Sunday, 16 November 2014

Or Tzaddikim Yismach

The Hidden Light

It is a traditional Jewish belief that the world was created for the use of humankind. But what kind of use? The use of becoming a tzaddik, a righteous one, or true human being. This is behind the popular Rabbinic sayings that the whole universe was created for the sake of the tzaddikim; that the world is not destroyed "because of 36 righteous people"; and that the tzaddik is the yesod olam, the "foundation of the world".  It is also behind one of the quotations ascribed to Yeshua HaMashiach in the apocryphal besorah tovah of Yehuda Tomah, or the "Gospel of Thomas". There is says:

V.12  The talmidim said to Yeshua: We know that you will leave us; who is it who will be great over us? Yeshua said to them: Wherever you are, go from there to Ya'akov haTzaddik, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.

The phrase "for whose sake heaven and earth came into being" is a way of saying that Yeshua's brother Ya'akov (James) is a truly great tzaddik, worthy of their full trust and obedience. 

In the Mesilat Yesharim (Way of the Upright) the Ramchal (Moshe Chaim Luzzatto 1707-1746) discusses this concept. He states there:

The world stands as in a great balance. If humanity is drawn after the world and distanced from the Creator, humans become degraded and degrade the world with them. However, if they control themselves and cling to the Creator, and use the world only as a way to serve the Creator, they are elevated and the world itself becomes elevated with them......This is similar to what our sages, of blessed memory, said regarding the light that the Holy One, blessed be, stored for the righteous (Chagigah 12a): 'Once the light saw that the Holy One, blessed be, had stored it for the righteous, it was gladdened (samach), as it is stated, 'The light of the righteous is gladdened" (or tzaddikim yismach).'  [Mesilat Yesharim Ch. 1, my translation]

Reading this paragraph I was reminded of Rav Sha'ul's words in Romans 8:19-24 (my translation): 

For the creation eagerly awaits the revelation of the children of God; for the Creation was subjected to ephemerality, not willingly but because of the one who subjected it in hope that the creation itself will also be set free from bondage to decay into the glorious freedom of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning with birth pains right up the present moment...

Rav Shaul seems to me to be saying here that when humanity fell it degraded the whole creation, which now waits with groaning to share in humanity's uplift as we truly become, and are revealed to be, the children of God. There is a fascinating glimpse of the continuity of Jewish thought here, and the Rabbinic sensitivities of Rav Sha'ul. 

In the second part of the Ramchal's paragraph, he makes his point by citing the Talmudic statement that the "light stored away" was glad to see that it was to be given to the righteous. The sages derive this from a creative reading of a verse in Mishle which literally means, the "illumination of the righteous brings gladness" but they read as "the light for the righteous is gladdened". This is a reference to the light that was created on the second day of Creation. The Rabbis ask, if light was created on the first day, then why are the stellar lights created on the fourth day? They answer that the light referred to on day one is a spiritual light that Hashem then hid away for the tzaddikim (this light is known in Jewish theology as the or haganuz). 

 There is a sod (a secret here): the words for "samach" (shin-mem-het) are also the root letters of Mashiach (mem-shin-yud-het). Yochanan (1:1-5) says that the Davar (Word) was the "light of men", or in other words, the spiritual light that illuminates men. Yeshua is the source of the light, as Yochanan states many times in different ways. This is even clearer in the passage in Mishle, which in Hebrew reads "the light of the tzaddikim gladdens": "or tzaddikim yismach" (yud-shin-mem-het), the exact letters of Mashiach (mem-shin-yud-het). The passage can thus also be read "the light of the tzaddikim is Mashiach". 

Friday, 14 November 2014

Love Is Stronger Than Death

Parshat Chayei Sarah

Bereishit 23:1-25:18; 1 Kings 1:1-31; Mt 1:1-17; 1 Cor 15:50-57

After Sarah Imanu (our mother) dies in this week's parsha (which some say is due to finding out what almost happened to Yitzhak in last week's parsha) it says "vayavo Avraham lispod l' Sarah v'livkotah", and Avraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993), known as "the Rav", comments on this parsha that there is a difference between "mourning" (lispod) and weeping (livkotah). Weeping refers to the primal release of grief. Mourning (hesped), which also means "eulogy", is not primarily an emotional process but an intellectual one. Hesped is the process of fully understanding, with as much accuracy and holism as possible, what you have lost. This is an essential part of the Torah approach to death, says the Rav (basing himself on the Talmud). This sounds excruciating, and no doubt it is. Yet in order to honour the dead, and I would think also, to honour oneself, it seems necessary. One should first review everything that has been lost with the death of the loved one, then let that full knowledge pour out in one's primal grief. 

