October 7, 2016

Shabbat Shuvah 5777

In recent years I’ve often taught on Teshuvah, or Repentance, as a four-step process, which can be traced throughout Scripture. It’s clearly pictured in Messiah Yeshua’s story of the Prodigal Son, the iconic picture of teshuvah in the Gospels. This year I’m working through an excellent book, Repentance: The Meaning and Practice of Teshuvah, by Dr. Louis E. Newman, which outlines seven steps of repentance. (See my post Teshuvah Translated.) In this blog I’ll see how those steps fit in with the ones that I’ve outlined.

Rambam (or Maimonides, 1135-1204), identified four components of teshuva: recognition of sin, regret, restitution, and resolve.

And how does one repent? A sinner should abandon his sinfulness, drive it from his thoughts and conclude in his heart that he will never do it again, as it says, “Let the wicked man abandon his way… (Isaiah 55:7). Additionally, he should regret the past as it says: “For after I repented, I regretted (Jeremiah 31:18)…. And let the sinner call to Him who knows all hidden things to witness that he will never return to sin that sin again. (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:2)

Recognition of sin: Teshuvah begins with a wake-up call, which Rambam compares this dramatic recognition to the wake-up call of the shofar at Rosh HaShanah:

Awake, O you sleepers, awake from your sleep! O you slumberers, awake from your slumber! Search your deeds and turn in teshuvah. Remember your Creator, O you who forget the truth in the vanities of time and go astray all the year after vanity and folly that neither profit nor save. Look to your souls, and better your ways and actions. Let every one of you abandon his evil way and his wicked thoughts, which are not good (Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4).

Regret: The modern approach is to see these feelings as the real problem, and try to get rid of them, instead of letting them drive us to genuine moral change. Regret or remorse owns the guilt, owns the misdeeds, and leads to the next component.

Restitution: Restitution includes confession of our and wrongdoings, but goes beyond that to take genuine responsibility for the outcome of the sin. Restitution may also mean paying back a debt, returning to the one that we have offended and offering to do whatever it takes to make things right.

Resolve. Not a guarantee of perfect performance, but a new beginning, the first steps in the right direction, and a commitment to keep going in that direction.

And he must also confess with his lips and declare those things that he has concluded in his heart. If one confesses verbally but does not resolve in his heart to abandon his sinful ways, he is like one who immerses himself in the ritual bath while holding an impure creature. . . . (Hilchot Teshuvah, 2:3)

Resolve means a change of direction away from our own ways and back to God and his ways. “You shall return to Adonai your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 30:10).

We can see these four stages of teshuvah—recognition, regret, restitution, and resolve—in the story of the Prodigal Son, which really should be called the story of the Forgiving Father (Luke 15:11-32).

After the younger son receives his portion of the father’s inheritance and blows it, he gets a job as a swineherd. “And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself. . .”

Here’s the first phase of teshuvah, recognition. The son woke up and realized that he was standing among the pigs . . . and longing for their food! In the parlance of the 12-step movement, he hit bottom. And so, when he recognized his condition,

He said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.’” And he arose and came to his father.

The son displays regret for his sin and is ready to make restitution by returning to his father, confessing his sins, and offering to live with him like a hired servant. Finally, he resolves to return, changing his whole life direction from a journey away from home to a journey back.

Here are the seven steps of teshuvah in Newman’s book (pages 78-82):


  1. The beginning of the process is “to acknowledge, both to ourselves and to others, that we actually did the thing that was hurtful.”
  2. Next comes “our internal response to the truth of what we did . . . feeling remorse or regret for the mistakes of the past.”
  3. Confession, and “external expression” of the “internal judgment” or remorse.
  4. “From confession we move on to apology.”
  5. Restitution: “The offender needs to undo the wrong done to the extent possible—repairing or replacing what we have broken, returning what we have stolen, regaining the trust we have violated.”
  6. Soul reckoning: This is Newman’s translation of the practice of cheshbon hanefesh, literally “an accounting of the soul.” Through this practice we seek to understand the inner source of our sin, the deficits of character that produced the deficient behavior.
  7. “The process of teshuvah culminates in a moral transformation that encompasses both inner reorientation and a change in outward behavior.”


The first five steps are nearly identical with the four that I sketched out above, which is no surprise, since we’re drawing on the same sources. They provide a helpful expansion by treating confession and apology as distinct steps. Confession is hard enough, but it can be a bit theoretical. To look the offended party in the eye and acknowledge that I wronged him or her, and take full responsibility—that’s another step entirely.


And I sure wouldn’t argue with Newman’s sixth and seventh steps. We don’t know whether the prodigal ever did cheshbon hanefesh after his return. Did he recognize the roots of greed, impatience, and disrespect that set him up for his fall in the first place? We can only hope so.


The final step of moral transformation, however, does seem to have a big place in the prodigal son story, but in a way different from Newman’s formulation. I’ve taught that the most remarkable element in Yeshua’s story is the response of the father (which is why I say it’s really the story of the Forgiving Father). It’s a fifth stage in teshuvah, which also happens to begin with R: Restoration. The son comes to his senses and returns to his father; the father has been ready to return to the son all along.


But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.


The moral transformation that Dr. Newman alludes to is brightly pictured here: the ragged, swine-scented wanderer gets a gold ring, a fine robe, new sandals, and the place of honor at the family celebration. He’s forgiven in the way that ultimately only God can forgive. This is the distinctive element that Yeshua’s story adds to the Jewish picture of teshuvah, the true goal of teshuvah—restoration and moral transformation that can only come through divine forgiveness. We have to take the steps of teshuvah, and I hope that during this season of teshuvah we really will—but when the Father sees us a long way off, heading his way, he runs out to greet us and bring us all the way home.

