Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Yeshua and the Torah: Lord of the Sabbath

Want to know how to become wealthy? Don’t win the lottery. A surprising number of lottery winners squander their wealth away. Here are a few of their stories.

Michael Carroll, an unemployed 26-year-old Brit lost a £9.7 million jackpot he won in 2002 (about $15 million) and hopes to get his old job back as a garbageman. At first, Carroll lavished gifts on friends and family, but soon started spending on himself. "The party has ended," he recently told the UK Daily Mail, "That's the way I like it. I find it easier to live off £42 dole than a million."

After winning $16.2 million in the Pennsylvania lottery in 1988, William 'Bud' Post might have had it made. He died in 2006 living on a $450 monthly disability check. "His problems," said The Washington Post, "included...a brother who tried to hire someone to kill him and his sixth wife and a conviction after Post fired a shotgun on a debt collector."

Evelyn Adams of New Jersey won the state lottery twice—and used up her $5.4 million on a compulsive gambling habit. She now lives in a trailer.

West Virginian Jack Whittaker won a $315 million Powerball jackpot on Christmas 2002 and lost everything he valued. Everyone around him, including strangers demanded some of his fortune and he retreated into alcohol. He also lavished gifts on a 17-year-old granddaughter Brandi, whose life spiraled out of control. Whittaker's marriage disintegrated as he became a notorious philanderer. Two years after winning his fortune, his granddaughter died of an apparent overdose. With the bulk of his jackpot gone, Whittaker, who had been a hard-working contractor, told reporters: "I wish we had torn the [lottery] ticket up."

What is wealth? I like this definition: Wealth (that is, material wealth) is a measure of your ability to do what you would like to do, when you would like to do it - a measure of your breadth of immediate available choice.

Certainly, by that standard, one of the greatest gifts to humanity came at Mt. Sinai through the fourth commandment:

"Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy." (Ex. 20:8-11)

God intended the Shabbat to be a day to invest in our spiritual wealth and well-being. This is a weekly gift of 24 hours to be free, totally free, to do nothing else but seek a higher spiritual plane and develop closer relationships with family, friends, and those in our community of faith. Above all, each one is encouraged to apply their heart, mind and soul in freedom to be themselves before God and explore that relationship without any greater effort than the study of God's Word.

The word "Shabbat" comes from the root Shin-Bet-Tav, meaning to cease, to end, or to rest. The word we translate work is “Melachah”—which generally refers to the kind of work that is creative, or that exercises control or dominion over your environment.

This commandment was a transformative gift not just to Israel—but through the influence of the Scriptures, has affected much of humanity, including Christians who have adopted a Sunday Sabbath. No civilization before Israel was ever so generous with its people: giving them one holiday every week. In fact, the Greeks considered this to be a sign of Israel’s laziness.

For Messiah's followers, one of the best ways to honour this gift is to follow Yeshua's example. He attended the synagogue with other Jews. We read in Luke 4:16: “on the Sabbath Day he attended he went into the synagogue which was his custom…” This chapter shows how he attended two different services: one in Nazareth, another in Capernaum. Nor is he simply there as an observer: he reads the Scriptures, he speaks and is engaged with the community.

In Matthew 12, Yeshua is accosted by some of his opponents on the Shabbat. Since he has grown more popular, and as his teaching has grown in authority for the common people, his qualifications as a teacher are being challenged by the P’rushim (Pharisees-who scrupulously adhere to the Torah and the Oral Law, which includes Israel's traditional interpretations of how to practice Torah) and the experts in the law; those we call the Scribes. (The term “Scribe” actually doesn’t refer to those who simply copied out the Scriptures; Scribes were often experts in law, often acting publicly in a legal capacity.)

The challenge to Yeshua is not unusual and could happen among any gathering of Jews when a question comes up and it’s debated—sometimes hotly. After all, on Shabbat, debating the Torah is encouraged.

Among my Christian friends, it's commonly understood that Matthew 12 provides evidence that Yeshua was giving his followers license to dispense with the Jewish traditions of the Shabbat. But I believe that Matthew presents a very different type of issue. He is actually presenting Yeshua’s credentials as an authoritative rabbi in Israel.

Matthew 12: Two Sabbath controversies

"At that time Yeshua went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, 'Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.'" (Mt. 12: 1,2)

At the time of Yeshua, there was an ongoing discussion about the same situation which confronted his disciples. As they walked along, they were hungry. Rather than stopping, they grabbed some fast food: grain off the stalk rubbed with the hand (i.e. with no other tool) and eaten. This was not forbidden, in fact, it was actually prescribed by the rabbis.

But some had decided that this was too lax; an example of a standard of holiness that descends into “legalism,” a new rule for the sake of making more oppressive rules. (If you've noticed, the rule-makers usually make these up for other people.) These rules certainly work for those who don't have to travel any distance to a worship service and cannot prepare food before they set out. But it creates an oppressive penalty on those who are not so favoured.

Yeshua later makes a similar point about such increasing legalism in Matt. 23:2-4: "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat [i.e. as teachers of the Torah for the people]. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them."

Matthew 12 gives Yeshua’s immediate response in some detail:

1) He refuses to have his disciples intimidated by someone else’s standard of Sabbath observance, so he identifies the central issue and gives a comparable situation from Scripture. "He answered, 'Haven't you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests.'" Matt. 12: 3,4.

2) Continuing on the theme of the Temple and its priests, he then provides an example to supports his disciples' actions: Matt. 12:5: "Or haven't you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent?"

