January 3, 2017

Joseph and the Hero’s Journey

Parashat Vayigash, Genesis 44:18–47:27

When Joseph said, “I am Joseph,” God’s master plan became clear to the brothers. They had no more questions. Everything that had happened for the last twenty-two years fell into perspective. So, too, will it be in the time to come, when God will reveal Himself and announce, “I am Hashem!” The veil will be lifted from our eyes and we will comprehend everything that has transpired throughout history. (Chafetz Chaim, cited in the Artscroll Chumash, Gen. 45:3)

The Hero’s Journey is one of the great themes of literature, dating back to the myths and legends of ancient times. The hero starts out poor or unqualified or misunderstood and soon must leave home. He or she is driven into exile, or is sent on a dangerous mission, to a different and dangerous realm. There he faces fierce, often supernatural, opposition, as well as defeat and captivity, but is transformed through it all and finally set free. The journey must be completed by returning home with new powers, which become a source of blessing and salvation for the family or tribe. Through it all, the hero has a mentor or guardian, who guides him to victory in the end. It’s an ancient story, rooted in the human psyche, but today’s therapeutic culture sometimes tries to update it by leaving out the mentor in favor of human potentiality, or doing without the return home so that the hero can become a whole new person of his or her own imagining. The true hero’s journey, however, ends with a return home.

Joseph’s journey follows the classic route. His betrayal into slavery in Egypt launches the journey and he brings it home when he reveals himself to his brothers. He can’t return to the promised land yet, but he gathers his brothers together in Egypt to declare, “I am Yosef! Is my father still alive?” (Gen. 45:3). Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, explains how he arrived at his position in Egypt, describes his plan to save them from the famine, and concludes, “and bring my father here with all speed.” His journey won’t be over until he’s reunited with his father. “Then he embraced his brother Binyamin and wept, and Binyamin wept on his neck, and he kissed all his brothers and wept on them. After that, his brothers talked with him” (Gen. 45:14-15).

The modern scholar Nahum Sarna comments:

So far the brothers have not uttered a word. It is only after this emotional embrace that their consternation is overcome. They are now able to communicate with Joseph, something they were unable to do when he lived among them as a boy. (JPS Torah Commentary, Genesis, 310)

The brothers are being healed of an estrangement that goes back to their earliest years. Joseph, the hero who has returned, is able to bring healing to the broken family of Jacob.

We sometimes speak of Joseph as a forerunner or sign of a Messiah to come. Rabbinic literature notes the messianic qualities of Joseph, and includes some discussion of Mashiach ben Yosef, Messiah the son of Joseph (e.g. Suk. 52a, b). Joseph is rejected by his brothers, sold into slavery to the gentile powers, buried in a dungeon, and finally raised up again to be the source of salvation for all peoples, especially his own people, the sons of Israel. But, on the way to saving his family, Joseph’s identity is hidden from them. His story isn’t complete until he finally “returns home” as his brothers recognize him (Gen. 42:8). The Voice of the Turtledove, a rabbinic study of Mashiach ben Yosef, discusses this theme of postponed recognition:

This is one of the traits of Joseph not only in his own generation, but in every generation, i.e., that Mashiach ben Yosef recognizes his brothers, but they do not recognize him. This is the work of Satan, who hides the characteristics of Mashiach ben Yosef so that the footsteps of the Mashiach are not recognized and are even belittled because of our many sins . . . Were Israel to recognize Joseph, that is, the footsteps of ben Yosef the Mashiach which is the ingathering of the exiles, etc., then we would already have been redeemed with a complete redemption.[1]

When the rabbis speak of the unrecognized Messiah, of course, they are not at all thinking of Yeshua, Jesus of Nazareth. And yet it’s remarkable how closely Yeshua’s story aligns with Joseph’s story and the portrayal of Messiah ben Joseph. Yeshua is rejected by his brothers, cast out from the household of Israel, given over to death under the dominant Gentile power, and then raised from the dead. He becomes the source of salvation to the nations, while his own nation, Israel, cannot recognize him. Yeshua’s identity is cloaked by his sojourn in the Gentile world, as Joseph’s was cloaked by his high position in the court of Egypt. He speaks a language that his brothers cannot understand, although he always understands theirs. For his hero’s journey to be complete, however, he must return home and be reunited with his brothers.