September 30, 2016

Teshuvah Translated

Last Saturday night I attended a community-wide Selichot service here in Albuquerque. The service itself was to include a talk on teshuvah (return or repentance) by Dr. Louis Newman. Since this was a nice Jewish event, we started out with some nice eating before it began, and Dr. Newman himself sat down at our table with a few copies of his book Repentance: The Meaning & Practice of Teshuvah. I’m a definite introvert, but I pushed myself to launch a conversation, since teshuvah is so central to my own writing and counseling practice.repentance

After a friendly opening (“You must be the visiting dignitary . . .”), I asked Dr. Newman if “repentance” was really the best translation for teshuvah, and he explained (very plausibly) why it is. This led me to ask whether he uses the term “sin” in his book. I was wondering whether the book entailed a genuine engagement with the traditional Jewish sources, which definitely grapple with the ugly reality of sin, or was a modern recasting of the whole issue that would use terminology like “making a mistake”, “not being true to yourself,” etc. Dr. Newman assured me that he uses the term “sin”—although he often substitutes with “transgression,” since “sin” sounds so Christian.

But doesn’t repentance sound Christian too? I asked.

Actually, Christianity tends to downplay repentance and focus more on atonement, he responded. Atonement is something that’s done for you, but repentance is something you need to practice every day.

Right, I said, “Repent one day before you die.” [Pirke Avot 2:15]

Continue reading

September 24, 2016

Day Six, Hour 11.5

Rosh Hashana is one of our most significant Jewish holidays, but the Torah doesn’t say much about it. It’s only mentioned twice, and briefly at that:

And Hashem spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of solemn rest, a memorial of terua, a holy convocation. You shall not do any work of labor, and you shall bring near a fire offering to Hashem.” Lev. 23:23-25,

In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a holy convocation. You shall not do any work of labor. A day of terua it shall be to you, and you shall offer a burnt offering, for a pleasing aroma to Hashem. . . Num 29:1-2,

I’m providing a literal translation for both these passages to highlight the fact that the Torah doesn’t call this day “The Feast of Trumpets” as it’s often termed in Bible studies. (It also doesn’t call it Rosh Hashana, but that’s another discussion.) These two passages actually don’t mention a “trumpet” or a shofar at all, but only the sound that a trumpet or shofar might make, which is called terua. And it’s not a “Feast”. But it is a Shabbaton, or day of solemn rest, and a mikra kodesh, or holy convocation, so we know the day really is significant. But the Torah doesn’t tell us why it’s significant. Or does it?

One clue to the day’s significance is that it’s the first day of the seventh month, and “The number seven, especially when applied to time, always signifies holiness. The first thing declared holy in the Torah is the seventh day, Shabbat (Gen. 2:1–3).” (R. Jonathan Sacks in his introduction to The Koren Rosh Hashana Mahzor.)  Rabbi Sacks goes on to explain that the holiness of the seventh day, the seventh year, and the Jubilee at the end of seven cycles of seven years is expressed by the cessation of work, a cessation that characterized the initial seventh day of  Creation in Genesis 2:1–3. So, we might say that seven is a holy number because it’s the number of the holy and complete Creation. On the seventh day and year, “we cease creating and remember that we are creations. We stop making and remember that we are made” (R. Sacks).

The two Torah passages I cited both open with reference to the seventh month. Now we can see that it’s not a big stretch to link this reference to Creation, and that’s exactly what our tradition does: “For this day is the opening of all Your works, a remembrance of the very first day (Koren Mahzor, 532). “This day is the birthday of the world” (ibid, 616).

So, Creation and God as Creator are the opening themes of Rosh Hashana as we celebrate it today. In Midrash Rabbah, however, Rabbi Eliezer says that the world was created on the twenty-fifth of Elul, the sixth month (Lev. Rabbah 29:1). In his view Rosh Hashana actually marks the sixth day of Creation, when Adam, the first human, was formed from the dust of the earth. There’s no point in arguing about the literal pros and cons of this midrash, because that’s not what midrash is about. Instead, let’s consider some deep insights that this imaginative reading unlocks.

Rabbi Eliezer not only says that Adam was created on the sixth day, but he also nails down the time: the seventh hour. And then,

In the eighth [hour] He brought him into the Garden of Eden, in the ninth he was commanded [against eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge], in the tenth he transgressed, in the eleventh he was judged, in the twelfth he was pardoned. ‘This,’ said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Adam, ‘will be a sign to your children. As you stood in judgment before Me this day and came out with a free pardon, so will your children in the future stand in judgment before Me on this day and will come out from My presence with a free pardon.’ When will that be? In the seventh month, in the first day of the month.

The midrash doesn’t say so explicitly, but it’s solving one of the knottiest interpretive issues in the Creation story. When the Lord warns Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he says, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17b). Adam follows the lead of his wife, Eve, eats of the tree and . . . doesn’t die! Some Christian interpreters develop the idea that Adam and Eve died spiritually on that day; they became alienated from God, took on a new, sinful nature, and became spiritually dead. A more Jewish reading would emphasize that Adam and Eve were sent out of the Garden and into exile on that day, since exile is a type of death throughout the Tanakh. But this midrash has a whole different solution: the eleventh-hour death sentence was literal enough, but God removed it through a pardon at the twelfth hour.

