Archive for September, 2009


affliciting the soul and social responsibility

I want to continue on the theme of “afflicting the soul” or “self-denial.”   The prophet Isaiah expanded the meaning  of what it means to afflict the soul when he defines the kind of “fast” that God desires.   The text of Isaiah 58:6-7 reads:

   Is this not the fast which I choose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free And break every yoke?  Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

 It is tempting to understand this passage as simply teaching that religious activity in and of itself does not please God. It must be accompanied by actions that reflect the character of God.  While this is good and true, it also seems to be broadening the meaning of self-denial.” We usually think of self denial in terms of how it affects my own life. I deny a pleasure and it helps me in my relationship with God. This is true. However, the text seems to also be saying that it is not good enough to be thinking of ourselves when we “afflict the soul.”  He is telling us that if we re going to deny ourselves, it should somehow benefit the vulnerable people around us. Perhaps he is saying that fasting has its place, but let us deny ourselves for the sake of others.  If we are going to fast, perhaps we could give food to a homeless shelter or a bag of groceries to a needy friend. This is an important idea to explore. If we are going to really make a difference in the community and at the same time find our delight in God we need to be thinking of ways that we can deny ourselves for the benefit of the community.  

 It is interesting to note that when Yeshua quoted Isaiah 61 when he began his ministry he repeated much of the sentiment of Isaiah 58. He said,  

 The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovery of sight to the blind, To set free those who are downtrodden… (Luke 4:17)

As followers of the Messiah of Israel, should we not deny ourselves in the same way as Messiah?  Should we not afflict our souls by  bringing release to others? This is something that is important to consider as we begin a new year.

According to Isaiah, the result of this kind of “fast” is  “And the LORD will continually guide you, And satisfy your desire in scorched places, And give strength to your bones; And you will be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail. (Isaiah 58:11)

Is this not what we really desire? May we begin to engage in the spiritual disciplines that will bring forth the glory of God as well as our own satisfaction.


Afflicting the soul 1

Yom Kippur has come and gone. I hope it was a good fast for everyone.  It is a wonderful thing that every year we have this opportunity to “humble our souls” and fast as a community on Yom Kippur.  The phrase “humble the soul” or “afflict the soul” is translated from the hebrew words t’anoo naf-sho-tay-chem (please forgive my free style transliteration. I certainly hope that Dr. M. from OSU is not reading this!!).    The JPS Tanakh uses the phrase “practice self-denial.”  This seems to be a description of “fasting” based on several  bible verses. However, a case can certainly be made that the application is broader than “fasting” because the word “nefesh” or “soul” refers to the whole person. Therefore a correct translation would also be “afflict yourself” or “humble yourself.”  In the book of Daniel we read that he humbled himself and the description includes anointing his body as well as fasting. The Mishna describes “afflicting the soul” as refraining from eating, drinking, anointing the body, washing the body and sexual relations.  Probably the thought behind the text is to refrain from physical activity that one finds gratifying and satisfying. We often assume that the meaning must be an inward repentance and confession. While this is true, there is most definitely a physical element to it. We are not only metaphysical beings but we are also physical beings. God is quite interested in our physical beings and how we as physical human beings relate to God. We do not only follow him with our heads and hearts but we follow him with our bodies as well.

Some could conclude here that this self affliction could mean really doing harm to ourselves like cutting ourselves or doing harm in order to atone for our sins and misdeeds. There are those who might teach that the “mortification of the flesh” is necessary in this way to be cleansed from sin. I disagree. The text in Leviticus 16 is clear that the High Priest makes the atonement via the sacrifices. The Messiah made the atonement for us when he died for our sins and was raised from the dead. No, afflicting the soul does not atone for our sins. So then, what could be the purpose of practicing self-denial? When we deny ourselves we are physically choosing to focus our attention on God and not ourselves.  In other words, it is not simply a case of denying ourselves out of duty to God. It is denying ourselves with an attitude of recognizing that I am leaning on God and not a physical act to give me satisfaction. But wait! When we fast, is it not true that while chanting the Amidah we might be thinking of the pickled herring and lox and bagels that await us when the fast is over? Perhaps. But still if the intention of the heart is to focus on God and saying to yourself “I am choosing God over food for now” you are testing your heart and cultivating faithfulness.  This kind of self denial cultivates joy and delight in God. When there is no “affliction” of the self in a physical way we have a tendency to forget about God and to have a difficult time experientially to be thankful and to experience his grace. That is why the people who respond most readily to the messiah are the vulnerable people – people with real felt needs in life. Practicing self-denial in a sense creates a situation within ourselves where there are felt needs and thus a need to rely on God. Listen to Moses as he explains why the Jewish people wandered in the wilderness:

 Deuteronomy 8:2-3   “You shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.  3 “He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD.

 God was testing and training the hearts of the people to rely on him for their well being. The goal of this testing is to cultivate joy and satisfaction in God.

 Yeshua told us to “afflict the soul” in this way when he said…

“If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. (Luke 9:23-24).

Notice that the goal is to gain life. To live well.  It is not something only to practice on Yom Kippur but making a practice of self denial  will cause us to find much greater satisfaction and trust in God.  