3) He then applies the priestly rule to those who minister to him, and lays out the Messianic priorities for his followers: a) “Mercy, not sacrifice;” b) his status as “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:6,7):

"I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice' (Hosea 6:6), you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath."

This "ruling" or instruction is completely in keeping with the expectations of Israel that when Messiah came, he would indeed provide greater clarity and focus for a proper adherence to the teachings of Scripture and the Law of Moses.

When Yeshua declares that he is “Lord of the Sabbath,” it is comparable to the name of Messiah given in Isaiah 9:6, “Prince of Peace” (Saar Shalom). It does not impose any new authority over Israel, but properly suggests that the Sabbath itself finds a further Messianic fulfillment in him: after all, the Shabbat looks forward to the Messianic kingdom when HaShem, humanity and the natural realm will be at complete peace. Thus Israel is called to look to Messiah in order to comprehend the character, purpose and meaning of Shabbat.

The controversy of the Shabbat is a microcosm of the larger issue: Is Yeshua the Messiah? Having taken a stand against him, even Yeshua's miraculous signs become an excuse for further complaints as we see in Matt. 12:9-12

"Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked him, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?"
He said to them, "If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath."

Yeshua exercises the power of his Messianic authority through a powerful sign (v. 13): "Then he said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other."

Of course, with their minds already made up, the Pharisees not only reject this sign, but treat his actions as a provocation (v. 14). But nowhere in this chapter does Yeshua deny that he has altered the principles of the Shabbat or no longer respects its importance.

What happened to the Shabbat?

When I was a cub scout, I remember one of my friends complaining to me: “You Jews don’t honour God according to the Scriptures. You're supposed to worship on 'the seventh day' and you worship on the sixth day." I was pretty young at the time—I thought he was right—and so I went home and looked at the calendar and found that the Gentiles' "seventh day" was the first day of the week.

But it’s no accident that Church-goers think of Sunday as their “Sabbath.” The Westminster Confession states that God literally changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday.

In most of North America, the battle for the Sabbath has been lost. We’ve largely given up the fight—there's little honour or holiness attached to our Sabbaths. But in Yeshua’s time, Israel was well aware of its importance. After all, squandering wealth is one thing; provoking the Giver is worse. The prophets had warned the nation that God would bring judgment on the land for Israel’s careless disregard of the Sabbath.

Jeremiah 17: 27: "But if you do not obey me to keep the Sabbath day holy by not carrying any load as you come through the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle an unquenchable fire in the gates of Jerusalem that will consume her fortresses.' "

Nehemiah 13: 17: "I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, "What is this wicked thing you are doing—desecrating the Sabbath day? 18 Didn't your forefathers do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity upon us and upon this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath."

So, the rabbis had become very scrupulous to safeguard the seventh day. In order to do so they created a “fence around the law” for Shabbat: regulations that were meant to safeguard its holiness.

Using the principle that all work on the Temple in Solomon’s time had to cease during the Shabbat, they developed a list of all actions to be forbidden. Most of us are used to seeing lists like this as a sign of Israel’s overzealous attitude towards Torah; however we would be cautioned instead to see how seriously the rabbis took the warnings of the prophets.

1. Sowing
2. Plowing
3. Reaping
4. Binding sheaves
5. Threshing
6. Winnowing
7. Selecting
8. Sifting
9. Kneading
10. Baking
11. Shearing wool
12. Washing wool
13. Beating wool
14. Dyeing wool
15. Spinning
16. Weaving
17. Making two loops
18. Weaving two threads
19. Separating two threads
20. Tying
21. Untying
22. Sewing two stitches
23. Tearing
24. Trapping
25. Slaughtering
26. Flaying
27. Salting meat
28. Curing hide
29. Scraping hide
30. Cutting hide up
31. Writing two letters
32. Erasing two letters
33. Building
34. Tearing a building down
35. Extinguishing a fire
36. Kindling a fire
37. Hitting with a hammer
38. Taking an object from the private domain to the public, or transporting an object in the public domain.

(Mishnah Shabbat, 7:2)

The Sabbath then became a battle ground for preserving the sanctity of Israel after the Exile. And it was a precious gift to be protected, though sometimes over-zealously. But it was not a gift that the Gentiles, either Greeks or Romans, wanted. The early Church Fathers didn’t want to be people of the seventh day.

There are only five references in the New Covenant to the believers worshipping on the first day of the week. None of them refers to it as “the Lord’s Day,” a term which later came into use to suggest that Yeshua had become “Lord” of some other day than Shabbat.

However, it's evident that the Gentiles created a separate custom and tradition, which interpreted New Covenant teachings to suggest that the day of worship for Yeshua’s followers was the first day of the week as a remembrance of the resurrection. Some insist this is a further sign of the anti-Semitism of the Church Fathers. However, in itself, the adoption of another day of worship, which was also done by Islam, is not so much an act against Israel, it only shows a curious but not untypical disregard for the content of the Scriptures. In summary, the Church Fathers dispensed with the Jewish legalities—which they had no interest in following with the insistence that Yeshua himself held that view—and brought in their own.

The Messianic Jewish Problem

So how do Messianic believers celebrate the Shabbat? Do we follow it as Jews or as Christians? There is a variety of perspectives given to us from the leading teachers in our movement.

Baruch Maoz: Don’t have anything to do with the rabbinical teachings and rituals for Shabbat.

Arnie Fruchtenbaum: Focus on celebrating in a way that reflects the Biblical instruction and not the rabbinical injunctions.

John Fischer: We have no other Jewish context except that of the rabbi’s but we can follow their traditions (as Yeshua said) while maintaining the anticipation of Messiah.