Here’s the insight revealed by this imaginative reading: the God of the Bible is Creator and Ruler of all things, but also merciful and ready to forgive. In our day of increasing skepticism and unbelief (at least in the global West), it’s often hard to talk about God at all, let alone about the Bible or the redemptive message of Messiah Yeshua. It’s challenging enough to defend the idea that there’s a Creator, a force or power beyond the visible, material world. But this portrayal of the Creator as merciful and ready to pardon right from the start might help overcome some of the barriers to the God idea. We’re not talking about God as an angry old white man in the sky.

Insightful as the midrash is, however, it lacks the dramatic tension that energizes our observance of Rosh Hashana today. In the words of the iconic prayer, Untaneh Tokef, this is the day when “all who have come into the world pass before You like sheep.”

As a shepherd’s searching gaze meets his flock,

as he passes every sheep beneath his rod,

so You too pass Yours, count and number,

and regard the soul of every living thing;

and You rule off the limit of each creation’s life,

and write down the verdict for each. (Koren Mahzor, 566-568)

According to R. Eliezer, in the eleventh hour Adam was judged and in the twelfth he was pardoned, but apparently pardon is not automatic. God the great Shepherd sorts out his sheep and records a verdict for each. Jewish tradition emphasizes the need for teshuva, return and repentance, between the eleventh hour and the twelfth, between guilt and pardon. The Torah, though, has a different emphasis, which R. Eliezer seems to overlook in his time line. First comes the eleventh-hour judgment:

“By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.” Gen. 3:19

And then, a move that opens the way for pardon: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them” (Gen. 3:21). After this, the pardon. God sends the first humans out of the Garden and into the difficult conditions of life as we know it today—but they live. The death sentence is lifted.

Genesis 3:21 is only a clue, but I’ve been exploring clues and their implications in this whole blog. So this clue suggests that pardon doesn’t depend on our remorse and repentance as much as on God’s gift. And the gift costs Him something. The Creator, who is merciful and ready to pardon, must pay for pardon through sacrifice. Garments of skin come from an animal slain to yield up its covering hide. Pardon is not just a feel-good impulse of a God heeding the 21st century admonition to not be judgmental. Rather, it’s the fruit of deep and costly compassion, sacrificial compassion, which will be pictured most clearly in the deeds of a Messiah to come.

September 17, 2016

Unprepared and Ready

Not long before my old friend Rube (Rabbi Richard Rubinstein, that is) passed away, I had the privilege of visiting him at his home in Sacramento. He was already in bad shape from the cancer that eventually killed him, but his spirits were remarkably fine, so when he happened to recommend a book to me, I paid attention. The title grabbed my attention too: This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, by Rabbi Alan Lew. The subtitle explains that it’s about “The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation,” and “You are Completely Unprepared” is a sort of unifying theme.

In this book, the Days of Awe comprise the whole season of Teshuvah, Return or shofarRepentance, which culminates in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but this is not a manual on liturgy or customs to help us get ready for the High Holy Days. Rather, Rabbi Lew is telling us that we’ll never get ready; we’ll never be prepared for the central experience of the Days of Awe, which is an encounter with the real and living presence of God. The season of Teshuvah, in Rabbi Lew’s guidebook, begins with Tisha B’Av, the “day when we mourn the fall of the Temple, the day precisely seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah when we begin our preparations for reconciliation with God by acknowledging our estrangement from God.” It’s an estrangement that we can’t fix, says the rabbi, but only recognize, as “we begin to acknowledge the fact that we are utterly unprepared [there’s that word again] for what we have to face in life.”

Recognizing that we are truly unprepared and empty is inherent to teshuvah, as expressed in the prayer Avinu Malkenu (Our Father, Our King): Ein banu ma’asim, We have no good deeds, or literally no deeds at all, that we can invoke in God’s presence. There is nothing we can say or do in response to his awesome holiness. Recognizing our helplessness, our utter deficit in the presence of God, is essential to genuinely returning to him.

Not long ago, I read another book, A Praying Life, by Paul E. Miller. One of the early chapters is  “Learning to be Helpless.” Under the heading, “Prayer = Helplessness,” Miller writes, “Prayer is bringing your helplessness to Jesus,” and then quotes the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton: “Prayer is an expression of who we are . . . We are a living incompleteness. We are a gap, an emptiness that calls for fulfillment.” Prayer isn’t something we do to overcome our helplessness; it is a gift that arises out of the helplessness that will always be with us. But unless we can acknowledge that helplessness, we won’t even want the gift.

Which invokes a third book in my recent reading: God of our Understanding, by Shais Taub, a Chasidic rabbi who is intimately acquainted with addiction and recovery. His subtitle is “Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction,” and Rabbi Taub expounds on the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous from the perspective of Torah, beginning with Step One: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol [or whatever we were addicted to] and that our lives had become unmanageable.” He writes,

The idea of surrender presented in the First Step . . . seems to turn many people off from even giving recovery an honest go. Yet, that’s probably just as well, because the admission of powerlessness and unmanageability is not an aspect of recovery—it’s the very basis of it. Nothing else seems to work very well without complete and unconditional capitulation first.


Rabbi Taub is undeniably correct in thinking that surrender is a turn-off to many people in a day that is obsessed with success, techno-mastery, and the elimination of pain and unpleasantness. But what ties these three books together, and ties them all to the Days of Awe, is the notion that this despised reality of helplessness, incompletion, and powerlessness is not limited to addicts, but is part of our humanity. It’s not a problem to overcome, but a platform for genuine spiritual development. The books don’t call on us to recognize our helplessness so that we can fix it, but rather so that we can thereby recognize our dependency on God. We’re not going to return to God only after we solve these problems, but somehow from within them, in the negation of the self-reliance and self-assurance that our secular culture continually seeks to promote. As Rabbi Lew would argue, only when you really get that “This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared,” can you begin to enter the Days of Awe with any kind of authenticity, authenticity that in turn authenticates our whole life with God.