I am struck here by what what might call the "nonBuddhist", or "nonstoic" nature of this advice. Not only is one not discouraged from grief, or counselled into a more "enlightened" response based on accepting impermanence, the focus here is on grieving fully and "properly". 

As we learn in the Brit Hadashah, even God weeps. When Yeshua learns of the death of Elazar (Lazarus), his friend and the brother of his disciples Miriam and Marta of Beit-Aniya (Yochanan 11:33), he is not stoic but deeply grieved. We should perhaps remember here that death was not God's hope for humankind. Had Adam and Chavah rested in the emunah (faith/trust) they were called to in the garden instead of choosing "their own possibilities" (Bonhoeffer) they would have remained in gan eden and eaten of the Tree of Life. Death grieves God. 

In that same chapter of Yochanan Yeshua comforts Marta by saying "Your brother will rise". She says that she knows he will rise in the techiyas hamesim (resurrection), but Yeshua assures her that he in fact means right now. Elazar will arise when his death is touched by the source of life, the Living Word. 

In this week's Brit Hadashah reading Rav Sha'ul affirms that "the shofar will sound, and the dead will be raised (1 Cor 15:52)". Quoting Hoshea, he says (15:55),

O death, where are your plagues?
O grave, where is your victory? 

In one of his shocking locutions Sha'ul goes on to say (in my translation based on Hoshea's Hebrew) that the plague leading to death is sin, and the power of sin is the Torah (15:56). In other words, sin leads to death on the authority of the Torah. Yet- thanks be to God who keeps giving us the victory through our Lord Yeshua the Messiah! (TLV).  The amazing implication of this is that Yeshua gives us victory over the power of condemnation for failing to fulfill the Torah, and thus breaks the authority which which sin kills us. This is a vision of Yeshua Hago'el, Yeshua the redeemer. 

Joyful, with all the strength I have my trembling lips shall sing:
Where is your boasted victory grave? And where is the monsters sting?
So let us praise the God of victory
Immortal hope for mortal flesh
So let us praise the God of victory
Who makes us conquerors in death. 
(Isaac Watts 1674-1748) 

This is the amazing offer present in Yeshua, Hashem's amazing grace. And though we will still will and still should grieve our losses here, surely some balm is mixed with death's sting in knowing we will rise again, and be reunited, through the undeserved grace and mind-boggling sacrifice of Yeshua Mashiach. Gazing in Yeshua's eyes, which filled with tears for us fixed themselves on the cross, we in turn may smile amidst our tears. In the dark night of death a sun rises.

In the Zen tradition there is a saying that one always needs to have "two eyes". The meaning is that one needs on the one hand to view things as ephemeral and merely external. On the other hand one needs to navigate those very ephemerals wisely. In a similar way we are not to suppress our grief because of our faith in the resurrection. Yeshua did not. Yet even while grieving for our loss in this life, we should simultaneously remember that a day will come when every tear will be wiped away, and let our mourning be tempered by that sweetness.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Vayera: Gods Right and Left Hands: The Conflict Between Charity and Justice?

Messianic Parsha: Vayera

Bereishit Vayera; Haftorah 2 Melachim 4:1-37
Brit Hadasha Readings: Lukas 1:26-38, 24:36; 2 Kefa 2:4-11

Prolegomenon: Avraham and Israel

Shlomo Katz (Ha Ma'ayan) writes on this week's parshah: 

"The Midrash Rabbah on this week’s parsha opens: “It is written (Tehilim 18:36), ‘You have given me the shield of Your salvation; and Your right hand has sustained me, and Your humility made me great.’ ‘You have given me the shield of Your salvation’--this refers to Avraham. ‘Your right hand has sustained me’--in the furnace (a reference to another midrash where Avraham was placed in a furnace for his belief in Hashem and survived], during the famine, and in Egypt. ‘Your humility made me great’--when did Hashem show humility to Avraham? When Avraham was sitting and the Shechinah was ‘standing,’ as it is written (in the first verse of our parsha), ‘Hashem appeared to him [Avraham] in the plains of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance of the tent . . .’.” 

