24 March 2017

The Good, the Bad and the Unleavened

by Aaron Lewin, guest blogger

Why on this night do we eat only unleavened bread?

It really is the million-dollar question. Why do we have to eat this dry, crumbly bread not only for one night, but for eight nights? While there might be some matzah connoisseurs out there, for most it is at best passable and at worst a plague for eight nights! As a friend of mine put it last year, “I hate Passover! You have to eat food you don’t like and spend time with relatives you don’t like.” It is called the “bread of affliction” after all. . . .
But enough with the kvetching. If I’m honest, perhaps I’m overstating my dislike for matzah, yet the question remains: “Why on this night do we only eat matzah?”

We, of course know the traditional answer: “Because our ancestors had to leave Egypt in such haste, there wasn’t enough time for their bread to rise.” But I’m sure there must be more to it than that.

Taking a look at the Torah, we find that unleavened bread makes several appearances, all in connection with the sacrifices that we had to offer. We find that, for the most part, God specifically instructs us not to mix leaven with our offerings to Him (see Exodus 23:18 and 34:25). This, together with the rule about not eating fat, could lead us to believe that God has some strange eating habits, perhaps a forerunner to the modern vegan diet. Or, more probably, God is trying to tell us something.

The rabbis teach that leaven or yeast is used throughout Scripture as a symbol for sin (see, for example, Berachot 17a and also Rashi on that passage). Sin, simply put, is anything bad that we do/say/think. God didn’t want us to mix leaven with our sacrifices, in order to teach us that when we approach Him, He expects us to be pure and holy, just like He is. The very setup of the Tabernacle teaches us that while God wants to live among us, He is still decidedly different from us. We were to never forget that He is a holy God who cannot have anything sinful in His presence. As He put it, “You shall be holy, because I am holy” (Leviticus 20:26).

The problem, of course, is that we are not holy. Most of us would like to think that we are good, law-abiding citizens. Some of us might even think that we are a bit above average in the honoring-God department. The traditional, rabbinic Jewish view on sin seems to subscribe to this approach. The rabbis teach us that we each have two inclinations, the yetzer hara (evil inclination) and the yetzer hatov (good inclination).1 The power to do good or evil lies in our hands. We are fundamentally good people, who are sometimes led astray to do bad things.

The understanding that we get from the Tanakh about sin is, however, very different. As we read the Torah and the rest of Scripture, it is quite discomforting to realize that we are not basically good people who sometimes go astray. We, ourselves, are the problem. Take, for example:

And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Bereshit/Genesis 6:5 JPS)

The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one. (Tehillim/Psalm 14:2–3 JPS)

But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. (Isaiah 64:6)

Our very nature is tainted by sin because we are born as the descendants of Adam and Eve, who sold themselves into slavery to sin when they rejected God and followed the serpent’s advice. King David recognized this and exclaimed, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Tehillim/Psalm 51:5 JPS).

Furthermore, the whole sacrificial system of the Torah, which seems so strange to us in the modern world, was designed to teach us that we weren’t good—we had to bring sacrifices regularly to God for Him to forgive us so we could draw close to Him. I’m sure the constant sight of dead animals and blood was a wake-up call to any who entertained any thoughts of being fundamentally good.

Even our modern world confirms the truth of God’s understanding of us and sin as shown in Tanakh. One just needs to read the headlines to realize that the world is a broken place, and it’s not just the fault of a few “bad eggs.” Consider the Shoah: the fact that such utter depravity could take place in the twentieth century in the land of the “Poets and Thinkers” is more proof of the utter corruption of the human race. And whether we like it or not, you and I are included in that.

So, leaven is used by God in the Bible to teach us about sin. It’s beautiful then, that at Passover, we cleanse all the leaven from our home as a symbol of a desire to lead a life that is sin free. And eating the matzah reminds us that God expects us to be holy as He is holy. Perhaps the million-dollar question is not, “Why do we only eat matzah?” but “How does God expect us to be holy and how can we deal with the problem of sin in our lives?”