This is a picture of real teshuva—turning away from self and its inevitable outcome, sin, and turning to God. But it’s up to the Christian author, Paul Miller, to put this all into the context of the message of Messiah Yeshua: “The gospel, God’s free gift of grace in Jesus, only works when we realize we don’t have it all together.”

Occasionally I’m asked by some Christian friend or another why I, as a follower of Yeshua, continue to keep Yom Kippur, the annual Day of Atonement, when Yeshua has provided atonement once-for-all. Or why we, as Messianic Jews practice the annual confession of sin and appeal for mercy during the Days of Awe, since we’ve already been forgiven through Yeshua’s once-for-all sacrifice. To paraphrase Rabbi Taub, it’s because repentance and forgiveness are not just an aspect of new life in Messiah, but the very basis of it. I’m not accusing my friends of this, but there’s a tendency in the religious world to conform to the values of the dominant secular culture, which in our times includes the value of human competence and sufficiency. Feeling insufficient? God can fix that and send you on your way. But that’s not the gospel. Instead, it says, Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. We don’t do teshuva once to get into this kingdom, and then leave it at the door. Rather, the continual recognition of our spiritual helplessness and need, paradoxically enough, keeps us spiritually healthy and strong. Perhaps that’s how my friend Rube could seem to be doing fine even as his body was caving in to the ravages of cancer.

I’ve already invoked the traditional prayer, Avinu Malkenu. It’s a powerful assembly of words, set to a haunting melody, especially fitting for the Days of Awe, but bearing truth for every day:

Avinu Malkenu chanenu v’anenu ki ein banu ma’asim, aseh imanu tsedakah v’chesed v’hoshienu.

Our Father, our King!

Be gracious to us, and answer us, for we have no good works of our own;

deal with us in charity and kindness, and save us.






September 12, 2016

The Silence of Abraham

I wrote this commentary the day before 9/11/2001 and it seemed particularly relevant in the days that followed. I reposted it on this blog site a few years ago, and it still seems current to me, as we approach Rosh Hashanah 2016. 

During the time of self-examination and spiritual preparation leading up to the Days of Awe, it is essential to examine our speech, what we say to and about others. Our Messiah taught, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Our speech reveals the condition of our heart, and taming our speech is essential to preparing for these holy days.

David writes in Psalm 34 (vss. 12-14),

Come, you children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.

Who is the man who desires life, and loves days, that he may see good?

Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile.

The nineteenth century commentator Samson Raphael Hirsch notes at these verses that the fear of the Lord begins with “control over our words.” He continues,

…there is no better task that we can set for ourselves, leading to the fear of God and to be done in the fear of God, than to resolve tacitly and before Him alone never to speak ill of one’s fellow-men. The fulfillment of this one task requires a constant self-observation and affords a unique opportunity for attaining that control over oneself which is the essential basis of all God-fearing moral behavior…. In instances where we really know of nothing good to say, we must practice the difficult art of keeping silent.

Rabbi Hirsch’s comments are especially apt during the Days of Awe, as we practice t’shuvah, a return to God and His ways. If we will focus on controlling our speech, we will go a long way toward restoring the rest of our behavior. Ya’akov writes, “If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body” (James 3:2b). If we resolve not to speak evil of our fellow human beings, we will gain mastery over other evil behavior as well. And sometimes, as Hirsch points out, this task will require that we practice silence.akedah

This observation brings us to another element of the Days of Awe, the Akedah, the story of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22), which we read during Rosh Hashanah. One of the mysteries of this story is the silence of Abraham. Translator Everett Fox comments:

Most noticeable in the narrative is Avraham’s silence, his mute acceptance of, and acting on, God’s command. We are told of no sleepless night, nor does he ever say a word to God. Instead he is described with a series of verbs: hurrying, saddling, taking, splitting, arising, going (v.3; similarly in vv.6 and 9-10). Avraham the bargainer, so willing to enter into negotiations with relations (Chap. 13), allies (Chap. 14), local princes (Chap. 20), and even with God himself (Chap. 18), here falls completely silent.

Abraham pleads on behalf of others, but is silent when God tells him to offer up his own son. After his initial response to God’s call – “Hineni!” – Abraham does not speak to God at all. Perhaps, after receiving this command to offer up his beloved son, he struggles so greatly with the question of God’s goodness that he must keep silent to avoid transgression. This is the great trial that Abraham must endure; not only to obey such a terrible commandment, but also to refrain from questioning the God who issued it.

The silent Abraham, however, does make one statement about God. As he is walking to the place of offering with his son Isaac, the lad says, “Behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham answers, “My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:7-8). “God will provide” – this is Abraham’s sole comment in the midst of his great trial. And this statement becomes the theme of the whole story. God does indeed provide a ram as an offering in the place of Isaac. Abraham therefore names the place Adonai Yireh, The-Lord-Will-Provide; “as it is said to this day, ‘In the Mount of the Lord it shall be provided’” (22:14).

Rosh Hashanah is the commemoration of the Lord as King. He was King from the moment of creation; He is King over Israel; and He shall be King over all nations through the Messiah Yeshua. On Rosh Hashanah, we must examine whether He is truly King over our lives as well. If God is our King, we trust Him even when we can barely endure our trial. Even when we do not understand, we know that God will provide.

