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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March 27, 2016

Remembrance in Jerusalem

At the Crossroads this week concluded with a communion service, which unexpectedly reached into my soul and touched me deeply. (I wrote this a few days ago, but didn’t have a decent Wi-Fi connection until now. It should say “last week” instead of “this week.”)

Communion is one of those Christian terms that Messianic Jews normally translate into a Jewish equivalent, like Zikkaron (remembrance) or Seudat Mashiach (Messiah’s supper). And it’s not only the ritual that needs translation, but often all the surroundings that go with it. The surroundings this time were at Christ Church, near Jaffa Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem. It was built in 1841 as the oldest Protestant Church in Israel, with walls of glowing Jerusalem stone, Hebrew lettering in the stained glass windows and the Hebrew words Asu zot l’zichroni, “Do this in remembrance of me,” on the table from which communion was served. The church isn’t indigenous, but a mission, a foreign outreach to the land and people of Israel, and yet not entirely foreign; there’s something about it that seems to belongs here. Continue reading

March 23, 2016

Report from “At the Crossroads”

This morning, in Jerusalem, I heard a Turkish man named Ali who once made the haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, seeking help from Allah for his drinking and marital problems. When he was asleep one night in Mecca, Jesus appeared to him in a dream and said to him “Leave this place.” He returned to his home in Turkey, where his friends threw him a party to celebrate his haj. He stood up and said, “When I went to Mecca, Jesus came to me. I’m a Christian now.” His friends thought he was joking and all started laughing, but Ali, soon joined by his wife, kept following Jesus. He went for three years without a Bible and seven years before meeting another Muslim (besides his wife) who believed in Jesus. Eventually, he planted a church in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, which is now established enough for him to turn over the leadership to a younger man so he can start a new congregation in another city.

This is just one of the stories from At the Crossroads, a gathering of “Middle Eastern nationals and internationals working in various spheres of ministry with a regional or Kingdom vision of the Middle East that is best outlined in Isaiah’s vision of a highway in Isaiah 19:23-25.”

In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and Assyria will come into Egypt, and Egypt into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians.

In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.”

Continue reading

March 4, 2016

A Bethlehem Reality Check

With the controversial, anti-Zionist Christ at the Checkpoint conference starting on Monday in Bethlehem, here’s a revealing counter-narrative by my colleague Robert Nicholson:

In 1990, Christians made up a majority of Bethlehem’s residents; today they make up only 15%. Some say Israel is the reason for the decline, but then why is the Muslim population of Bethlehem growing when both sectors face the same exact set of circumstances? Jewish sovereignty does not, ipso facto, lead to Christian emigration. Inside Israel, the Christian population has been growing steadily for decades. The decrease of Christians inside the Palestinian territories is due more to rising Islamism and bad governance by the Palestinian Authority.

It is no coincidence that Bethlehem was mostly Christian until the 1990s. Until then, Bethlehem was ruled directly by Israel. Palestinian Christians (and Muslims) could travel freely inside Israel, visit the beach, and shop in Jewish neighborhoods. That all changed in the mid-1990s when Israel agreed to let the PLO rule parts of the West Bank and Gaza under the Oslo Accords.

The Palestinian Authority is, by its own constitution, an Islamic state that embodies the principles of shari’a, and Christians are relegated to the status of second-class citizens. It is illegal to convert from Islam to Christianity. Moreover, living as a Christian, one is constantly reminded that he or she is not a member of the majority culture. In public, Bethlehem Christians laud their happy coexistence with their Muslim neighbors. They don’t have a choice. They are hostages inside their own city.

Read the full op-ed here.

February 25, 2016

Bickle, Benjamin, and the All-Israel Narrative

When Evangelical pastor Mike Bickle endorsed Ted Cruz for President earlier this month, Cruz gratefully accepted his endorsement, but some Jewish commentators rose up to object. Bickle claims that he is staunchly pro-Jewish and pro-Israel, but in an op-ed entitled “Why Ted Cruz’s Preacher Sidekick is No Friend of the Jews or Israel” Sarah Posner attacks this claim.