R’ Yitzchak Ze’ev Yadler z”l (1843-1917; Yerushalayim) explains: If the only reason that Avraham was sitting was because he had recently undergone an operation (the circumcision), it would not have been worth the Torah’s while to report this fact. Rather, the midrash reasons, there must be a message in the verse. That message is alluded to in the cited verse from Tehilim, which teaches us three things about Hashem’s relationship with Avraham and the Jewish People. 

(1) Just as Hashem was Avraham’s shield (see Bereishit 15:1), so He is a shield for Avraham’s descendants. 

(2) Hashem acted towards Avraham and his descendants with his "right hand"- a term usually interpreted by our sages as an allusion to supernatural action.

(3) Even when a person is not capable of lifting himself to spiritual heights--as Avraham was not at this moment because of his physically weakened state--Hashem acts with humility and brings Himself closer to man. (Tiferet Zion)."

How truly do we see this reflected in Mashiach. Mashiach is a sheild for believing Israel and anyone who believes- a sheild that turns away the wrath we are heir to for our sins;

This salvation has come to us supernaturally through the self-sacrificial death of Yeshua Tzidkeinu (our righteousness);

Hashem's great humility is shown in the famous verses from Philippians 2:5-7:

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Mashiach Yeshua, 
6 who, though he was in the form of YHVH, did not count equality with YHVH a thing to be grasped, 
7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of humanity. 

This great humility of God is described in the first Brit Hadashah reading in Lukas, 1:26-38, which describes Gavriel's visit to Miriam, the declaration of Gods intent, and her acceptance of it. 

Charity and Justice

The Chofetz Chaim (R' Yisrael Meir Kagan, d. 1933) in his book Ahavat Chesed (The Love of Kindness) raised a question on verse 18:19:

"For I have chosen him (Avraham) that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of The Lord by tzedaka and mishpat (charity and justice)...." 

The Chofetz Chaim asks, "How can a person teach his household to do both charity and justice?" 

One needs to understand here that in Rabbinic thinking, these two qualities of tzedaka and mishpat form polar opposites. Tzedaka, which literally means righteousness, has a strong connotation of "charity/generosity/kindness" and sometimes carries the latter meaning exclusively. Mishpat literally means "judgement" and is taken to refer to strict justice or punitive judgement. These two qualities therefore represent the so-called "right" and "left" hands of God also known as chesed (kindness, mercy) and gevurah (severity, anger). 

Rabbinic thinking dating back to the Talmud sees these two qualities as existing within God in tension with each other. One somewhat shocking aggadah in the Talmud depicts God as praying , "May my mercy be stronger than my anger...." (T. Bavli, Berachot 7a). 

In fact on a Biblical, or p'shat level, this is somewhat of a false problem. The word "tzedaka" does indeed connote righteousness with an emphasis on interpersonal kindness, compassion and general ethical behaviour. The word "mishpat", however, refers to the sense of giving everyone their due, respecting their rights, being just. This is why when God is depicted as coming to the earth to bring mishpat it is an occasion of joy, not dread:

Psalm 98  

1 Sing to the Lord a new song,
    for he has done marvelous things;
his right hand and his holy arm
    have worked salvation for him.
2 The Lord has made his salvation known
    and revealed his righteousness to the nations.
3 He has remembered his love
    and his faithfulness to Israel;
all the ends of the earth have seen
    the salvation of our God.
4 Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,
    burst into jubilant song with music;
5 make music to the Lord with the harp,
    with the harp and the sound of singing,
6 with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—
    shout for joy before the Lord, the King.
7 Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
    the world, and all who live in it.
8 Let the rivers clap their hands,
    let the mountains sing together for joy;
9 let them sing before the Lord,
    for he comes to bring mishpat to the earth.
He will do mishpat to the world in righteousness
    and to the peoples with equity.

As Timothy Keller points out (Generous Justice) mishpat here connotes "vindication" or "putting things to right". It is a relief, not something to dread. Note also verse 9 actually says he will "do mishpat in tzedaka". In other words here mishpat is an expression of tzedaka!

These two qualities then are not necessarily in tension at all- in fact they support each other. The Rabbinic understanding of mishpat arises out of the juridical culture of the Rabbis, sprouting out of the internal debates of those called to judge legal cases. For the Rabbis mishpat referred to rendering a verdict in accordance with the law, and tzedaka to being kindly- going beyond the letter of the law to show compassion.