Abraham allows himself no word that would call into question the Lord’s Kingship. Instead, he limits himself to the most basic statement of divine sovereignty – the Lord will provide. He is our ultimate source and overseer, the King over every aspect of our lives. At other times, Abraham dares to negotiate and even argue with God, thus inaugurating a great Jewish tradition of argument with the divine. There is a time to discuss the difficult questions of spiritual life, but there is also a time when the only issue is God’s sovereignty. It is when we are in the midst of the greatest trials that we must affirm this truth most clearly.

Who is the man who desires life, and loves days, that he may see good?

Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile.

During these days of spiritual preparation, we must examine how we speak of our fellow human beings, and even how we speak of God Himself. Do we really affirm Him as King, the One who always provides, or do we give into words of fear and insecurity? Abraham chose silence over doubting God’s perfect Kingship. Perhaps we need to return to a quiet trust in God as Sovereign over all things, even things we do not understand.

Out of speech that is right about God will come speech that is right about our fellow man and out of right speaking will issue right behavior. Then the Lord will be King indeed over our lives.




September 3, 2016


I spent a few days last week in the Gila Wilderness of Southwestern New Mexico, with my two sons, Luke and Danny, and two old friends, Ed and Don. In 1924 the half million acres of the Gila became the first stretch of land in America—and probably the world—to be set apart as off-limits to all human development. It was the first designated wilderness within the US Forest Service and it’s not hard to see why. It’s remote, a drive of three hours off the main highway on winding mountainous roads to reach the trailhead, and spectacular, with some of the most rugged mountain terrain in New Mexico and tall craggy cliffs nestling the verdant headwaters of the Gila River.


In 2012 the Gila was devastated by forest fires that burned 300,000 acres in the Wilderness and surrounding National Forest. This damage to the watershed led to unusually violent flash floods later in the year. Four years later, the trail up the West Fork of the Gila, where we hiked, remains washed out at many points. One of the chief of the many virtues of the Gila is that most folks don’t make it that far. We saw just a party or two each day of our sojourn, and we were in one of the most breathtaking parts of the Wilderness, camped out by Jordan Hot Springs, a big, clear, blue-bottom pool of 94-degree water—and no one else was using it all weekend. The Gila is hardly trafficked, so its trails are in stretches reverting to the wild. How quickly the wilderness reclaims its own.

In response, hikers and perhaps Forest Rangers as well, occasionally pile up neat little stacks of stone called cairns to mark the trail. There are plenty of trees in the Gila, but to mark the trail with blazes on the trees you’d need an axe or hatchet and such gear is too heavy for backpacking. Stones are readily available and easily stacked into cairns as Early2011-010-cairnneeded. For a cairn to be effective, though, it has to be trustworthy. The hiker who places a cairn had better be sure it marks the real trail, and if we spot that little stack of rocks we have to believe it’s right. Near our campsite by the hot springs, someone had placed a cairn to mark another campsite, which wasn’t on the trail. An innocent hiker who might be heading a few miles further up the West Fork could be sidetracked by that cairn into a nice sandy-bottomed grove of trees that did nothing to help him on his way. I moved that cairn back to the trail itself, and set up a couple more as we hiked through the day.

We like to talk about life as a journey. I wonder what the cairns might be as we make our way on that journey. Is there really a trail, a right trail, that someone might mark off? In a postmodern world defined by skepticism and enraptured with finding your own way, who will trust the cairns anyway?

It might be a defining feature of religious community that we believe there are cairns out there, marking the way, that we’re responsible to set up a cairn now and then or to move one that’s in the wrong place, and that sometimes we’re only going to advance if we trust a cairn that someone else has set. That’s a counter-cultural thought isn’t it? A cairn does not repeat the current mantras about following your own heart and being true only to your own sense of things. A cairn implies you might well get lost without it. A righteous hiker might pause now and then to stack up a few rocks to mark a particularly obscure passage. So it is with the journey of life.

14141482_10154067432313043_4492779569394505214_nHiking the Gila headwaters requires multiple crossings of the river. The stone walls of the canyon tower right into the water, sometimes on one side and sometimes on the other, so the trail has to cross from side to side. I had read in a guide book that between our first-night campsite and Jordan Hot Springs, we’d have to ford the river 14 times. So, when we were hiking back the same way on day four I kept track of the river crossings, which totaled17. I figured that we might have crossed over and back unnecessarily at one point, so the real total was 15—not far off from the 14 mentioned in the guide book. I guess I was keeping track to know when we’d get back to our earlier campsite, from where we’d leave the river, hike up Little Bear Canyon and over a saddle, and then a couple of miles on a high ridge to get back to our minivan.

On that return hike we ran into two younger couples on their way into the Wilderness—a traffic jam! We asked where they were headed and they said Jordan Hot Springs, which of course made sense. Then we asked if they knew how to find the spring. One young guy said, “Sure, we have a map,” and we had to tell him that the map, which we had too, wasn’t detailed enough and the trail had changed since it was printed. They’d have to cross the river 15 or 16 times to get to the hot springs. But if they kept track of their crossings and started watching for the springs after 14 or so, they’d find them. If they were looking for it they’d see a little trail to the hot springs across from a nice open camping area with a couple of fire rings (where we’d spent the night).