Bickle’s teaching is unequivocal: Jews must accept Jesus in order to accomplish God’s will that Jesus return to Jerusalem to rule the world from his throne on the Temple Mount. It’s hard to imagine how a Zionist of any stripe would define this position as pro-Israel.

I don’t follow Bickle, but I’m familiar with the general position that he seems to be espousing. Posner, inevitably, is providing a simplistic version, but she gets the basics right—yes, God’s will is for Jesus to return to Jerusalem to rule all the nations, and this return is linked to Jewish recognition of Jesus. Yeshua himself told Jerusalem, “You won’t see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Matt 23:39). Posner uses her summary to raise a common Jewish objection to Evangelical Christians who claim to love Israel and the Jewish people: How can you claim to love us if you believe, as she writes, that “Jews and Israel must repent for not accepting Jesus as the Messiah”? In other words, how can you say you love the Jewish people if you think we all really should convert and become Christians?

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February 12, 2016

Jews and Arabs Agree!

Occasionally a story of hope comes out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and last week provided a good example. Messianic Jews and Arab Christians, mostly from Israel and the Palestinian territories, met in Cyprus to affirm their unity in Messiah–and even issued a joint statement about it. Several of my friends and colleagues were involved and I believe that amidst a largely hopeless situation this is a flicker of hope that we need to feed.

Here’s an excerpt from the statement, exploring how pro-Israel and pro-Arab believers can try to bridge their theological differences:

Some of us believe that the uncancelled covenant of God with Israel continues to include the promise of the land to the Jewish people as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and that the return of Jews to the land and the establishment of the state of Israel constitute the fulfillment of biblical prophecies. We reject, however, the interpretation of this theological conviction that denies the identity, history and peoplehood of the Palestinians and their right to remain in the land of their ancestors. And we acknowledge and lament along with them the suffering, death and injustice caused by that denial.

Some of us believe that all God’s covenant promises, including the land, are fulfilled in the Messiah Jesus as the One who embodies the true sonship and inheritance of Israel, embracing the whole earth and all nations. All those from any nation who are united to Christ by faith share in the inheritance that is His and are the seed of Abraham and heirs according to God’s promise. We reject, however, the interpretation of this theological conviction that denies the right of Jews to a secure homeland and rejects the reality and legitimacy of the state of Israel. And we acknowledge and lament along with them the suffering and death caused by the hatred and violence of those who seek to destroy it.

You can read the full statement here.

February 10, 2016

T’rumah: the offering that elevates

Imagine in the midst of this year’s unusually interesting presidential campaign that one candidate proposes a vast program to rebuild America’s entire transportation infrastructure—roads and bridges, highways and interstates, railroads and harbors. It’s a program even grander than NASA’s historic effort to land a man on the moon. And when a challenger asks the candidate how we’re going to pay for this massive undertaking,  he or she says, “We’ll just take an offering!”

In a normal year, this candidate would be laughed off the stage, but this is exactly what is proposed for the building of the Mishkan in this week’s parasha, Exodus 25:1-27:19. The Mishkan is the portable dwelling for Adonai as he accompanies his people in their journey toward the Promised Land. The account of its elaborate construction out of gold and silver, precious fabrics and acacia wood, dominates the entire second half of the book of Exodus. In fact, this construction project is the culmination of the departure from Egypt. The driving reason that the Lord delivered Israel from Egypt was to serve him, and this is the place where that service happens.

All the more remarkable, then, that this vast project is to be supplied by voluntary offerings. As he begins his instructions for the Mishkan, the LORD tells Moses, “Speak to the children of Israel and let them raise up for me an offering; from every man whose heart moves him, you shall raise up my offering” (Exodus 25:1-2). This radical approach provides a sharp contrast with this week’s haftarah reading. There, when King Solomon set out to build the Temple, the successor to the Mishkan, he “imposed forced laborers from all Israel—the levy was 30,000 men” (1 Kings 5:27 [5:13]). Conscription, levies; that’s how public works get done. So why does Moses depend on a freewill offering?