Interestingly these two ideas- strict justice and mercy- also arose as polar opposites in Christian thinking. "Strict justice" or "wrath" came to be associated with God's "holiness" which would not tolerate sin, and this attribute was juxtaposed with God's "love" or "mercy", which is his desire to save and bring His creations into his redeeming presence. Protestant theology has frequently described Yeshua's death on the cross as the resolution of this tension within God. In Yeshua's sacrifical death God's wrath is satisified, his justice honoured and fulfilled, and His holiness expressed and manifested. Yet this happens as a fulfillment of God's love- He himself takes our sin and death on Himself, in a staggering display of humility and mercy, in order to save us from ourselves. In the words of John Stott, "The cross demonstrates with equal vividness both His justice in judging sin and His mercy in justifying the sinner." (The Cross of Christ).  

This sacrifice is offered to all. All who accept it through faith are forgiven, made righteous, adopted as sons, and filled with the ruach hakodesh- the very Spirit of God, in order to be sanctfied and made holy. This is the culmination of the history of Israel and the centre of the story of the world. 

So how does the Chofetz Chaim answer? More prosaically, but still with wisdom worth heeding: "One teaches their children both charity and justice like this: with the rights of others be absolutely strict to the full letter of the law. With your own rights practice charity, and overlook other's transgressions against you."  

The Binding of Yitzhak (the Akedah)

The Akedah has long been considered an event of cosmic significance. In Christianity it is thought to be a sign, or type, foreshadowing Gods sacrifice of His own son. In Judaism it has been thought of as a great act of merit that Jews draw on eternally before God. In the zichronot prayer on Rosh Hashanah we pray the following, echoing what we said above:

"Remember the binding of Yitzhak so that your mercy overcomes your anger....."

Here Avrahams sacrifice is hoped to placate God forever; his descendants can call on mercy biglal Avraham (for Avrahams sake).

No doubt Hashem's love for Israel is eternal, but we know it doesn't quite work that way. God commanded Israel to offer atonement for themselves in the Temple despite Avrahams sacrifice, and even that was not enough in the face of Israel's failure to fulfill its mission to the world. God had to come Himself.

The Akedah is also a story of Avrahams consecration of Isaac to God as an offering and therefore the consecration of all Israel. It is Avrahams response to Gods consecration of Him, from which we learn that there must always be a response to complete the action of grace.

"Therefore I urge you brothers and sisters, in view of Gods mercies, to offer your bodies as living sacrifice (Romans 12:1)"

As I have argued elsewhere, I believe that Avraham did not think God would actually take Isaac from him, but rather trusted in Gods promises in the face of seemingly incontrovertible evidence. He trusted because he had walked with God and come to know Him. His faith in His promises had been amy rewarded and his faith his justice proven by his respond to Avrahams questioning over Sodom and Amorah.

This faith is what Kierkegaard called that of the "knight of faith", who gives all up to God confident that it will somehow be returned to him. This is the faith in resurrection. Instead of clinging tight to this world, grabbing what we can and looking out for no. 1, we "hate the world" and love God. But we will not lose all these beauties, we will not lose each other. All will be restored in a state infinitely more wonderful and true than now, and Gods justice and love will be vindicated even as he loves and vindicates.

This faith, and Gods power of resurrection, feature in this weeks Haftorah where we read of the resurrection of "the Shunnamite woman's" son through the intercession of Elisha. Like Avraham, the Shunnamite woman is first given abundance and then has her son seemingly taken from her, only to have him returned. All of the wonders that happen to her are a result of her faith in Elisha through light and dark.

In Lukas 24:36 we read of the ultimate sign of the resurrection: Yeshua's startling return as the first fruits back from the dead and the conqueror of death for all. Whereas Avraham has faith in Hashem even in the face of the apparent loss of Yitzhak, and the Shunnamite woman has faith in Elisha, Yeshua's disciples seem lost in doubt and fear (24:38). Yeshua's miraculous appearance is utterly shocking to them, and they think he is a spirit, or fail to recognize him at all. True to form Yeshua's reappearance to them and to us is not based on their or our faithfulness: it is a unilateral act of mercy that evokes faith in lost hearts.

It is interesting to note what the disciples do after meeting Yeshua on the road to Emmaus: they return to Yerushalayim and "were continually at the Temple praising God" (24:58 ESV). The disciples take their joy back into the very heart of Judaism and Israel. They express their joy Jewishly. Messianic Jews can take heart in their own path of delighting in Yeshua as and through and with Israel.