Thankfully, Passover provides the answer, and in a place that we would least expect it—in the matzah and in the lamb. We no longer eat lamb at Passover, because the lambs that we used to eat were sacrifices that had to be offered at the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem. No Temple, no altar, no Passover lambs. And yet the central part of the very first Passover in Egypt was the lamb. Without the sacrifice of the lamb, without its blood on our doorposts, our firstborn too would have died. The lambs died instead of our firstborn.

Thousands of years later, another Passover lamb would die, so that we could live. The Messiah, Yeshua, like a lamb led to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7), gave his life for us at Passover, so that we can escape the wrath of God at the “day of the Lord” (Joel 2:1–2) and that we can “live life to the full” (John 10:10). More than that, Yeshua died to free us from our corrupt selves and our slavery to sin so that we can be free to live a life of purpose that honors God.

While the rabbis teach that since the Temple was destroyed good works now atone for our sin (see Avot de Rabbi Natan 4), the Torah teaches something very different. In Vayikra/Leviticus 17:11 we read, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that maketh atonement by reason of the life” (17:11 JPS). In other words, our sin led to death—either our death or the death of a substitute, in this case an animal, just like at Passover. God never repealed this commandment and so it still stands today. We believers in Yeshua recognize that the animal sacrifices in the Torah pointed forward to the ultimate sacrifice of the Messiah, who would take away the sin of the world.

Sometimes Yeshua is mistakenly portrayed as a Jewish martyr—a teacher who tried to bring about sustainable change but was murdered because he upset the status quo.

And yet in the Brit Hadashah (New Testament) we read that Yeshua knew that his calling was to give his life at Passover for us and for all humanity. He knew what was going to happen and he taught his talmidim (disciples) in advance, at his last ever Passover seder.

Picture the scene: excitement and anticipation were written on the faces of those present. All those assembled could feel that something big was going to happen soon. Perhaps Yeshua was really going to challenge the Romans and lift the oppression. And then he did something strange. After the meal, he took the cup, which is traditionally the third cup, the cup of redemption, and said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). We then read that he took the bread and said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).

The bread of affliction, the bread without leaven, became a symbol for the death of the Messiah. But it also became a symbol of our hope. As an early follower of Yeshua, Paul, puts it, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). In other words, the unleavened Messiah became leaven for us, so that we can become the unleavenedness of God.

Before I came to faith in Yeshua as Messiah, I lived a pretty decent life. Sure, I was mean to people sometimes, didn’t always tell the truth, but for the most part I didn’t do anything really bad. No murders, only a little stealing— nothing major. And yet at one point I realized that even though I hadn’t committed any crimes against the law of the land, I was in major need of God’s forgiveness. I came to understand that I wasn’t holy—quite the opposite in fact. I was a slave to sin, and I needed someone to forgive me and set me free. As Yeshua said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin . . . if the Son sets you free you will be free indeed” (John 8:34, 36).

The rabbinic Jewish understanding of sin might sound comforting to us, but in reality, it is an empty comfort. For only through the Messiah can we really deal with our sin problem. Paul, again, said it best, “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Messiah, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:7–8).

So maybe Passover isn’t as boring as my friend says. And maybe there is something to eating matzah for these eight days—not to spur us on to try harder not to sin, but as a reminder that someone already took on that sin for us. This Passover, as you remove the leaven from your home, why not ask the Messiah Yeshua to remove it from your heart?

For more on Aaron, read here.

05 March 2017

Mardi Gras confusion

It came with flurry and noise and a thunderstorm from heaven, but nothing would dissuade the revellers from parading and celebrating the Mardi Gras parade 2017 in Sydney, yet once again. The parade took place last night, Saturday night, first Saturday in March, even though Mardi Gras officially was Tuesday.

From the ABC news report, "About 200 floats and thousands of performers made for a dazzling Mardi Gras spectacle through the inner-city suburbs of Darlinghurst and Surry Hills, and even though it sprinkled in the second half of the parade, it was not enough to dampen spirits."