Dan Juster: “Shabbat is a special ‘sign of the covenant’ between Israel and God, so it is a priority. We don’t object to the Gentiles having moved it; but it must be a Jewish priority to preserve it and to maintain our Jewish inheritance.

Gershon Nerel: Make the Shabbat priority one of spiritual and personal renewal.

Barney Kasdan: Emphasize Jewish tradition and the freedom of Shabbat and the joy of Creation apart from the constrictions of legalism because our salvation is in Yeshua.

I think that Kasdan's instruction is helpful. We actively participate in both those meanings of Shabbat when we recite kiddush (the prayer over wine sanctifying the Sabbath or a holiday). Friday night kiddush refers to Shabbat as both zikkaron l'ma'aseh bereishit (a memorial of the work in the beginning) and zeicher litzi'at mitzrayim (a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt).

We have the freedom to follow our hearts and be faithful to Yeshua without the constraints of legalism, yet understanding that some are uniquely called to express themselves both as voices for the freedom we have in Yeshua and his Jewish identity as Messiah who has fulfilled Torah.

Do we fully grasp the wealth we have been given?

Sometimes, people wonder about the price they’ll have to pay if they give their life to Yeshua. I can tell you—you don’t know what life is until you walk with Him.

But I want you to think for a moment just how much you already owe to God for gift of the Sabbath. When have your best memories been made? Did you build your most meaningful relationships during busy workdays or the weekends?

If you look back into the lives of each of those people who squandered those lottery millions, you’ll find that almost all of them were spiritually hollow. But neither does our society understand how much it has squandered away when it lost sight of the Sabbath rest-days which have now been squeezed out of our lives so that we can keep shopping.

Sometimes people want to know what price I paid for believing in Yeshua. They wonder if I have one of those dramatic testimonies where I was cut off by my family for my faith. As many of you know, the opposite took place. But you also need to know that my parents—both of them traumatized in different ways by the Holocaust—were challenged when I stopped being a young, self-centred agnostic. Out of the blue, they saw me leaving every Friday evening in a clean pair of jeans for Erev Shabat services. Then one night my mother stopped me: “You know, we have Erev Shabbat here, too.”

And so, I watched my parents, who had struggled to communicate with each other over the years, come together over the Shabbat candles, the Kiddush and the traditions. That was how Shabbat came into my parents’ home, and for years afterwards the ritual of Shabbat sustained them. I also saw the healing power of the Shabbat—because they knew so little about spiritual rest—and had suffered such a deep, overwhelming poverty through losses no one could have fully understood. The blessings of tradition reminded them that God is still with Israel in all her trials, all her losses—and they too were linked to generations that kept trusting.

So when we say, "More than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel," I can affirm its truth. And if people want to suggest that Yeshua has in any way diminished the wealth of my heritage—I can tell you plainly—he has given far more to my Jewish identity than I could have ever hoped to acquire otherwise.

You and I have a special call to fulfill in freedom, grace, but also obedience. Yeshua must be Lord of my Sabbath for I have no peace—no true shalom—except in Him.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Is There An Unforgiveable Sin?

One of the manliest men I’ve ever known was the late Joe Flanagan, the father of a dear friend. Handsome, competent and a successful businessman, he had been a bomber pilot in WW2.

But Joe had a particular pain which grew deeper as he grew older: during a night bombing run, he had placed his bombs as he was ordered and after returning to base learned that a terrible mistake had been made. He and his squadron had killed Allied soldiers. The events left him humbled and heartbroken.

There's a term used when troops kills their own. It's called "friendly fire," a tragic, but common horror of war. Sadly, it often matches the way that believers treat each other. Or worse, it may be how we treat ourselves.

Some people are nursing deep, hidden feelings of guilt or condemnation. What began with the response of a healthy conscience has deteriorated into self-accusation--"friendly fire." And many people who don't know what the Bible teaches about sin and guilt have heard that Yeshua--Jesus--spoke of an "unforgiveable" or "unpardonable" sin. What they don't know is that He never intended for us to live in the shadow of unredeemable guilt.

Let's take a look at the Scriptural roots of that phrase.

In Mark 3 and in a corresponding passage in Matthew 12, Yeshua has become known to the religious authorities. But as he performs miracles, instead of being acclaimed, he is condemned, rejected and accused of consorting with Satan. So, he replies to his detractors:

Mark3:4-6: Then Jesus asked them, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?" But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.

The hardening of the P’rushim (Pharisees) towards Yeshua makes it clear that their political and spiritual leadership in Israel is threatened and they will go to any lengths to discredit him.

The parallel passage is in Matt. 12:22-24: Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. All the people were astonished and said, "Could this be the Son of David?" But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, "It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons."

1. Yeshua challenges their logic. vv. 25,26: "...Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand?"

2. He challenges their objectivity: v. 27 "And if I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your people drive them out?"

3. He challenges their conclusion: v. 28 "But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you."

But then he addresses the consequences of their judgments:

vv. 30-33 "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come."

The leaders had observed Yeshua’s selfless acts; they witnessed his powerful miracles, the signs affirming His words and His message of grace. You see how the emphasis here is on the P'rushim (Pharisees we call them) because they have an emphasis on Torah study and adherence to the Scriptures. But having set their hearts against Yeshua, they rejected the truth and attacked him before the crowds.

Those who should have been acclaiming the Messiah were now condemning and rejecting him: he wasn’t one of them, he wasn’t known to them, and he wasn’t politically acceptable. Instead of receiving Emmanuel, the One promised in the Scriptures for whom they had been waiting, they attacked with "friendly fire."