Two things struck me as we wished the hikers good luck and walked off: It was worth keeping track of the number of crossings, so that we’d be able to give someone else a sure way to find the hot springs. And it was basic backcountry responsibility to give them the details—to provide a cairn—even though they didn’t realize they needed them. Sometimes life’s journey is that way too.

jordan hot springs.jpg

August 20, 2016

A Homiletical Biking Blog

The other day, when my biking buddy Avi and I turned onto one of our favorite trails, we saw a new sign, “Uneven surfaces may exist.” Now, I knew what the sign was getting at: this wasn’t just a general observation that such a thing as uneven surfaces might theoretically exist somewhere. Instead the sign wanted to warn us that the surface of this bike trail might be uneven on spots. I understood the intent, but the writer in me was irritated. Why didn’t the sign just say it outright? “Watch out for uneven surfaces ahead!” Or better yet, “Watch out for rough pavement ahead!” We’re not talking about “surfaces” in general, but pavement in particular.20160807_081008

It occurred to me as I rode on that this sign provided some insight into my work as a teacher and preacher. Sometimes we exposit a text or deliver a message in a way that’s just theoretical—“Uneven surfaces may exist”—when the real point is “Watch out for rough pavement ahead!” Scripture, the source book for our preaching and teaching, is rarely if ever just theoretical. There’s almost always a warning, exhortation, or direction for us, if we pay attention.

And there’s another step beyond (1) “Uneven surfaces may exist,” and (2) “Watch out for rough pavement ahead.” This step would tell the listener where the rough pavement is, and ideally how bad it might be: “Caution: Pavement washed out at the 3.6 mile mark. Prepare to dismount.” With a sign like that, I can be ready to respond when I most need to, and not have to sit on the edge of my bike seat the whole ride watching out for some unspecified uneven surfaces. This illustration highlights the importance of being specific and concrete in the craft of teaching. It’s one thing to say that we Yeshua-followers should practice compassion, as he taught us to do. It’s another to describe what that compassion would look like in a clash with your rebellious 15-year old son, or a manipulative boss.

And there’s still another stage in my sign-improvement project. I’d like the sign to tell me what to expect beyond the rough pavement, and whether I’ll ever be able to remount my bike again. Let’s say the pavement is washed out at mile 3.6, and I have to walk or carry my bike around it, but then it’s smooth sailing again before I even hit mile 4.0. That would be good to know, and would reassure me that I’m on the right road, and it’s all going to work out.

So, here’s the progression of improved signage, and homiletics:

Poor: “Uneven surfaces may exist”

OK: “Watch out for rough pavement ahead!”

Better: “Caution: Pavement washed out at the 3.6 mile mark. Prepare to dismount.”

Best: “Caution: Pavement washed out at the 3.6 mile mark. Walk your bike for a few minutes and then return to the trail. Happy cycling!”

I know, it’s getting to be a bit too much for a road sign, but you get the point.

The night before we took this bike ride, our chavurah was studying 1 Peter 3, including verses 18b-20:

[Messiah] was put to death in the flesh, but made alive by the Ruach. Through the Ruach He also went and preached to the spirits in prison. Long ago they disobeyed while God kept waiting patiently, in the days of Noah as the ark was being built.

There are various interpretations of this famously difficult passage. It’s good to remember, though, that it’s not just a theoretical, uneven-surfaces-may-exist sort of message. If we focus on the theoretical, we might wonder how Yeshua could proclaim to the dead, and whether they might respond, or what these spirits are doing in prison and why they get to hear the proclamation when others don’t. It’s interesting stuff, and I believe we can actually answer those questions. But Peter’s point isn’t just theoretical, and realizing this helped our chavurah get to something better and more relevant in our study. Peter isn’t just telling us there’s rough pavement ahead (much less that rough pavement may exist). He’s preparing us to face the trials that will inevitably come our way by reminding us that when Yeshua was put to death in the flesh—the ultimate trial—he was made alive in spirit so he could proclaim his victory. Peter is underlining a point he’d just made: It is better to suffer for doing good (if it is God’s will) than for doing evil (3:17). The 20160807_080944rough pavement of suffering lies ahead, just as it lay ahead of our Master in his earthly course, but it ends before long and there’s smooth riding beyond it—just as there was for Messiah when he was made alive to proclaim his victory. That’s a road sign of hope that helps us find our way.



August 17, 2016

New Mexico makes the Times of Israel

The New Mexico History Museum and its Fractured Faiths exhibit, which I wrote about in my last blog, made it into the Times of Israel this week. An article entitled “When the Spanish Inquisition expanded to the New World” covers the fascinating, and troubling, history behind the exhibit, and inspires me to make a return visit.

It’s an excellent article, but I’d suggest a couple of corrections, one in particular.The article recounts the story of Dona Teresa de Aguilera y Roche, wife of a 17th century governor of New Mexico. It says, “In the 1660s, the possibility of being Jewish placed her in an Inquisition prison.” But that’s not quite right. The Inquisition wasn’t directly concerned with whether a Catholic might have Jewish ancestry, or might “be Jewish.” Rather, its concern was with Catholics, or ostensible Catholics, with Jewish ancestry, Conversos, who “did Jewish”—Jews who had yielded to the ferocious pressure to convert, but then maintained secret Jewish practices to preserve their identity.

