Archive for September, 2011

September 28, 2011

Rosh Hashanah with Ishmael

Abraham endured ten trials of his faith, according to Jewish tradition, and the last two involve Abraham’s two sons: he must cast Ishmael out of the camp, and offer up Isaac as a sacrifice. We read about both these trials on Rosh Hashanah; Ishmael on the first day and Isaac on the second. The Akedah or Binding of Isaac is one of the most familiar stories in Scripture, but we tend to overlook the sending away of Ishmael, even though it reflects one of the great themes of the High Holy Days.

The story opens with the birth and naming of Isaac, Yitzchak, whose name reflects the Hebrew root word for “laugh.” Sarah, who had laughed at the very idea of bearing a child as an old lady, now says “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with [or at] me” (Gen. 21:7). Later she sees Ishmael laughing with, or at, Isaac, and demands that he be sent away with his mother, Hagar. Abraham is distressed, but Hashem tells him to do what Sarah says and reassures him that Ishmael, like Isaac, will become a great nation. Then, in words that will be repeated verbatim in the Akedah, the text says, “Abraham rose early in the morning” (Gen. 21:14) to do God’s will. As in the Akedah he gathers up provisions, and then he lays them on Hagar’s shoulder, just as he will lay the firewood on Isaac’s shoulder, and sends them both off.

September 19, 2011

Non-theoretical truth

We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves [and] admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

From the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous


When truth encounters the data of our lives, it gives rise to confession.

Truth itself can be pretty abstract, an ideal that dwells apart from our daily lives. But when we let the truth we find in Scripture shine on the details of our thoughts and behaviors, and speak the truth about what we see, truth is anything but abstract. It becomes something solid that works real changes into our lives. Speaking the truth about what we see is called confession, which isn’t a real popular term nowadays, but is one of the main practices of the Days of Awe (the High Holy Days, Sept. 28–Oct. 8 this year) and an essential part of the preparation for Yom Kippur. And confession of sin is a keynote of all the services of Yom Kippur itself.

September 16, 2011

Stop Apartheid!

OK, that title got you reading, so what I really mean is “Stop (with the) Apartheid (rhetoric already)!”. This morning I counter-demonstrated against a group protesting against Israel, and they had “Apartheid” boldly on display. Now, I admit I can be a stickler for words (I am, after all, an author and blogger), maybe even a little OC about them at times. But my thing with “apartheid” is not nitpicking. This is strategic rhetoric designed to invalidate Israel as a Jewish state.

This morning’s demonstration was triggered by a meeting here between some New Mexico and Israeli business and high-tech people to discuss cooperation in water and energy conservation. One of the protesters had a bright orange sign that said “Don’t do business with Israeli Apartheid!” so I asked him what “Apartheid” meant. He said he didn’t know; he was just holding up the sign. I said that “Israeli Apartheid” was a lie and asked why he was holding up a sign with a lie. He said, “That’s the sign they gave me.”

Another demonstrator said that Israeli was guilty of apartheid because they did targeted assassinations (against Hamas military leaders in Gaza). I tried to explain that Hamas had declared and demonstrated itself to be at war with Israel, and this was a military strategy, which doesn’t have anything to do with apartheid.

Now, to be fair, I did speak with another young guy who was a bit more knowledgeable. His bottom line revealed the ugly truth about the apartheid rhetoric: Israel is apartheid simply because it’s a Jewish state. Simply because it claims to be the national homeland of the Jewish people, it’s racist, apartheid and all the rest. Every state on the planet, this guy was implying, should be a pluralistic, secular, church-and-state separated set-up like the USA. I did ask him why it’s OK for President Obama (along with most others) to refer to “the Islamic Republic of Iran,” but it’s not fair for there to be a Jewish state of Israel, but I didn’t get much response.

“Apartheid” casts the Jewish people in the land of Israel as colonialists, as a powerful, European-backed minority oppressing a native population. Never mind that there have always been Jews in the land of Israel (as even the protesters admitted this morning), or that Jews have been the majority population in the whole city of Jerusalem since the 1860s, long before there was any thought of West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem, or that the Arab population west of the Jordan mushroomed after the Jewish population started to grow.

The apartheid rhetoric invalidates any kind of Jewish state as wrong because it’s Jewish. From this perspective, Israel could solve all its problems and atone for all its shortcomings, and that wouldn’t solve a thing.

For me that’s a good reason to stand up, even out on the streets, in support of Israel as Israel – the national homeland of the Jewish people.

September 15, 2011

Irreplaceable Israel

We’re in the middle of Elul, the sixth month, which means we’re in the middle of a prayer focus on protection and restoration for the land and people of Israel. The two prayer themes of protection and restoration or return (teshuvah in Hebrew, which also means repentance), are linked in Scripture, as in our theme verse, “Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 3:7).

This prayer effort (co-sponsored by the UMJC and the MJAA) is something we’ve never done before, but lots of us are also following an ancient tradition, reading through the Psalms during Elul. A couple of days ago I came to Psalm 80, which makes the same protection-return linkage: “O Lord God of Hosts, turn us back, cause your face to shine upon us, and we shall be saved” (vss. 4, 8, 20). First, there must be return, turning back to God, then God’s favor shines upon us and we are rescued or saved. This sequence is repeated throughout Scripture. You have to be careful how you use apply it, though, because it has been used in some circles (like replacement theology) to declare that God’s promises to Israel are null and void, since Israel has never really turned back to God. When the Messiah came and Israel still didn’t turn, so the theory goes, that clinched it.

But, of course, there’s another theme throughout Scripture that counters this interpretation: Israel is irreplaceable.

September 4, 2011

Silence, Shofars, and Elul

When the Lamb broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for what seemed like half an hour (Rev. 8:1, CJB).

This week, our Mussar group is working on the virtue of silence (see, but silence is the last thing you’d expect in heaven. Heaven’s the scene of unending, and loud, worship and praise. Just a few verses before the one above, John, the seer of Revelation, saw “a huge crowd, too large for anyone to count, from every nation, tribe, people and language . . . and they shouted [or cried out with a loud voice] . . .” (Rev. 7:9–10, CJB). Before that, he had seen an even bigger and noisier crowd:

Then I looked, and I heard the sound of a vast number of angels—thousands and thousands, millions and millions! . . . And they shouted out, “Worthy is the slaughtered Lamb to receive power, riches, wisdom, strength, honor, glory and praise!” And I heard every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth and on the sea—yes, everything in them—saying, “To the One sitting on the throne and to the Lamb belong praise, honor, glory and power forever and ever!” (Rev. 5:11–13, CJB).

Worship bursts forth in words and music and loud voices, and heaven is a noisy place—so what is this sudden silence about?