This scenario is often read as a fight between Christians and Jews. But this is a battle going on within the ranks of Israel, even though many Pharisees (including Rabbi Saul) will later become Yeshua's followers-see Acts 15:5; 21:20. But because so many rejected Him, there are terrible consequences that Yeshua predicts in Luke 21: within one generation the majority of Israel will not only reject Him but ignite the battles against Rome that destroy Jerusalem, the Temple and send the nation into exile.

But these large scale, national events are never associated with "the unpardonable sin." The sin of which Yeshua speaks appears to be one that is individual and personal.

When you spend time among young people, it’s not unusual to hear the confession: they've committed the "unpardonable sin." I've heard that you can't be in youth ministry unless you were dealing with at least one young person convinced they were guilty of this sin—even if they couldn't explain to you what it is. On occasion, you’ll meet adults who suspect that they've committed this sin, too.

So what is it? Apparently, the great evil here is to declare before the living Messiah, despite the witness of the Spirit, that he is of the devil. But Yeshua says that the sin is not committed against Him, but against the Spirit, which means that his detractors refused to soften their hearts against the very appeal of God.

But instead of focusing on whether we've committed the ultimate sin, and allowing some fear to creep in that God will find an excuse to reject us for all time, we need to do something more important. Consider this: have we allowed condemnation from other believers or our own hearts to hinder us from living fully in the grace and peace offered to us in Messiah?

There was a time when I knew one of the current leaders of Jews for Judaism; he was a very dear friend of mine when he was a believer—but he ended up in an argument with our pastor. The situation esclated into a bitter dispute and after some time, this man decided that he was no longer in the Lord. Months later, when I asked why—because this brother had at one time preached the Gospel of Yeshua fervently—he referred me to a passage in Hebrews 10:26-29:

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?

Here again, we see a passage that has been used as a variant of "the unpardonable sin." But is it? Certainly there's a warning for those who persist in sin but it stands against the very words of Yeshua: after all, as he died on the cursed tree, he was interceding for the ones who put him there.

Listen to Yochanan (John): "...if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."(1 John 1:7-10)

"My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus the Messiah, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world." (1 John 2:1,2)

In our human frailty, we're full of condemnation, guilt and the residue of sin. But the miracle of God’s forgiveness in Messiah, through His truly ultimate sacrifice, has accomplished all that needs to be done to deal with sin. We may be so judgmental that we're unable to forgive or forget our own sin. And we may be so harsh on others that we're the source of "friendly fire" for others. (Just think of that old acquaintance, now sharing his ignorance about the Bible with so many others.)

But can our sin overcome the power of God's love? Yeshua's "last words" are the last word on that subject. He said, "It is finished." There is no more to be done, except for us to acknowledge what he has done for us. We could all learn from the great Puritan writer, John Bunyan, whose diaries reveal a moment of doubt when he sees his sins, as overwhelming as they seem, washed away like a drop in the ocean of God's grace.

Do we condemn ourselves?

The bestseller, The Shack, features a man who is palpably full of anger against God after the murder of his beautiful young daughter. But when the full reasons for his anger come out, at the heart of his fury is a terrible truth: he blames himself for an act which he couldn’t prevent. He has reserved the greatest judgment for himself.

If anyone could claim to have committed "the unpardonable sin" it would be Rabbi Saul of Tarsus, better known to us as Paul. He was an accessory to the murder of Stephen and openly worked to destroy the first community of Yeshua's followers. He wrestled with the question of sin in the book of Romans and asked: What’s wrong with me—why can't I simply respond to God’s love and stop sinning?

Romans 7:14-25: We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Yeshua HaMashiach our Lord!

So, if someone is saying: "I’m guilty of the unpardonable sin," they may be expressing something deeper: “It’s not my fault. I tried doing my best, but now I’m too guilty to do anything but sin.” Or, they may simply have condemned themselves without knowing God's desire to love and restore their hearts.

And what if you know you’ve been forgiven? We all must rely on Yeshua day to day, moment by moment—even when our own hearts convict us of our weaknesses, confront us with our failings—we are compelled to keep seeking His will and live as fully as possible in Him. Even under friendly fire.

One of the great stories in Messianic Judaism is that of my mentor and teacher, Rachmiel Frydland. In his book, When Being Jewish was a Crime, he recounts the horrors of the Holocaust through which he lived in Poland. His young wife, a faithful believer in Yeshua, was murdered by the Nazis and he experienced both betrayal and rejection from fellow believers in those harrowing days when life was cheap and death everywhere. Then, at a certain point, Rachmiel understood that he had been visited by an unearthly grace: the Lord was going to spare his life. As the war wound to a close, his great task was no longer merely survival, but to find meaning for himself and others after the shadow of evil had passed. At that moment, he says, he surrendered in a new way to God's will. And he left no legacy of bitterness to any of us whom he taught; only the humble grace of a fellow servant who was overcoming day by day.

This is our challenge: cease fire and receive God’s love; not because we're perfect, but because Yeshua first loved us. And when the cannon fire of doubt rises, remember His words, "Father, forgive them..." They also apply to me and you.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Rev. Dr. Edward D. Brotsky (1918-2010): A Tribute

An era has ended. Edward Daniel Brotsky, a leading Messianic Jewish teacher, pastor, mentor and visionary is in the presence his Lord.

Ed Brotsky always seemed like a man out of his time. When I first met him over thirty-three years ago, he already looked out of date to my young eyes: a staid gentleman from a more conventional era. No one called him a pioneer or visionary. We didn’t know how much he had sacrificed to lay the foundations of the new Messianic Jewish movement.