The rejection by (most of) Israel and the failure of (most of) Israel to recognize Yeshua as their own deliverer becomes the source of salvation to the nations, as Paul notes in his letter to the Romans:

In that case, I say, isn’t it that [the people of Israel] have stumbled with the result that they have permanently fallen away?” Heaven forbid! Quite the contrary, it is by means of their stumbling that the deliverance has come to the Gentiles, in order to provoke them to jealousy (Rom 11:11 CJB).

It’s just a step from there to the idea, captured in the rabbinic texts above, that Israel’s recognition of Messiah ben Joseph is linked with redemption for both Israel and the nations. “For if their casting Yeshua aside means reconciliation for the world, what will their accepting him mean? It will be life from the dead!” (Rom 11:15 CJB).

For many of us in the Messianic Jewish community, our initial encounter with Yeshua as Messiah launched a journey away from our Jewish homes and family, a journey that often included testing and estrangement. But for it to be a hero’s journey like that of Joseph or even Messiah himself, it must include a return to our Jewish homeland. Whatever rescue and transformation we’ve received from God should issue forth in blessing for our people. So it was with Joseph, who told his brothers,

But don’t be sad that you sold me into slavery here or angry at yourselves, because it was God who sent me ahead of you to preserve life. . . . God sent me ahead of you to ensure that you will have descendants on earth and to save your lives in a great deliverance. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Gen. 45:5, 7-8a CJB)

Like Joseph, Yeshua is estranged from his own brothers, the household of Israel, and yet as with Joseph, his heart is always with them. It’s a good reminder in this day of individualism and autonomy. Joseph cannot and will not complete his hero’s journey apart from his brothers, and neither will Messiah himself. And so we, who follow him, must even more surely remain connected to his people and their destiny.



[1] Kol HaTor 2:39, trans., R. Shaklover, The Voice of the Turtledove. The book is ascribed to a direct disciple of the 18th century Gaon of Vilna, but its authenticity is disputed. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kol_HaTor. Even if it’s a more recent work, however, it reflects much older portrayals of Messiah ben Joseph.

January 1, 2017

How 2016 Measured Up . . . for Prayer

Last year at this time, I posted a blog with twelve key events of 2015 that were focal points for prayer in the Messianic Jewish community. I didn’t try to cover everything, but to focus on issues of special relevance to our community. There were plenty of such events in 2016, but I will again limit the list to twelve, so that we can give each item adequate prayer attention during 2017.

  1. A thriving Messianic Jewish community in Israel faces growing pressure against Aliyah

The Messianic Jewish community in Israel continues to grow, and to reach significant numbers of younger, native-born Israelis. At the same time, government resistance against Aliyah (immigration) by Messianic Jews also continues to increase. This is partly a result of Netanyahu’s re-election last year and the formation of more right-leaning governing coalition, which includes with religious parties. In response Israeli Messianics  have launched the MAC (Messianic Aliyah Coordinator) project to provide up-to-date information and needed support, including: confidential free counsel; practical help and advice; relevant contacts and in some cases limited hosting. You can contact me for more information.

  1. March – Fourth Christ at the Checkpoint

The Christ at the Checkpoint (CATC) conference, sponsored by Bethlehem Bible College and held biannually since 2010, has been a source of controversy within the Messianic Jewish community in Israel and abroad. Conference promoters and supporters see it as a vehicle for Arab-Jewish understanding and reconciliation, but critics oppose it because of alleged anti-Israel rhetoric and political positions. Past conferences have included Messianic Jewish speakers and participants, especially from Israel, but that participation seemed to decrease in 2016. Shortly after CATC, and just a few miles away, Christ Church Jerusalem hosted its “At the Crossroads” conference, which brought together Christian workers from throughout the Middle East as well as some Messianic Jews from Israel (and abroad, including me). At the Crossroads was not promoted as an alternative to CATC, but is often seen that way, with a more positive vision of Israel and a less political orientation. You can read my brief reports here and here.