But wait, was it Tuesday?

Was it different this year? Nope... Mardi means "Tuesday" and thus Mardi Gras ("fat Tuesday") is always to be marked on that day of the week. In fact, the day before "Ash Wednesday."

No wonder it was confusing. And some of the revelers might have had dysphoric confusion, but I don't know them by name or motive. Mardi Gras originally was so named as a way for people to practice eating richer, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season which begins on the next day, Ash Wednesday.

Gender matters and there is much discussion about it, even here on the JFJ website. Another read is here on the Dr Michael Brown website.

But gender confusion is not my point today, although it might be something with which you are struggling. God will be kind to you, if you ask Him. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find your answers.

Getting the night's revelry out before the humility of Lent, ok, that's a way some deal with fasting. Although I don't recommend it. But I like the idea that another religion brings into the same day, and it's the Anglicans and the day is called "Shrove Tuesday."

The name Shrove comes from the old middle English word 'Shriven' meaning to go to confession to say sorry for the wrong things you've done. Lent always starts on a Wednesday, so people went to confessions on the day before. This became known as Shriven Tuesday and then Shrove Tuesday.

The other name for this day, Pancake Day, comes from the old English custom of using up all the fattening ingredients in the house before Lent, so that people were ready to fast during Lent. The fattening ingredients that most people had in their houses in those days were eggs and milk. A very simple recipe to use up these ingredients was to combine them with some flour and make pancakes.

So whether you are dressed up in a costume or eating pancakes, let's let this season of repentance and readying be something you use to get right with your Higher Power, the Living God, and enjoy this time of your life.

01 March 2017

Autumn in Australia

1 March officially begins a new season in the Great Southland of the Holy Spirit. Summer has ended and autumn is upon us. We hope for cooler temperatures as we had our hottest February since 1890 or so, with 11 days over 35 degrees (that's 95 degrees for US folks). That's a record. That's hot. So autumn is welcome to join us as soon as possible.

The fever heat of summer was only cooled by swimming pools and beaches, by air conditioned movie theatres and shopping malls, and by the slight relief of a gentle breeze at day's end. But now we anticipate the coming of winter, but mostly just an easing of our discomfort.

For many autumn means 'back to school.' Although in Oz our school kids returned just after Australia Day (26 January), the universities are back just now. O-week was either last week or the week before and our uni students are hitting the books, and the coffee shops with enthusiasm and great anticipation. Or they are back in the administrative offices trying to change their schedules to fit into the rest of their lives, with parties and work, with friends and for whatever reasons they seek amendments.

We are hoping for activism to hit the uni world again. Back in the 1960s, the prime drivers of the changes in the world came from universities. Berkeley campus of the University of California with its Sproul Plaza, was the epicenter of it all, just across the bay from Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, and we are hoping that the world's dissatisfaction will cause a flurry of changes. What do we mean by this?

Brexit, Trumpmania, and all the other recognized insulating and isolating movements in the last year has caused some serious reactions from now-vocal opposition. If those movements become more grassroots and more vocal, then we really have a chance to see the world keep changing, even for the better. If the vocalization is merely noise, or strident 'We are not you' thinking, that's not going to do anything good. But if the voices of university activists rise up over the din of stridency, then we have real hope.

What do you have to say about life just now?
With whom will you be saying that?

24 February 2017

Bibi in Australia and preservation

After an exciting few days in Sydney, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu is readying to return to Israel. He came from a one-day stopover in Singapore and carried on to big crowds and welcomes in political and religious circles here. Of course, not everyone was thrilled in his being among us. But most peace-loving and democratic Aussies were glad to welcome the Prime Minister. He was, after all, the first sitting Israeli PM to ever visit Oz. And we are the honored ones to whom he came. "Two vital democracies" he described our two countries. His entire message is here.

This article shows some hostility against Bibi by some few hundred protestors, but their voices are few and far between. Their agenda of pro-Palestine was a cover up to their real anti-Israel sentiment. They don't want a two-state solution. They want Israel gone. Sorry, that's not diplomacy; that's not democracy; that's racism and that's unAustralian.