A vigorous seeker after truth from a young age, Ed was born in Montreal and raised by Orthodox Jewish immigrant parents from the Ukraine. The family then moved to Windsor where his father worked on the Ambassador Bridge until an injury sent them them to Toronto for his rehabilitation.

Barely out of his teens, Ed’s search for answers to life’s larger questions finally led him to a week-long lecture series at a theatre in the north end of Toronto. The meetings featured Dr. Holzer, a Jewish believer from Seattle who spoke boldly of his faith in Yeshua ha’Mashiach, Jesus the Messiah. Several times that week, Ed met Dr. Holzer personally. On the final night of meetings, Holzer called Ed up on stage to publicly affirm that he had accepted Yeshua as his personal Messiah. Rejoicing in his new faith, Ed looked out into the audience and found himself staring right into the face of his father.

As a new believer, Ed came under the wing of Rev. Morris Kaminsky of the Nathaniel Institute, one of North America's leading outreach ministries. Its facilities, including a well-used gym, were in the heart of Toronto’s largely Jewish Kensington Market district and had a remarkable impact on local youth. They gravitated to the warm personality of Rev. Kaminsky and his wife, Ida, who ran extensive programs for local families. The result was an authentic, culturally Jewish community of believers with its own congregation.

Ed entered Toronto Bible College and married Nora Green, a TBC graduate, in 1944. A year later, after his graduation, they began a storefront outreach in Toronto but soon felt called to Western Canada. Their first stop was Winnipeg but they finally settled in Calgary where Ed founded the Hebrew Christian Witness in 1951. Despite several attempts to make the ministry self-supporting, including extensive international radio broadcasts, Ed had to find employment and became a successful financial planner.

Even then, he was out of step with his contemporaries. The mid-20th century Hebrew Christians were busy assimilating into church culture. But Ed felt that they were fitting in too easily and losing their identity. He began seeking a new vision that would honour the Jewish roots of his faith and celebrate Yeshua as Messiah.

At the 1955 International Hebrew Christian Alliance conference held in Toronto, Ed met Dr. Lawrence Duff-Forbes, a vigorous proponent of Messianic Judaism. An Australian by birth, Duff-Forbes had a syndicated radio ministry based in California where he promoted views which were widely viewed as “a curiosity” if not outright heresy to his colleagues.

Hebrew Christians had suppressed Messianic Judaism, championed by Rev. Mark John Levy, soon after it appeared in the early 20th century. Worshipping Yeshua while wearing a yarmulke and prayer shawl, keeping the the same feasts and festivals as Yeshua and adhering to Biblical principles of kashrut was considered “Judaizing” the faith, especially among Jews!

In 1960, the Brotskys went to join Duff-Forbes briefly in Whittier, CA. But driving south through the mountains in wintry conditions with a heavily-packed trailer was treacherous. On a mountain road, the car and trailer twisted in opposite directions. The car, suddenly separated from the trailer, plunged off the road—and was miraculously caught by branches. Remarkably, the car with everyone safe inside, was winched back up onto the road. Ed’s daughter, Naomi, recounted the miracle during his funeral. That morning the family had prayed remembering the Lord's "everlasting arms” and certainly these had upheld them up in circumstances that might have been tragic.

The time with Duff-Forbes affirmed Ed’s calling to a Messianic Jewish vision. But after returning to Calgary he had limited options and his views still faced widespread opposition. He could have given up. The family was financially comfortable and he had built a small Messianic synagogue in his home where he held rabbinical-style services. These included the Bar and Bat Mitzvah for Naomi and elder brother, David.

In 1969 he surprised his family, taking a position in the American Northeast, based in Pennsylvania with the American Baptist Convention. Again, he created a setting that was more synagogue than church. But instead of derision, he attracted a growing number of young Jewish believers drawn to his powerful teaching on the Jewish roots of their faith.

In the wake of Israel’s Six Day War victory, there was a refreshing sense of pride among North American Jews. Those feelings also permeated the new generation of Jewish believers. But Messianic Judaism not only found an audience among young people. Ed’s ministry colleagues were also paying attention. They saw his Seder meals and services invigorating the youth—their own sons and daughters—with a strong Biblical faith. Many of these youth were eager to share Messiah with their friends out of a positive new connection with their Jewish heritage.

Among the peers who came to share Ed’s vision were old friends from Toronto, Rev. Martin (Marty) Chernoff and Rev. Malvern Jacobs, who had also grown up under the nurture of Morris Kaminsky. Chernoff promoted Messianic Judaism through the development of congregational ministries in Cincinnati and Philadelphia and then, in 1975, led the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America to be renamed the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America.

Like most mainstream churches, the American Baptists abruptly decided to close their Jewish work. In the mid-1970s Ed and Nora came back to Toronto. An attempt to start a Messianic congregation showed promise, then faltered. But it laid the groundwork for the ministry of Rev. Hans Vanderwerff, who was then living near Ottawa. He and his wife Vonnie came to Toronto to lead a group of young Jewish believers—I was one of them—and under their direction that group expanded into Canada’s first viable Messianic synagogue, Congregation Melech Yisrael, led today by Rabbi Jack Farber.

As a young believer I took my time warming up to Ed; he was considered "the old guard" among the young men in our group. He didn't let my cautions come between us and in time I found him to be a man of rare integrity. His sterling character, including those traditional values that gave him a passion for excellence won me over—and, in time, my peers.

In a touching gesture, when I graduated from seminary he insisted that his Bible Study group suspend their usual meeting and attend my commencement ceremony. I always cherished that kindess, but he had already provided a blessing I could never repay. A year before, as my mother was in the hospital on her death bed, Ed and Nora had led her to trust in Yeshua as her Messiah.