  1. March-April – Twelfth annual Israel Apartheid Week

This anti-Zionist effort mostly centered on college campuses “seeks to raise awareness of Israel’s settler-colonial project and apartheid system over the Palestinian people and to build support for the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.” Israel Apartheid Week is a relatively small movement, but I’m including it for a couple of reasons:

  • It’s part of the growth of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism on college campuses, many of which are actively hostile not only to Israel and Israelis, but to their own Jewish students. See the website of Jewish advocacy group, AMCHA.
  • At the same time, the BDS movement that it supports suffered significant setbacks in 2016, with anti-Israel boycotts being banned in several states and foreign countries, for example Ohio on December 19. Ironically, however, the BDS effort may have received a “Christmas present” with the passage of UN Resolution 2334 (12 below).
  1. June – Brexit: British voters opt out of the European Union

Brexit is a huge story in its own right, the first time a member state chose to part company with the powerful 28-member European Union. It will take at least two more years to accomplish, and the results of Britain’s exit remain to be seen, but it seems to be part of a trend toward nationalism and populism worldwide, which later in the year also fueled Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election. The Jewish connection is that nationalism and populism have never been good for the Jews, and these trends should be prayerfully observed. Toward the end of the year another Jewish connection emerged, with a rush of Sephardic Jews in Great Britain seeking Portuguese passports to remain within a European Union state. Portuguese (and also Spanish) citizenship was made possible by legislation last year to facilitate the return of the descendants of Jews forced from the countries at the end of the 15th century.

  1. Continuing Islamist terror attacks around the world

2016 concluded with a terror attack in Istanbul that killed at least 39. The assailant is still at large and unidentified, but throughout 2016 attacks specifically linked to Islamist groups took place in Germany, Belgium and Orlando, Florida; Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast in Africa; Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq in the Middle East; and repeatedly in Turkey.

  1. July – Changing of the guard at the UMJC

UMJC delegates confirmed the appointment of Monique Brumbach, a young lay leader, to the position of Executive Director, which I previously filled. At the same meeting, Rabbi Kirk Gliebe wrapped up two effective and fruitful terms as UMJC president, and the delegates elected one of our younger congregational leaders, Jesse Hutcher, as incoming President, creating a multi-generational leadership team for an organization which has been focusing on leadership transition in recent years. The same transition toward younger leadership is at work throughout the wider Messianic Jewish community.

  1. August – Continuing racial tension in America

I’m highlighting August, because that’s when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem in protest of alleged police brutality against African-Americans. Some elements of the Black Lives Matter have aligned themselves with a radical anti-Zionist position and advocacy for the Palestinian cause. August was also the month that Calev Myers of the Jerusalem Institute of Justice released Crucial Alliance: African-Americans, Jews, and the Middle East Conundrum, calling for a renewal of the historic twentieth century Black-Jewish alliance that the book chronicles.

  1. September – Death of Shimon Peres

When Shimon Peres died at the age of 93, he was the last surviving leader of Israel’s founding generation, a Nobel laureate who had served in a number of key cabinet posts, including two terms as prime minister. In his term as president of Israel, 2007-2014, Peres had become a symbol of hope for peace and a dynamic, innovative Israel. Peres’ hilarious retirement video captures that symbolism brilliantly.

  1. November – Bob Dylan is awarded Nobel Prize

Dylan is Jewish, of course, and also, at least for a time, a Messianic Jew, who openly embraced Yeshua as Lord and Messiah in the late 70s. Several sources claim that Dylan never abandoned his faith in Yeshua, but simply refused to fit in with anyone’s expectations. 2016 also marked the death of another iconic Jewish singer-songwriter, Leonard Cohen, whose work also reflected a deep engagement with Yeshua.

  1. November – Election of Donald Trump

I don’t need to add to the vast discussion of the 2016 election, but will just highlight some specifically Jewish interest points. First, the surprising run of Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination. Sanders is a Jew whose platform reflected policies and values traditionally held by many Jewish voters in America. He also showed a rare authenticity and consistency that could be admired even by voters he disagreed with his policies. Second, Trump’s mixed signal to Jewish voters. On the one hand he revealed himself, especially after the election, as a strong supporter of Israel. His daughter, with whom he appears to be very close, converted to Judaism to marry Jared Kushner. On the other hand, Trump supporters, and even some Trump campaign materials, included anti-Semitic elements that Trump seemed slow to repudiate. Trump’s policy positions general diverge from the values of most Jewish voters. The wider Jewish community remains deeply concerned about Trump as his inauguration approaches.