God has preserved our people, no matter how many Pharaohs, or Hamans, or Hitlers rise against us. And He will continue to keep us His until the end.

Bibi was asked, "How does Israel do what it does?"
Bibi answered, "Two things: 1) a continual quest for the future with a deep regard for the past." He mentioned the combination of "tradition and innovation" as the hallmarks of the success. And we know it's about God, too, although He seemed to be left out of the conversation at Central Synagogue the other night. But we won't leave Him out here.

11 February 2017

Tu Bishvat and a missed opportunity

This is a Hebrew phrase, tu bishvat, and is the date of today's holiday (think "July 4th" or "MayDay.") And it's a very minor holiday we note and celebrate today. The name of the holiday is simply the date --"Tu" is spelled "tet-vav", and the letter tet has the value of 9 (it is the 9th letter in the Hebrew alphabet) and vav has the value of 6. Added together they equal 15. The "b" prefix means "in" so Tu Bishvat literally means "15 in Shevat".

This is unusual for numbering. Usually in most counting systems, one would employ the decimal method. So it should be 10+5 Bishvat. But note that 15 is not written "yud-hey" (10 + 5) because Yud Hey is one of God's Hebrew names. So that we don't use the name of the Almighty in a pedestrian (or vain) way, we use 9 + 6. Clever.

The meaning of the holiday, that is, the purpose of the celebration is that we note the "new year for the trees" since this is the beginning of the agricultural cycle in Israel. When I was a kid, this was a time to raise funds for tree planting in Israel. We would shake a can at old people and ask them to contribute so that we could plant a tree in the Holy Land. Not that as a youth I ever made it to Israel, but the money collected went to the synagogue and I imagined that the money did pay for some trees.

Tu Bishevat is the new year for the purpose of calculating the age of trees for tithing. See Lev. 19:23-25, which states that fruit from trees may not be eaten during the first three years; the fourth year's fruit is for God, and after that, you can eat the fruit. Each tree is considered to have aged one year as of Tu BiShvat, so if you planted a tree on Shevat 14, it begins its second year the next day, but if you plant a tree two days later, on Shevat 16, it does not reach its second year until the next Tu BiShvat.

Where there is a law, there are lawyers, loopholes and more laws, so don't be surprised at this reckoning.

But let me get back to the 9 + 6 rather than the 10 + 5. I like that the legal minds of Judaism put a fence around the name of the Lord, so that we wouldn't use it for ordinary use. I appreciate their zeal for preserving the dignity of the name. At the same time, I think they might have missed an opportunity to highlight God's presence on the 15th of each month.

In the same way we put his name "El" in names of children and cities by attaching it as a suffix (Nathaniel, Ezekiel, Yechezkel, etc), where we almost invoke his name, we could be doing that each month on the Yud-hay of the month. After all, many Jewish holidays fall on the 15th (Passover, Purim, Sukkot) and we don't shy away from using the fullness of the moon to help us note those. Yud Hay Shevat would be a great way to remember that God gives us nature, especially trees, and asked us to keep track of their ages.

I like giving myself a chance to put God into the conversation, and into memorial places in my life. No matter what else you are doing today, take a minute just now, and ask God to be in your day, to guide you, and to strengthen you to His tasks. Sound like a plan?

07 February 2017

You don't always know...

The symbol Co at the end of the sign for "Sydney Theatre" was clearly an abbreviation for "Company." But what if you saw the letters, "C O" anywhere else? It could mean in care of, as in an envelope address "Martin Schwartz c/o Sylvia Goldblossom." What about the periodic table element Cobalt? There you go, seeing co could also mean "Colorado" the state in the United States. You don't always know.

Sometimes it takes context to know whether the letters ST are dealing with a Catholic saint or a street name, like St Catherine or Catherine St.

You don't always know what you think you know, you know?

Need more examples? How about clouds...Are these black clouds in a white sky...or white clouds clearing in a black sky? You just don't always know, do you?