Over time, I heard from others (including the outstanding Messianic theologian Dr. Dan Juster with whom I’ve worked) of their respect for Ed as a founding father of the Messianic movement. He has not only been a mentor but also the spiritual father of leaders including Larry Feldman, an outstanding Messianic rabbi with Chosen People Ministries who oversees two congregations in the Los Angeles area.

In 1991 Ed was granted a Doctorate of Divinity from Canada Christian College and joined their faculty with Rev. Jacobs until he could no longer keep up the rigors of a teaching schedule. Sadly, the college's change in attitude toward Jewish outreach was painful to him. However, Eunice Davis continued teaching his courses at the college based on material she had gleaned from Ed and Rev. Jacobs, who passed away in 1998.

Ed touched so many lives: as a father figure to Jewish believers, a wise counselor and a leader who gave dignity to our community. Honour and appreciation marked the sunset of his ministry, when his advice and teaching were widely sought by Toronto’s growing Messianic community.

Nora, his faithful companion and co-worker for over 50 years began to experience increasing problems with Alzheimer’s in the mid-1990s. Ed was devastated and when she passed away in 1999 we feared that he wouldn’t be with us much longer. But there was an unexpected last chapter. He married a long-time acquaintance, Betty Booth, who brightened the last years with a new spark of joy. Betty’s love and care, along with the support of another old friend, Bob Doucette, allowed the couple to live independently until Ed was hospitalized with an advanced cancer.

The last time we met I was in Ed's hospital room with my wife, Sue. He was steadfast in faith; his thoughts heavenward, always on Yeshua. We spoke at length of his ministry, his many accomplishments and prayed together. Before leaving, I raised my arms over him in the Aaronic Benediction; the same blessing which I gave at the close of his funeral.

During that service, two men for whom Ed has been a life-long mentor, Leslie Jacobs (son of Malvern) and Dr. Brian Nixon, extolled his career and spiritual legacy. The service was conducted by the North Toronto Salvation Army Corps where Betty has long been a member. Betty wore her Salvationist uniform and daughter Naomi accompanied our hymns on the piano. Sadly, her brother David was unable to come because of professional commitments. In addition to his considerable spiritual family, Ed leaves behind a large, extended family: five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren (with one more expected).

During the service, Dr. Nixon reminded us of Ed’s first encounter with Morris Kaminsky. Standing nervously in front of the Nathaniel Institute, Ed reached out to ring the doorbell. He expected to be met by a stern, high collared clergyman. Instead, a casually dressed Jewish man opened the door. Ed assumed it was the janitor. Of course, in a few moments, he realized that he was addressing Rev. Kaminsky himself, who brought him inside with a warm, haymishe welcome and then thoroughly disarmed him by yelling up the stairs, “Ida, it’s Ed Brotsky!”

Surely it was that way again. Ed awoke before a kind, disarming Jewish presence, One for whom he had been waiting a lifetime. And his Master, before turning to call over many old friends leaned closer and gently whispered, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Into the Light: From thinking about life to living with God

The sunlight of early spring poured into the professor’s office. As we sat around her desk discussing philosophy, I grew more dissatisfied with every answer.
“How did I make this mistake?” I thought. “Why did I think that philosophy would give my life meaning?” The face of my teacher was lined with her own troubles and I tried to explain my dilemma.
“I always thought that studying philosophy would lead to truth; wisdom for life.”
“No, Ben,” she began. “Those are not the purpose of our study. We’re examining the history of ideas…”
As she spoke I knew I was at a dead end. In my mind’s eye I could see all my teachers and fellow students turning a great wheel like clockwork machinery; producing ideas without end. They circled the truth—whatever that meant—and never reached it. No one could tell me if life had a real purpose or a larger-than-life reason for living.
The professor stopped talking. I agreed with her politely and promised to work harder to finish my essays on time.

Outside in the reviving March air, I felt the freedom of giving up false illusions. It was mixed with disappointment. What would I do now?
From my route I could see the emerging skyline of Toronto’s city center. My parents had come here from Israel in the early 1950’s, and I was born while they still lived in the teeming Kensington Market area, full of postwar Jewish immigrants.
I was always conscious of my Jewishness. Not that my parents were religious. We celebrated all the holidays, but my identity didn’t revolve around Passover or Yom Kippur. I was stirred by my mother’s stories of growing up in Israel in the 1930s and 40s after her family had fled to Palestine from Germany in 1933.
My father had grown up in Hungary and was a Holocaust survivor. He had also fought in the War of Independence. Hebrew was the second language at home. Then, as now, I called myself a Zionist.
I was always aware of a deep-rooted difference from our neighbors. I could trace that, too, back to my Jewish heritage. It seemed as though we were always reliving the Holocaust around the kitchen table or at family gatherings. The aunts, uncles—I was named for my father’s brother—grandparents or young cousins—of whom there were few pictures, came vividly to life in my parents’ memories, but all ended in tragedy.

The thought of those who died was like a weight; the memory of those crimes burned inside me with unresolved anger. If there was a God, the Holocaust proved that He was irrelevant.
I entered the University of Toronto’s Innis College in the fall of 1974, the smallest and most radical of the undergraduate colleges. I hoped to launch a career as a writer by taking courses in English and philosophy.
My first philosophy class was particularly disarming when the senior lecturer closed his class this way: “Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you will study many philosophers in the years ahead, but I hope that you will also discover that the greatest philosopher who ever lived is Jesus Christ.”

