forward.  We also need to know that we are loved if we are going to move forward. On Yom Kippur we are reminded that we are forgiven. We are reminded that we are loved. In this experience of covenant renewal  we are invigorated to show this love to others. Then end result is that we are better people living better lives. If we are going to be successful as a congregation we must start with the core belief and knowledge that we are loved by God.  May this core belief centered in Yeshua the Messiah cause us to be devoted to God and to one another.





Rosh HaShanah 5776

The high holy days are a great opportunity for us   to explore new depths of intimacy with God and with our own self-identity as a messianic Jewish community.  The liturgy of the services provide a marvelous doorway into this exploration and discovery. When we say the prayers found in the Machzor – the prayerbook for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we move beyond our own thoughts and our own feelings. We recite words that bring to mind the holiness and love and faithfulness of God in ways that we could never properly articulate. They move us forward in our understanding of God and in our ability to worship him.  We are often used to coming to a service with the expectation that the goal is for God to come to us and to meet our needs.  But if we come with the expectation that I am the one approaching God and not the other way around, then the liturgy moves us beyond our own thoughts and words.  When we say the words on the page slowly and with meaning and intention, they help us to enter the presence of God in a magnificent  way that  can be life changing and cause us to be grow in our relationship with him.  As A.J. Heshcel wrote in refrence to the liturgy.. “These words are like mountain peaks pointing to the unfathomable.” (Man’s Quest For God p.33) The texts and traditions of our people coupled with the indwelling presence of Yeshua cultivates a rich spiritual journey through this season!

The liturgy, the texts and prayers of our people, also allow  us to engage in conversation with the rest of the Jewish community. In a sense we pray as a community with one voice.  Some would say that because of Yeshua we are not jewish. I would contend that indeed we are…we are a community of Jewish people…and people of different backgrounds who identify with the god of Israel and we worship using Jewish worship styles =, texts and traditions. Like many synagogues we are creative in our worship. We believe that Yeshua is the Messiah of Israel which by its very nature causes us to be a bit different but we are tied to the rest of the Jewish community in our values, peoplehood and expression.  My the observance of Rosh Hashanah be a rich spiritual journey  and may you all have a happy and healthy New Year!


Passover Reflections – Who Am I?

Passover is a holiday that is filled with wonderful memories of family, tradition, and a great meal. Like many other people I have warm memories of my family’s Passover Seder. We lived in Albany NY and my aunts and uncles and cousins would come from New York City as well as Rochester for the Seder. When I was very young my grandfather led the Seder. This was followed by my uncle who was a rabbi. What I remember most was the dinner. My grandmother’s knishes, matzo balls, chopped liver and  tzimmus accompanied a sumptuous meal with something called “compote” for desert. Of course a highlight of the Seder was searching for the afikomen.  Another uncle of mine – not the rabbi – was in charge of hiding the afikomen (probably because the Seder was always at his home.) He was quite creative  –  the two most memorable hiding spots were a toaster and in a paper bag taped to the underside of the table.   The combination of family, tradition, and a great meal gave me a wonderful sense of belonging, identity and security. I knew who I was.

The first words that Moses spoke to God were “Who am I”?   Each year the Passover Seder answers that question for us.  We read in the Haggadah that we are obligated to feel as if we ourselves were being redeemed from Egypt as the Torah tells us: you shall tell your son on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ (Exo 13:8). At the Seder we remember that we are part of something larger than ourselves. We are part of something that is identifiable. We are part of something that has a continuous history.    We have a responsibility to pass down these values to each succeeding generation.   Granted, we need to pass down more than a tradition filled with great memories. But may I suggest that we have a responsibility to pass down no less than this great tradition.  Do not underestimate the power of tradition in remembering who you are. God delivered us as a people and there is a calling upon us as a people.We are living in a day of great assimilation of our people. The Seder serves as a way to keep that from happening. The Seder is a holy act of remembrance of what God has done for us; it is a remembrance of our identification with him and the covenant that he made with our ancestors. It is also a reminder that we are called to maintain this identity perpetually.   This “remembering” takes place within a very physical vehicle – family, tradition and a meal.  They are like a building that we call “home.”  It is here that the remembering takes place and gives us a sense of belonging – a sense of identity – a sense of security.  This is true for us as a messianic Jewish families and communities andall who identify with us. At our Seder, we have a responsibility to pass down this rich history, tradition and calling to our children including trusting in Messiah Yeshua.  At our Seder we remember our own experience of deliverance in Messiah as part of the great history of our covenantal relationship with God. As Yeshua said, “As often as you do this, do it in remembrance of me.” 

Even though those great family Passover Seders of my youth exist only in my memory I can still say that when we have our Passover Seder today as a family and as a messianic community,  the combination of family, tradition, and a great meal still give me a great sense of belonging, identity and security. I know who I am.


Some thoughts on Heschel and the Uniqueness of God

 I have been reading Shai Held’s book Abraham Joshua Heschel: the Call Of Transcendence.   I have always appreciated Heschel’s desire to inculcate a God centered approach to life and faith.  I especially appreciate his writings about the “pathos of God.”  (see Heschel’s The Prophets and God in Search of Man)  For Heschel God’s pathos is his concern, commitment and participation in the affairs of man. It is the way he reacts and responds to the human condition.  It is a description of the way that that the  transcendent God becomes personal and involved.    Heschel’s “divine pathos” explains the uniqueness of the God of Israel.