All that to say this-- things we think we know, we don't always know. We think that we have this religion thing down, that our religion is fine, and that no matter what, we know what we know. But wait, there are times when we just don't know.

In fact, a wise man is one who knows that he doesn't know. Isn't that what the wisest man in the world, King Solomon said? "When pride comes, then comes dishonor, but with the humble is wisdom." (Proverbs 11.2) In other words, a wise man knows he is unwise. A fool thinks himself smart, but is actually clueless.

So who really knows about life? The ones who admit they are learning!
What about you? Humble? Or proud? Our recommendation--- humility!

02 February 2017

22 years ago today...

...I love to tell this story. It happened here in Sydney, on our first trip to this sunburnt country. We arrived around Australia Day, 26 January, into Melbourne, and our good friend Kameel Majdali met my wife Patty and me at the airport. We were a bit travel weary having flown from Washington, DC, and having left there about 24 hours earlier. We had three boxes of good size, with books and CDs and pamphlets of all kinds. It was a discovery trip--- would the people of Australia want such an unusual group as "Jews for Jesus" to land on their shores and would we hear a Macedonian call? But that's not the point of this story.

On 2 February, 22 years ago today, my wife and I awoke in Sydney's eastern suburbs where we stayed in the home of a generous couple. After a walk on the beach near their house, we said our farewells, and went into the City. We met with another Jewish believer who helped us hand out some literature at the Queen Victoria Building that day. At about 11:30 he approached my wife and said, "Bob may not know this, but there aren't any Jewish people here. They are all over in the Eastern suburbs, like Bondi." In wasn't more than 20 seconds later when a young Jewish medical student approached my wife and inquired about what she was doing. She was wearing a "Jews for Jesus" t-shirt. She was handing out a leaflet titled, "Jews for Jesus." The irony was thick and enjoyable. She received the young man's details and we laughed about the coincidental timing later.

Just a few minutes later, as we were ending our sortie, a young Gentile woman approached me and asked about our faith. She was very open to the things of God and within a few more minutes she was praying with us, as we all held hands, professing her new faith in Jesus as Messiah. But that's not the point of the story either.

Patty went to a little shop nearby to purchase some mementos and souvenirs for the family back home, and we got to the airport easily to fly back through Los Angeles later that afternoon. We settled into our seats on United Airlines and the events of the day were still fresh and worthy of reviewing. Look at all we accomplished today. What a good feeling.

After a couple movies and meals and rest, we landed into LAX before transferring to our next flight to get home. We had to fill out the landing/ arrivals form for the US government, of course. The date we arrived was actually 2 February. You see, we had crossed the international date line, for our first time ever, flying east. That meant we got the day back again. We left at 3 pm 2 February in Sydney and arrived before we left! Our flight took us about 14 hours and we arrived at about 10 am on 2 February in LA! How funny!

But wait, 2 February in the US is Ground Hog's Day. Just a year before, we had seen the movie with Andie MacDowell and Bill Murray with that same title. It was a typical Murray comedy where he played a weatherman who was assigned to cover the events in Pennsylvania surrounding the prediction of the future weather. The story, no spoiler alert required, features Murray starting over each day, awakened to find himself again on 2 February. How ironic! That the first time we experienced the international date line eastbound was on such an auspicious day as Ground Hog's Day. And that we got to start over in the US, and see what the day held for us there.

Starting over, whether on Rosh Hashanah or on New Year's Day or any day, is really about getting a fresh start. Today, even right now, why not look up to heaven, or close your eyes, if that helps, and ask the living God for a fresh start in your life? You don't need an imaginary date line to start over. You don't need a Hollywood movie to help you start over. What do you need?

You need to trust that the Almighty, the One who created our world and the universes in which we live, has a love for you that is greater than any Valentine you might receive next week. His love is most visibly seen in the dying of His Son Yeshua on the Roman cross. That execution was purposeful-- to bring you and me back into God's presence. To forgive us our sins. To make us whole again. Look at what He accomplished that day. What a Savior!