  1. Siege of Aleppo

Civilians in Aleppo were trapped for most of 2016, caught in a brutal struggle between rebels and Assad government forces supported by Russian and Iran, with thousands of casualties and multiple thousands of refugees. By the end of the year, Aleppo was retaken by government forces, but the humanitarian crisis caused by the civil war continued. Russian involvement, and minimal US involvement, reflect a shifting dynamic in the Middle East, to which Israel is seeking to adjust. At the same time, Israelis responded strongly to volunteer humanitarian efforts on behalf of the Syrians.

  1. December – UN Security Council passes Resolution 2334

This is just the latest in a long string of anti-Israel resolutions in the UN, but for the first time the US abstained instead of vetoing this measure. It was followed up on 12/28 by a speech by John Kerry, which put the onus on Israel, and Israel’s settlement policy in particular, for the failure of the peace process. The resolution states that it,

Reaffirms that the establishment by Israel of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.

 The Jewish Quarter of the Old City and the Western Wall are both within what this resolution calls “occupied territory,” and Jewish residents of this historic Jewish neighborhood are here described as “settlers.” In October, UNESCO had passed a resolution on Jerusalem and the Temple Mount area, which “makes no reference to Jewish ties to a key holy site in Jerusalem”—the Temple Mount and Western Wall. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-37697108. The December resolution seems to follow in the same path of denying the historic Jewish connection to “east Jerusalem” and the west Bank. Israel’s supporters are now concerned that a conference on the Middle East to be hosted by France on January 15 will build on this UN momentum in ways that are harmful to Israel’s security.

All in all, a lot to remember for prayer in 2017!


December 12, 2016

Wrestling for Identity

 And Jacob was left alone. Genesis 32:25

This is only the second time we’ve seen Jacob really alone. The first time was when he camped at “a certain place” on the way out of the promised land, running from Esau. Now 20+ years later, he’s returning to the promised land, and about to meet up again with Esau, and he’s alone again.

I’m reading the stories of Genesis this year with special attention to the family dynamics in the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. A theme that runs throughout is the rivalry between brothers for the recognition and privileges of the firstborn, which will come to a head in the saga of Joseph and his brothers (on which I’m currently writing a book). It’s a rivalry for identity, to use a modern term: a sense of who I am, what I’m about, and ultimately what I’m worth. Identity is something we struggle to form and maintain today. When it comes to sibling rivalry, though, old Jacob might be the champ. He wrestles with Esau in the womb so he can be born first. This fails, but Jacob is still hanging on to Esau’s heel at the moment of birth. Later he negotiates with Esau to purchase his birthright, and then cooperates with his mother, Rebekah, to get the blessing of the firstborn. Esau is understandably outraged, and Jacob has to flee, but then he spends the next twenty years wrestling with his uncle/father-in-law/boss Laban just to get a fair deal.

It’s only now that Jacob is finally left alone . . . but then he ends up wrestling again with a “man” until the break of day (32:25 [32:24 in Christian Bibles]). Continue reading

December 6, 2016

A Good Death

Parashat VaYishlach, Genesis 32:4–36:43

Now the days of Isaac were 180 years. And Isaac breathed his last, and he died and was gathered to his people, old and full of days. And his sons Esau and Jacob buried him. Genesis 35:28–29

When a patriarch or matriarch dies the whole family suffers trauma. The family system becomes imbalanced with the loss of its dominant member, and the surviving members sometimes act erratically. The death of a father or mother figure often stirs up fighting and misunderstanding between those who are left behind. They might seem to be arguing over funeral arrangements or the division of property, but the real issues are far deeper. Underlying the surface conflict is often terror at death itself.

As a rabbi and counselor, I’ve learned to tread softly through the scene of bereavement and mourning. More than once I’ve seen the primary caregiver, the one child who cared for an ailing parent night and day, who sacrificed personal priorities to keep the parent safe and comfortable, get blamed for the parent’s death. I’ve seen respectable, well-to-do offspring descend on the family home hours after the death of a parent to snatch up an old photo or a sentimental heirloom before the other family members could get to it. It’s a mistake to take these actions at face value and try to intervene with an appeal to fairness. Instead, they’re the distorted outworking of fear, guilt, and anxiety over a loss that just doesn’t make sense, a loss that hangs over life from now on like a black cloud.