It wasn’t like the Spanish Catholic Church totally accepted the Jews that it had forced into its fold. Authorities still worried about limpieza de sangre, or “blood purity,” a ghoulish preview of laws and terminology to come under the Nazis. In the days of the Spanish Empire, only “Old Christians” from families without Muslim or Jewish ancestry were qualified for the highest offices. The Fractured Faiths exhibits includes a display of documentation of ancestry for Don Juan de Onate y Salazar, the first Spanish governor of New Mexico (1598-1608). The documentation is massive, pages upon pages demonstrating Don Juan’s limpieza de sangre, but it’s entirely on his father’s side. It conveniently leaves out his maternal descent, which was from the Ha-Levi family, who were prominent Conversos. That information would have kept Don Juan from the governorship, but it wouldn’t have directly brought him under the wrath of the Church. Rather, as the Times of Israel article states, “Anyone suspected of practicing Judaism risked the wrath of a new, terrifying organization: the Spanish Inquisition” (emphasis added). In Dona Teresa’s case, says former museum director Frances Levine,

The crimes she was accused of were failures of religious practice. Changing linens in her house on Friday as preparation for the Sabbath. [Using] onion skins on her feet seems to her maid [like a] ritual. She was accused of being harsh with her maids when they go to church, speaking ill of the friars, and accused of being a Jew.

Such accusations parallel in an extreme form what Jews have always faced when they profess faith in Jesus whether out of conviction or convenience. They’ve been expected to abandon Jewish practice and Jewish identity. But of course, this gets at the heart of Messianic Jewish life as we understand it today. We embrace Yeshua as Lord and Messiah of Israel, and we embrace Jewish practice and identity. Ironically, the Inquisition made a valid point—being Jewish in itself doesn’t have a lot of impact apart from doing Jewish.

The late Michael Wyschogrod, z”l, who had a deep friendship with a number of Messianic Jewish leaders, once wrote an amazing letter to Cardinal Lustiger, the Archbishop of Paris, who was born as a Jew. Cardinal Lustiger claimed, “In becoming a Christian, I not intend to cease being the Jew I was then. I was not running away from the Jewish condition. I have that from my parents and I can never lose it. I have it from God and he will never let me lose it.” (Cited in “A Letter to Cardinal Lustiger,” in Michael Wyschogrod, Abraham’s Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004] 204.) Wyschogrod agrees with Lustiger’s premise, and goes on to argue—largely from the New Testament!—that as a Jew the Cardinal is still obligated to the Mosaic covenant, is still “under the yoke of the commandments.” Wyschogrod concludes, “[I]f I am right, are you not, from the Christian point of view, obligated to lead a Torah-observant life because you are a Jew? Are you not obligated to obey the dietary laws, the sabbath, the Jewish festivals, etc.?” (Ibid. 206, 210).

In an amazing reversal, much of the church world today, explicitly including the Catholic Church, affirms an ongoing Jewish identity for Jews who believe in Jesus. Michael Wyschogrod acknowledges that for the Cardinal to fulfill his Jewish identity with Jewish practice might “cause problems both for the Church and for Jews,” but insists it’s the right thing to do anyway. Since the letter was written, in 1989, church leadership, including Catholic leadership, has cautiously begun to affirm Jewish practice as well as Jewish identity. Regardless of the outcome of that affirmation, Jewish Yeshua-followers don’t have to worry about the Inquisition! If some of our ancient landsmen (fellow Jews) were willing to pay the ultimate price for practicing Judaism in forced secrecy, we should be diligent to practice it openly when we have the freedom to do so.


‘A Hearing Before the Inquisition,’ engraving by Mexican artist Constantino Escalante. (Public domain)


August 10, 2016

Tisha b’Av in Sepharad

Earlier this week our freezer went on the blink, and we had to call a repair man. Carlos showed up within a couple of hours and quickly diagnosed the problem—a blown condenser that would take about $400 to replace. Jane and I both had a good feeling about the guy and felt we should trust his diagnosis. I left the room while he and Jane worked out the details. Carlos noticed a print on our wall from the Israel Museum with the caption in Hebrew, and asked who the Hebrew was in our house. This led into a conversation that included him telling his own story. When he was a boy growing up in Guatemala, he remembered the men wearing little caps on their heads. His father converted to Catholicism at some point and it caused a family scandal. Carlos learned later that his father’s family had left Spain suddenly, leaving everything behind, and heard other family stories that convinced him that he had Sephardic Jewish ancestry.

We hear stories like this fairly often in New Mexico—although they’re usually local, not Guatemalan in origin. But this story was especially striking because we met Carlos the day after we’d visited an exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum entitled Fractured Faiths: Spanish Judaism, the Inquisition & New World Identities.

Sepharad is the Jewish name for Spain, based on a reference in Obadiah 1:20, and Sephardic Jews have spread throughout the world since their final departure from Spain in 1492. This brings up another remarkable convergence about meeting Carlos, because it’s only a few days before Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of both the first and second temples in Jerusalem in ancient times. Tisha B’Av also marks the day of most profound tragedy in the Sephardic legacy. The Jews of Spain had enjoyed a Golden Age in the years between about 900 and 1300, the time of  La Convivencia, when Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived together in what the exhibit called “a marriage of convenience,” creating a time of peace and prosperity that benefited all three communities. For Jews, this was the age of great poets, like Judah Ha-Levi, who typified his times by also being a great thinker and religious writer as well. It was the age of Maimonides, who began his life and career in Spain before moving on to Morocco and eventually Egypt, and of Nachmanides, who also left Spain toward the end of his life, as the period of relative tolerance and quiet was coming to an end.

For centuries Spain was the center of Jewish life for all of Europe and the Mediterranean world, and the source of Jewish thought and literature that has endured until today. Things began to change in the 14th century, which ended in a period of persecution and violence toward the Jewish population. Conditions worsened throughout the following century, as the Christian kingdoms of Iberia came into more dominance. Ferdinand, king of Aragon, married Isabella, queen of Castille, and together they took the final steps to form a unified Spain. Shortly after a decisive victory over the Muslims in Granada, Ferdinand and Isabella issued a decree on March 30, 1492, that all the Jews of Spain were to leave within four months. As the display at the New Mexico History Museum noted, this placed the expulsion date, July 30, 1492, within days of Tisha B’Av, adding to the tragic weight of that day.