Heschel’s description and understanding of the pathos of God  helps me to understand the uniqueness of God vis a vis  the Triunity of God. As I wrote in the last post I am teaching right now on the UMJC doctrinal statement and I have just finished the section on the Triunity of God. In those messages (which can be accessed at www.bethmessiahcolumbus.org) I shared that the Triunity of God describes how God can be both transcendent and personal at the same time.  In a way we could describe the incarnation of Yeshua as the “divine pathos made flesh.”  It is in Yeshua that the covenantal commitment of God to mankind reaches its highest form.  When Yeshua wept over Jerusalem, God was weeping. When Yeshua was angry with the Pharisees, God was angry.  When Yeshua reached out to the disenfranchised, God reached out.When Yeshua suffered for our sins, God suffered for our sins. The “scandalous” event of course is the death of Yeshua. Did God die? This is the mystery of    the revealed pathos of God. While God is forever the living God of the universe and knows all and is the “first and the last” and is eternal, his commitment to the salvation of mankind  caused him to identify with  the ultimate human experience – death.  As the Scriptures teach us about the humility of Yeshua,” ..who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,  but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:6-8) This is the mystery of the incarnation.    But we know that he was raised from the dead. This communicated to us that atonement had been made and that God’s involvement in the affairs of man had brought us what no mere man could bring, that is ultimate victory over death.   Yeshua takes the revealed pathos of God to a new level -beyond Heschel’s description.  For Yeshua not only reveals the pathos of God but he  truly is the incarnation of God.  No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him. (John 1:18)

Also helpful to us in our understanding of the uniqueness of God  is Heschel’s description of the relationship of revelation and explanation.  Heschel writes, “the nature of revelation , being an event in the realm of the ineffable, is something which words cannot spell, which human language will never be able to portray. ” (God in Search of Man p. 184-185)  What Heschel is saying is that words  – human language – cannot  adequately describe the essence of God. We can read and accept what the Scriptures teach us but we do not have the words to describe how this can be.  Just as God convicts us of the truth of the Messiahship of  Yeshua so he also convicts us of the truth of his nature. The Scriptures teach us that “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God,(Rom 8:16). We know that we are in Messiah primarily because God himself reveals this to us. May I suggest that we know that God in his essence is Father, Son and Spirit because God has revealed this to us as well. The Scriptures also testify of these truths but there is an inner conviction from God.  He has given all who embrace Yeshua this understanding – but we do not have adequate words to describe it. I think there are people who would say that they do not believe in the Triunity of God, but deep within them they do believe that Yeshua is the Lord and that the Holy Spirit does indeed dwell within them as the very presence of God but the problem is with language.

What Heschel does for us is to give us categories with which we can better  understand the  indescribable deep care, concern, love  and commitment God has to secure our atonement and salvation.  How wonderful it is that God has revealed his uniqueness to us in such a marvelous way.    Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! (Rom 11:33)


Unity of God

These days I am preaching/teaching through the UMJC statement of faith. I almost always teach through books of the bible but I felt that we needed to clarify our basic beliefs so that we would be reminded of the wondrous truths that serve as the foundation of our faith and life in Messiah.   It has taken me over a month to simply get through the first few words..There is one God, who has revealed Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Every divine action in the world is accomplished by the Father working through the Son and in the power of the Spirit.


This is a marvelous truth but   the way that the  unity of God has been described through history   can be difficult for us. As Jewish people it feels quite foreign.  Words like “trinity” and “person” give us the impression that God is made up of three people.  In addition, when we talk about the “job descriptions” and the differences of roles of the Father , Son and Holy Spirit it can feels as if we are describing three people. I’m not saying that we should not describe the Unity of God but simply acknowledging that we are limited by language to be able to adequately describe the relationships within the Godhead.   I think too much time is spent trying to figure out how God can be Father, Son and Holy Spirit and not enough time appreciating this truth as it has been revealed to us.  And that is the key – it is a truth that is revealed to us. It is revealed to us in our hearts (Romans 8:16)  and it is revealed to us in the Scriptures.   From the beginning of Genesis, the identity of YHVH is described as Father, Son and Spirit in a variety of passages but it is not until the coming of the Messiah that this great truth about God is given great clarity.  It is like seeing a drop of blood with the naked eye verses looking at the same drop of blood under a microscope. Under the microscope, we can see much more clearly the “identity” of that drop of blood.


The God of Israel, YHVH, is above and beyond all humanity but at the same time  cares deeply for us and  via covenant relationship has committed himself to humanity and to this world. Through the incarnation of Yeshua and the subsequent sending of the Holy Spirit we can have a unique relationship with God. It is in his “differentiated unity” that the transcendent God can reach down  to us and forgive our sins, restore us to the image and likeness of God, dwell within us, lead us, teach us, and enable us to live godly lives.  This is a description of all that the God of Israel does.  That is why I believe in the triunity of God – not in spite of being Jewish but because I am Jewish.