Despite that unexpected beginning, philosophy did attract me. (The philosophy department was one of the largest in North America.) Strangely, philosophers were always talking about God. In fact, their reasons for suggesting that there was a God seemed almost convincing. Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, even the modern philosophers continued the discussion. Some of them even believed.
I was fascinated by the book Pensées, a collection of insights by Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth-century French scientific genius. Pascal actually recounted a moment of meeting Jesus personally.
He was the author of a brilliant little essay called “The Wager.” He offered two alternatives: “Either God is or God is not…and you must wager.” It was an intriguing whimsy and an irresistible challenge.
He continues: “Let us weigh up the gain and the loss involved in calling ‘heads’ that God exists: …if you win you win everything; if you lose you lose nothing.” Yes, why not take that challenge?
Slowly I was being drawn into a God consciousness of some kind. It began to weave through readings in the occult and mysticism. But how would I put it together?
One weekend my elder brother brought home a Bible. My interest was aroused along with a good deal of sibling defensiveness—the last thing I wanted to hear from him was quotes from a Bible I didn’t know. I went to one of the campus bookstores and rummaged through every version in stock. And when I did find one, I began reading.
The Bible in a contemporary translation was the most powerful literature I had ever read. It was poetic, effortlessly epic and yet intensely personal. I read freely from the Jewish Scriptures and New Testament books, examining the Gospels. The Jesus I encountered was nothing like the man I expected. He was neither brow beating or pious. Yet this One spoke out of a place where I longed to be—spiritually aware and at complete peace with God. I even asked myself if I might ever live by His teachings. I might want to, but obviously never would. I’m not saint material.

Then one summer day I stumbled onto a reference to John 14:6. Jesus says there, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” I studied the passage for long minutes. Yes, Jesus actually says here that He is God.
“I’m Jewish,” I thought. “I can’t believe this.” So, I closed the Bible and put it away. And that, I assumed, was the end of it.
I entered my second year at university and as the months went by I found that I couldn’t shake the conviction that God exists. This time, though, I wasn’t looking at Him, but at myself. Compared to the vibrant life described by Pascal, my existence was a hollow routine without joy or reason.
One night I lay in bed, painfully aware of the void inside. “Dear God,” I began. I really did want to pray, but stopped. Tears came. Was there a God to hear or had my heart already had lapsed into a long, bitter winter. For the first time I was utterly aware of the yawning gulf between a Holy God and me.
For this very reason—one last attempt to believe in a search for truth and meaning—I’d gone to my professor’s office, only to realize that it wasn’t all that important for her.
As I walked through the wintry streets from the professor’s office, I looked forward to lunch with friends. I wasn’t far from the college when a large poster caught my eye.
In bold red letters it announced: Arthur Katz. For some reason, I stopped to look. Underneath was a biography. I began to read about a spiritual journey from Marxism that led this man to “expound on the Person of Jesus Christ.”
I looked again, thinking, “With a name like that, he must be Jewish.”

The meeting started at 1 o’clock. It was now 1:15. The auditorium was on the other side of the campus. I’d have to skip lunch. I arrived quietly and slipped into a back seat of the hall.
I sat there listening to the speaker’s dramatic, intelligent voice say things I’d been thinking about for over a year. Katz spoke of living moment by moment with the Lord, and I knew that this was how I wanted to live.
Afterwards, I went to speak with him in person. I was surrounded by friends, Jewish students from my philosophy classes who knew me as a fearless questioner.
I asked the one question that held me back. “What about the Holocaust?”
Katz agreed; this was a key question. Then he had a question for me. “Young man, what are you going to doing with the Holocaust in your own heart. What about the evil that’s in there?”
I had no answer. I had never been confronted so profoundly or so honestly. I don’t think I had any answer at all. All I remember thinking was that here was a Jew ready to speak about his faith in Jesus.
But I know today that Art was right. The only answer to the Holocaust, to evil in any and every form, is to confront our own will and the evil consequences when we have our way over others. To become a source of peace and healing on earth we need healing from the Prince of Peace. We can’t change history, but we can change, with God’s help.
Art looked at me closely. “You’re ready to come, aren’t you?”
I said, “Yes.”

He took me aside and there, in front of my Jewish friends, I let God have His way in my life. I felt like a brick had fallen off my chest. A few minutes later I felt flooded with a joy and peace beyond comprehension.
I had received the God of Israel as my God, and Jesus as my personal Messiah. They also, it seemed, had received me.
For the next six months I woke up every day amazed at that decision; I needed to let God prove it again and again until it wasn’t a matter of proof, but daily faith. My life has long since become absorbed with pursuits other than philosophy, but I am still aware that believers are called in faith to love God with all their minds.
In my well-thumbed copy of Pascal’s Pensées, I have found these words underlined: “It is good to be tired and weary from fruitlessly seeking true good, so that one can stretch out one’s arms to the Redeemer.”
That’s the promise of Messiah Yeshua. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28, 29).

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Voices from the Dust: The Current Controversy of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Several weeks ago, a friend complained about the recent exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, calling it “The Dead Sea scraps!” I admit it was a small selection but the explanatory information was excellent with numerous videos from the Qumran site and my family enjoyed it.

But just as the traveling exhibit was set to close in early January, Jordan requested that Canada seize the documents. According to news reports, Jordanian Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Maha Khatib asked Canada to “take custody of the scrolls” until their ownership might be determined by an international court. Canada refused, saying “differences regarding ownership of the Dead Sea scrolls should be addressed by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.”

Given the unusually bad timing of the request (days before it closed)—what did Jordan hope to achieve? Certainly they wanted to intimidate future exhibitors. The Palestinian National Authority [PNA] was more confrontational, with mass rallies in Toronto to stop the exhibit claiming the scrolls are “looted property.” The protests before and during the exhibit didn’t stop 200 thousand visitors from viewing the precious Jewish artifacts.