This question is even sharper in light of the common rabbinic understanding that mandatory obedience is better than voluntary. In this view, it’s better to do a deed in obedience to a mitzvah than to do it just because you want to. Obedience to a mitzvah involves a degree of understanding and self-discipline that spontaneous action does not. It also, at least ideally, involves the same level of heart motivation that spontaneous action does. Therefore obedience involves more of the whole person in God’s service. Why, then, is the gathering of materials for the Mishkan left entirely up to voluntary action?

The Torah is teaching us an essential truth about serving the God of Israel.

Before our deliverance, “The Egyptians made the children of Israel serve with crushing hardness. They embittered their lives with hard servitude in mortar and in brick and in every servitude in the field. All their service in which they made them serve was with crushing hardness” (1:13-14). In these two verses the root avad, service, labor, servitude, appears five times, and clearly refers to compulsory service.

When we retell the Passover story at the Seder, we lift our cups and recite, “He brought us out from servitude to freedom … Hallelujah!” Passover is called “the season of our freedom.” Torah, however, speaks not so much of freedom as of a change of servitude. We were serving Pharaoh, but the Lord commanded him, “Let my people go that they may serve me” (8:1). In the service of Pharaoh the Israelites were compelled to build the store-cities of Pithom and Raamses. In the service of Adonai they willingly build the Mishkan. The opposite of compulsory servitude is not freedom to do whatever, but willing servitude.

Freedom, our ancient story tells us, is not a matter of total autonomy, or the absence of any authority over our lives. Rather, freedom is servitude to the one true God, the one who is worthy to be served. We enter this freedom by serving willingly, as the Israelites did when each one contributed to the offering voluntarily, as his heart moved him – yidvenu libo.

The Hebrew here is instructive. The root of the verb yidvenu or “moved” is nadav, which also is the root for the noun “noble” or “prince.” The connection is clear: a nobleman is one who is free to act as he is moved, not under compulsion. He is not subject to hard labor and oppression, but neither does he live only for himself. Rather, he serves freely, offering his resources and his own self to the cause of a worthy master.

In most of its laws, including those of offerings, the Torah gives rather specific requirements. In this vital offering for a dwelling place for God, however, voluntary giving prevails. Thus, we see that service to the LORD is never oppressive or degrading, as is service to Pharaoh, but instead ennobling.

Yeshua built upon this truth when he stated, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me … for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30). Normally a yoke is an instrument of bondage, imposed upon a beast or a man against his will. Yeshua calls us to take the yoke of service voluntarily. Such a yoke he terms “my yoke”—a yoke that unites us to him. We will discover it to be not oppressive, but easy.

Freely yielding oneself to God is elevating; serving God instead of self is liberating.

The very name of our parasha, T’rumah, points to the same truth. This word refers to the offering itself. “Speak to the children of Israel and let them raise up for me an offering …” Its root is rum, “to be high, elevated; to rise up.” The offering is raised up to God, but it also raises up the offerer. Service to the God of Israel is elevating. Notably, in the account of building the temple in 1 Kings, the word t’rumah is absent. Solomon imposes forced labor. It looks like an efficient operation, the sort of thing that governments love to do. There’s no need for an offering, and therefore no opportunity to be elevated by the offering.

A final lesson: Moses’ instruction that “every man whose heart moves him” is to give focuses on the individual, as does Yeshua’s invitation to take on his yoke. But Scripture doesn’t stop at this individual response to God. Yeshua’s invitation to take on his yoke is to “all who labor and are heavy laden” (Matthew 11:28). The Mishkan is built through the efforts of all, the combined response of multitudes of willing hearts.

And they spoke to Moses saying, “The people bring much more than enough for the service of the work which the Lord commanded to make.” And Moses gave command and they announced it throughout the camp, saying: “Let neither man nor woman make any more work for the offering of the sanctuary.” So the people were restrained from bringing. For the materials they had were sufficient for all the work to make it, and too much (36:5-7).

We gain spiritual freedom as we voluntarily serve God. This is the offering that elevates. It is not individual alone, but a service shared with all whose hearts move them to give. With such an offering we will build the dwelling that God assigns us.


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