The only way to avoid expulsion and the huge dislocation and material loss that it entailed was to convert to Catholicism, and many Jews took this option, at least externally. The museum website pictures the dilemma that the Jews of Sepharad faced:

What would you do? Repudiate the language, religion and customs of your people in order to stay in your home and with your family? Or walk away from all you owned, all you knew, and embark upon treacherous journeys across land and sea toward a life you could barely imagine?

Luis de Torres, originally Yosef ben Levi Ha-Ivri, converted shortly before the final edict of Ferdinand and Isabella. He joined the sailing expedition that departed from the Castilian port of Palos three days after the expulsion, on August 3, 1492. De Torres was to serve as an interpreter because of his knowledge of Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, and Portuguese, but the expedition ended up in a new world where none of those languages was spoken. De Torres, the first Jew to set foot on the New World, was killed by natives in a dispute the following year, but the world he entered would prove to be a haven for the Jewish people in the coming centuries. At the same time, the integrated Jewish identity of the Sephardic Golden Age was fractured. Jews struggled to find another homeland where they could live in peace, both practicing their Judaism and engaging the wider world, as they had done in Spain.

Christopher Columbus, the leader of the 1492 expedition, had noted in his Journal,

In the same month in which their Majesties [Ferdinand and Isabella] issued the edict that all Jews should be driven out of the kingdom and its territories, in the same month they gave me the order to undertake with sufficient men my expedition of discovery to the Indies.

Their Majesties wanted to drive the Jews out of Spanish territories as well as the kingdom itself, but many Jews fleeing the expulsion, or fleeing the Inquisition after converting, found their way to the New World—including my home state of New Mexico, which had a large population of conversos, Jewish converts to Catholicism, from the very beginning of the Spanish presence here.

This brings us to a final part of this story. The subtitle of the exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum is “Spanish Judaism, the Inquisition & New World Identities.” The Inquisition had authority only over conversos, not over the Jewish population in general, which in theory had already fled to other lands anyway. The Inquisition monitored the behavior of Catholics, or professed Catholics, to guard against any heretical activities, especially the heretical practice of Jewish customs. This oversight extended into the New World, where the Inquisition established an office in Mexico City in 1571. Conversos in remote regions of Mexico, and later New Mexico, were arrested and tried, and occasionally executed, for attempting to return to Jewish practice. In 1598, Don Juan de Onate, a Spanish nobleman whose mother descended from the illustrious Sephardic Jewish Ha-Levi family, led an expedition into New Mexico, joined by several other converso families, perhaps motivated by pressure from the Inquisition. New Mexico proved to be a place of refuge, but only if Jewish identity was kept hidden, thus creating the Crypto-Jews, or hidden Jews, whose story continues today.


Shackles Mexico, 17th century Private Collection Photo by Jorge Pérez de Lara These Shackles are from the inquisition prison in Mexico City.

For generations, Jews who succumbed to conversion struggled to find a new identity as Christians, or as Jews hiding out within Christianity. Some descendants of Sephardic Jews today are returning, or seeking to return, to an unambiguous Jewish identity. Some have gone beyond outward conversion to become genuine followers of Messiah Yeshua—and to find a way to incorporate faith in Messiah with their rekindled Jewish identity.

Our friend Carlos is a reminder that similar stories were experienced in other parts of the New World. As we commemorate Tisha B’Av this year, it’s appropriate to remember the Tisha B’Av of Sepharad, the expulsion of Spanish Jewry in 1492, after centuries of peace and prosperity in the Iberian Peninsula.

The Messianic Jewish community includes many members of Hispanic background who are exploring, or laying claim to, a Sephardic legacy. We sometimes hear of exaggerated claims and blanket statements concerning this legacy and who has a share in it. Messianic Jewish leaders can be skeptical about the Sephardic story, but I’d suggest that we replace skepticism with discernment and support. We need to honor the legacy of Spanish Jewry. And we need to find ways to help and encourage those who find their way into our community, who are exploring their own connection to this legacy.

August 5, 2016

Review: The Siege of Jerusalem: Selected Writings of Pauline Rose

In the Messianic Jewish community, we often invoke our long heritage going back to biblical times, but we generally overlook the recent history of our movement. Vine of David is providing a great service in countering this blind spot among us with its “Messianic Luminaries Series,” most recently featuring the life and writings of Pauline Rose (1898–1973).4061

Pauline was born in South Africa, where she married Albert Rose, a prosperous dealer in ostrich feathers, which were a fashion staple of the time. After the feather market collapsed, the Roses moved to London in the early 30s, where Albert again prospered as a builder and developer, while Pauline pursued her interest in art and a career in design. Albert lived as a traditionally observant Jew, but Pauline was on a spiritual quest through this whole period, often desperate in her search for meaning and truth. Shortly before or during World War II she had a transformative encounter with Yeshua:

Then, in my despair, Yeshua revealed himself to me. From one moment to the next I was transported from the depths of despair to the heights of joy. From that time the Spirit began the work of transformation within me and I saw Yeshua not only as my personal Saviour, but also as the Messiah of Israel.[1]

Pauline’s final phrase would be echoed by multitudes of Jews coming to Messianic faith during the Jesus movement and beyond: “I saw Yeshua not only as my personal Saviour, but also as the Messiah of Israel.” It’s a core element of the whole Messianic Jewish vision.

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