 I am sure that we can all think of ways in which we can practice self denial. Fasting from time to time; denying ourselves some of the conveniences in which we find joy and gratification; taking a season off (or at least one day) from our favorite hobby or sports team.  The point is to find joy and satisfaction and delight in the Lord as focus our attention on him. None of this is to deny or demean the inner or metaphysical aspect of self denial. It is vitally important to repent and confess our sins but let us not neglect the great benefits of self denial.


high Holy Days journey

Happy New Year! I have not posted anything for a week or so because I have been extra busy preparing for the high holy Services at Beth Messiah and taking care of my parents. We had great services for Rosh Hashanah although the sermons were too long as I have been told. Now we are in the Days of Awe as we prepare ourselves for Yom Kippur. I like to think of the holidays as a journey. We begin with the wake up call, the sound of the shofar. It’s piercing sound wakes us up to remember our need for repentance. Maimonides famous “interpretation” of the sound of the shofar is

  “wake up sleepy ones

from your slumber and the dozing ones arise from your sleep

and examine your deeds and return with Teshuva and recall

your Creator, those people who forget the truth with the silliness

of the times and waste all their years on foolishness and

emptiness that will not help and not save. Look to your souls

and improve your ways and mistakes and abandon each one of

you his mistaken path and his intention that is not good”

Hichot Shofar 3:4

 Once awakened at Rosh Hashanah we enter the Ten Days of Awe, a serious time for personal reflection and a time to ask forgiveness and be forgiven of others.   Yom Kippur is the culmination of the ten Days of Awe at which time we confess our sins as individuals, as a community and as a people and start anew with God. The main tradition at Yom Kippur is fasting. It is the interpretation of the phrase “you shall afflict your souls”. Some translations are “humble your souls” or “deny yourselves”.  In this way, there is a personal sense of cleansing as our focus turns away from personal gratification in a physical way to finding gratification in relationship with God.  (I will write more on this later this week.)  

 Five days after Yom Kippur is the festival of Sukkot.  Although traditionally this is a minor festival, it really is the capstone of the High Holy Day Season. It is the time when we rejoice in restoration.  If you read the text carefully in Leviticus 23  you will notice that the word “celebrate” is used through the description of Sukkot. It is the celebration of the full harvest and spiritually a celebration of acceptance.  We dwell in the Sukkah and remember the provision of God. The emphasis on Sukkot is on the land of Israel and the blessings of the land.  Atonement has been made and we rejoice.

 As a messianic Jewish community, we observe these days in light of the coming of the Messiah.  This means that we come first with an assurance of the forgiveness of sins but at the same time we come asking for the forgiveness and cleansing from our sins. While we have forgiveness of sins we know that complete eradication of the flesh has not taken place yet. It is a rich and healthy experience for us to have the season when we reevaluate our lives and the life of our community and desire a deeper relationship with God in Yeshua.  This season also reminds us that the day will come when all Israel will recognize the Messiah and there will be the ultimate national Day of Atonement for our people. We need the wake up call of the shofar, the Days of Awe and a communal time of repentacve and confession.  One of the traditions that we have at Beth Messiah is something called “Living Yiskor.”  It is a short liturgy that we say on Yom Kippur  that includes a time of silent prayer as we intercede for our loved ones who are alive but have not embraced yeshua. As a messianic Jewish community we have an obligation to stand with our people in repentance  and to intercede for our people.  

 I hope that you are on the journey this year and that you are taking the opportunity to reflect on your own spiritual life and your relationships with others as you deepen your walk with God.


two kinds of faith

The questions was once asked of a Sage: why do we say God and God of our fathers  when we begin the Amida as well as in a variety of other prayers? In other words why do we repeat “God”  In Martin Buber’s Ten Rungs the answer given is that “God and God of our fathers” represent   two kinds of faith:


One believes because he has taken over the faith of his fathers, and his faith is strong. The other has arrived at faith through thinking and studying. The difference between them is this: The advantage of the first is that, no matter what arguments may be brought against it, his faith cannot be shaken; his faith is firm because it was taken over from his fathers. But there is one flaw in it: he has faith only in response to the command of man, and he has acquired it without studying or thinking for himself. The advantage of the second is that, because he found God through much thinking, he has arrived at a faith of his own. But here too there is a flaw: it is easy to shake his faith by refuting it through evidence. But he who unites both kinds of faith is invincible. And so we say, “Our God” with reference to our studies, and “God of our fathers” with an eye to tradition.

The Way of Man and Ten Rungs by Martin Buber, Kesington Publishing Corp, New york 2006, p. 43


There are many things we could say about this statement but I think that as we approach Rosh Hashanah we as a messianic Jewish community can resonate with the gist of the statement.  Each of us has come to faith in Yeshua individually via a confrontation with the messianic claims of the Messiah. The Ruach HaKodesh convicted us of the truth of Yeshua and our need for atonement.   Through study, thought and prayer we have embraced Yeshua. This is true of all Messiah followers. We have entered into a new relationship with God.  But we as a Messianic Jewish Community also have embraced the God of our fathers in that we believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We believe in the covenantal responsibility that God has given to us. We embrace the traditions of our people. “We have found him of whom  Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote– Yeshua of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”  We find our belief that Yeshua is the Messiah compatible with Jewish faith and practice.  Embracing Yeshua enhances our Jewish identity and gives great meaning to our customs and traditions. It also gives us a sense of purpose as Jews – to be a light to the nations and to our people as well.  Yeshua’s resurrection is the beginning of the fulfillment of the resurrection of Israel.  In messiah we have life – we have Jewish life.   


This season of repentance is a marvelous time to see just how compatible faith in Yeshua is with Judaism. We blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah to awaken us from our slumber to remember our need to repent of our sins and to be renewed in our relationship with God. We remember the kingship of God; His promises and the covenant relationship. on Yom Kippur, we come before God as both individuals and as a community and we confess our sins. We also intercede on behalf of our people. As a Messianic Jewish Community we know that we must confess our sins and God has given us a season each year  to engage in Heshbon HaNefesh – an account of the soul and to  renew the covenant relationship. living within the framework of Jewish practice enhances and solidifies faith in Yeshua.   Blessed be our God and the God of our Fathers.