Yes, even the Palestinians admit the items are Jewish. “They are an integral part of Palestinian heritage, its Jewish heritage,” according to Hamdan Taha, Director of the Palestinian Antiquities and Cultural Heritage Department in an interview with The Media Line website. “Israel should be pleased that the Palestinians are showing concern for this period of our past,” says Taha.

They are Palestinian? “These scrolls are of course Palestinian because they were found in Qumran which is located in the West Bank,” said Taha.

Robert Cargill is a noted archeologist who supports Palestinian national aspirations, but even he finds the claims hard to accept. His website explains that “prior to 1967, the Kingdom of Jordan controlled east Jerusalem and the West Bank, not the PNA which wasn’t officially formed until the Oslo Accords of 1994.”  He notes, “The Copper Scroll is presently on display in the Jordan Archaeological Museum in Amman. Yet, we do not see pro-Palestinian protests against the Jordanian government…demanding the return of the ‘looted’ Copper Scroll to the PNA.”

Cargill is right; this is not a question of archeology but politics. Actually, Israel has actually never claimed ownership of the artifacts that are not part of its national collection. The Palestinian claim of Israeli “looting” is based on the fact that some of the scrolls were housed in East Jerusalem at the Rockefeller Museum and moved after 1967. But the museum, built during the British Mandate and opened in 1938 as the Palestinian Archeological Museum, was only claimed by Jordan during its own acts of war against Israel in 1948 and then nationalized in 1966.

As to the first discovery of the scrolls—these were the accidental find of local Bedouins. Seven of the original scrolls were acquired by the Israelis—including four that were sold through an ad in The Wall Street Journal. After the initial finds proved to be of such enormous cultural value, the Jordanians, who controlled the area northwest of the Dead Sea, oversaw the excavation of the majority of the ancient material in cooperation with the École Biblique et Archéologique Française in Jerusalem between 1948 until 1956. The discoveries were then housed in the Rockefeller Museum where an international team of experts worked for decades (independently of the Israel-based scholars) to decipher the delicate pieces.

Senior scholars with direct access to the manuscripts of both the Israeli and Jordanian collections were the focus of decades of attention. After initial acclaim they were later criticized for delays in making the material available. Some who became famous for their work on the scrolls were later suspected of keeping it away from other scholars. Assembling the fragmented material took longer than expected but was considerably speeded up by computer programs in the 1990’s. Splitting up the finds according to politics served nobody well. More seriously, the manuscripts were deteriorating. This was a greater concern for the documents in the aging Rockefeller Museum where photos of the scholars at work show them working at tables in front of bright open windows—the worst possible conditions for preservation.

The state of the art facility for preserving the documents is the Shrine of the Book, a wing of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, built specifically to preserve the scroll materials. The so-called act of looting—the move from the older museum (in East Jerusalem) to a current facility—was, in fact, an important step of preservation. Since that time, a full catalogue of the documents has been created, erasing the arbitrary distinction between items held by one party or another. Scroll materials are not only held by Israel and Jordan, but also in collections in the United States. Today, all the Dead Sea Scroll material is accessible by scholars of every background and dissemination in digital form continues.

But why do the Jordanians and PNA want to claim scrolls that prove a fact which they have so vigorously denied: the existence of Jewish people in the land of Israel predating the existence of Islam?

Jordan’s claims might have some value except that as witnesses of the 1994 Oslo Accords they officially surrendered rights to cultural property claimed by the PNA. No doubt they find it expedient to pose as an adversary of Israel for their Arab neighbors and because almost one third of Jordan’s population is Palestinian in origin they are vocal defenders of Palestinian rights.

It’s relevant, then, to recall Jordan’s past relationship to Jewish antiquities. After the Jordanians took control of Jerusalem in 1948 their desecration of the traditional “Jewish quarter” was heinous—58 Jerusalem synagogues were destroyed or ruined (some centuries old). A road was constructed through the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives, destroying hundreds of Jewish graves, using the gravestones of rabbis and sages as pavement and latrines. Jordan also cut off Jewish access to the Kotel, the Western (“Wailing”) Wall of the ancient Jewish Temple, allowing slums to be built up to its edge until the IDF secured Judaism’s holiest site during the Six Day War.

Palestinian claims lead us to ask the same question. Sadly, we’ve already seen the actions against the leading proof of a prior Jewish presence in the land, the Temple Mount. The desecration of that site has included using bull-dozers to tear apart ancient sections of one of the world’s leading historical sites—a place where archeologists would have been grateful to work with buckets and toothbrushes. Tons of discarded debris was hauled to city dumps after the excavators made sure to destroy anything to prove the site was ever a Jewish Temple and not, as Islamists claim, a mosque from time immemorial. This is one of the tragic archeological crimes of our time. A determined task force of archeologists is sifting this debris and continues to find evidence of the first century Temple in the remains.

It has been almost 2000 years since brave followers of God hoped that one day their sacred library would be restored to Israel's future generations. At the very moment when scholars were catching their first glimpses of the scrolls, the UN was voting to allow the creation of a Jewish state. Within one year of the unsealing of those sacred treasures, Jewish armies were rising again to defend a Jewish nation.

Today these voices from the dust give irrefutable testimony of Jewish claims to Eretz Yisrael—the Land of Israel. Their preservation must point us back to the Scriptures and the God who has also preserved His people. I can only hope to show as much faith in Him as those who sealed up their trust in clay jars so long ago.