But sometimes the death of a patriarch brings the opposite response, peace among the survivors.

Continue reading

November 21, 2016

Sibling Rivalry and the Articulated Torah

My friend and colleague Seth Klayman led a group discussion last week at the Messianic Leadership Roundtable in Phoenix, on “Building Trust While Approaching Gentiles and the Torah in our Communities.” Trust was the theme of the whole event, and Seth applied that theme to the thorny issue of Jews, Gentiles, and Torah within the Messianic Jewish community. He opened with the idea that we steward “two profound truths” in our community: “(1) God has cut an enduring covenant with Israel as a distinct people; and (2) Gentile believers are ‘brought near’ to Israel, resulting in a deep unity of Jew and Gentile in Yeshua. Therefore, we embrace both Jewish ‘distinction’ and Messianic ‘inclusivity.’”

Clear enough, but the discussion threatened to turn into train wreck. As soon as it left the station, participants jumped out of their seats, raised their voices at each other, and even pointed fingers once or twice. Rabbi Seth handled the controls calmly enough to keep the train on the rails, and bring it home with no evident injuries. On the surface we were talking about the “One Law” question; whether the Torah applies differently to Jews and Gentiles, whether some aspects of Torah are specifically given as identity markers for the Jewish people and aren’t intended for non-Jews, even within the Messianic Jewish community. Beneath the surface, though, there was clearly something else going on. At one point Seth asked us, “Why do you think this topic stirs up such emotions?”

Good question.

Continue reading

November 9, 2016

The “Right to Die” on Election Day

Amid all the excitement and dismay of the Trump upset on Election Day 2016, it was easy to miss a lopsided victory in Colorado for Proposition 106, legalizing “Medical Aid in Dying” or assisted suicide. And I suppose the story wasn’t all that newsworthy, since Colorado joined five other states (Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Montana and California) that already have similar laws. Besides, the Colorado law seems rather tame, at least as described in the Nov. 8 Denver Post: “Colorado passed a medical aid in dying measure Tuesday that will allow adults suffering from terminal illness to take life-ending, doctor-prescribed sleeping medication.”

 But newsworthy or not, Proposition 106 highlights one of the great underlying questions of our age: What gives value and meaning to human life?

If we can’t give a definitive answer to this question, then we’ll have to deal with other questions: Who sets the limits on “Medical Aid in Dying”? On what basis would such limits be set? Should there be any limits at all?

Continue reading

November 4, 2016

Innocence is Not an Option

God’s original plan was to hang out in a garden with some naked vegetarians.

At least that was the plan according to a poster by New Mexico artist Diana Bryer that I own. Before you object or roll your eyes, though, remember this verse in last week’s Torah portion:Adam and Eve

Then God said, “Here! Throughout the whole earth I am giving you as food every seed-bearing plant and every tree with seed-bearing fruit. And to every wild animal, bird in the air and creature crawling on the earth, in which there is a living soul, I am giving as food every kind of green plant.” And that is how it was. (Gen. 1:29–30, CJB)

Originally not only humans but animals too were all vegetarians. Meat eating entails violence and apparently there wasn’t any of that until after Adam and Eve got booted from the Garden. In fact, even vegetarianism might not have been peaceful enough in this place of primal peace. According to The Jewish Study Bible, “Humankind, animals, and birds all seem originally meant to be neither vegetarians nor carnivores, but frugivores eating the seeds of plants and trees.” Seeds and fruits fall off the plants on their own, making this the ultimate non-violent diet, and leaving humankind radically innocent.

Jewish commentator Dennis Prager tells about being on a long flight on which the woman sitting next to him was served a vegetarian meal (while he was given a kosher one). He asked her why she was a vegetarian and she responded, “Because we have no right to kill. After all, who are we to claim that we are more valuable than animals?”

Prager is okay with that first sentence, and it does seem consistent with the frugivorous Shangri-La of Eden. But Prager is shocked at the second sentence: “Who are we to claim that we are more valuable than animals?”

Continue reading

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 four steps I’ve outlined.

Rambam (or Maimonides, 1135-1204), identified four components of teshuvah: 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 to the wake-up call of the shofar at Rosh HaShanah: Continue reading

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?

Continue reading