Fighting Evil with Grace: We are called to put out the fire!

After a recent presentation, the former Chief Rabbi of London, Lord Jonathan Sacks responded to a question with these comments (excerpts only[1]):

“Abraham sees a palace. That means that he sees the world has order. Therefore, it has a Creator. But the palace is in flames! – which means the world is full of disorder. It is full of evil, violence, injustice. Now nobody builds a building and then goes away and deserts it. Therefore, if there is a fire there must be somebody in charge to put it out. The building must have an owner. Where is he? And that is Abraham’s question. Where is God in this world?

That is the question that gives Abraham no peace. Here, if I am right, that is the starting point of Jewish faith.

In Judaism, faith does not begin with an answer. It begins with a question. It doesn’t begin in harmony. It begins in dissonance.

Here it is: if God created the world then God created man. Why then does God allow man to destroy the world? How can we reconcile the order of the world with the disorder of human society? Can God have made the world only to desert it? That is Abraham’s question. Can it be the world has no-one in charge, no owner? That is his question. …”

Rabbi Sacks goes on to explain that there are only two logical possibilities here and what they are and imply, but that Abraham rejects both of them[2]!

“ … Either God exists, in which case there is no evil. Or evil exists, in which case there is no God. But supposing both exist? Supposing there are both God and evil? Supposing there are both the palace and the flames?

Now if that is so, if my interpretation is right, then Judaism begins not in the conventional place where faith is thought to begin, namely in wonder that the world is. Judaism[3] begins in the opposite, in the protest against a world that is not as it ought to be.

At the very heart of reality, by which I mean reality as we see it, from our point of view, there is a contradiction between order and chaos: the order of creation and the chaos we make.

Now the question is: how we do we resolve that contradiction?

And the answer is that that contradiction between the palace and the flames, between the world that is and the world that ought to be, cannot be resolved at the level of thought. It doesn’t exist! You cannot resolve it! Logically, philosophically, in terms of theology or theodicy, you cannot do it!

The only way you can resolve that tension is by action; by making the world better than it is.
That is the only way you can lessen the tension between the palace and the flames. When things are as they ought to be, when there is only a palace and no flames – then we have resolved the tension. Then we have reached our destination. But that is not yet.

It was not yet for Abraham and it is not yet for us. And from this initial contradiction, from this cognitive dissonance, are born the following … fundamental features (of Judaism):

Firstly, the primary thing (in Judaism) is ‘doing’, is action, is deed, is mitzvah. Because only the mitzvah makes the world a little less dissonant between what it is and what it ought to be.

Secondly: the whole programme of Judaism, the project of the Torah, is ‘tikkun olam’ in the precise sense ‘mending a fragmented, fractured, world’. …” <end quote>

This is, I believe, the perfect definition of the ‘grace’ we are called to exhibit, if we desire to receive the Grace of YHVH!

We are to act with grace, with overflowing love’ toward our neighbour, and our fractured, hurting world.

The Christian world is big on grace, but perhaps they are a little confused about it. I discuss this in my article ‘Amazing Grace’ – see here


[2] Part of the answer is a sense in which evil is not evil after all – confused? Read Rabbi Sacks article and book.

[3] Or we could say, the message of the Tanakh, the message of YHVH and His Son, begins here

Leaving and Returning: Climbing the Mountain and Returning to Repair the World

This weeks Torah Portion is Parshah Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3). It contains the stories of Jacob’s leaving his family to live in the land of Laban and then returning to the land of Canaan to fulfil his destiny and continue the process of creating the Jewish People, a people called to be a Light to the Gentiles.

Rabbi Moshe Avraham Kempinksi has written an excellent article on this Torah Portion this week. In this article is states that “ There will be many times, that the people of Israel will need to leave the comfort of their spiritual existence and venture into the dangers of coping with a world that is both dangerous and menacing”. How true is this statement in this day and age!

This also reminded me of an article by Rabbi Ari Kahn which I quoted last month in my blog ‘Abraham, the Father of the faithful’:

Similarly, for the Jewish People to have an impact on the world, we must first disengage, separate ourselves, and fully explore our unique relationship with God.

There will be times when we must wrest ourselves away from our deep involvement, even our responsibility for the world. We must climb lofty mountains, even engage in divinely-mandated, though seemingly paradoxical, behavior. But we must always remember that eventually we must come down from the mountain, re-engage, return to the people that we left at the foot of the mountain. We must find the language and establish the relationship that will allow us to share with them what we learned at the summit.

The way we can accomplish our universal responsibility is by first becoming separate, different – as holy as we can possibly become. Only this will enable us to fulfill our mission of tikkun olam, to enlighten, to educate, to heal and repair the world.”

– See https://globaltruthinternational.com/2012/10/25/abraham-the-father-of-the-faithful/

I think this rings true for all of us. We all need to take time out, to recharge our batteries, to re-connect with the Almighty, so that we can return to the fray, to the challenges of engaging with the world and trying to positively impact it.

Clearly our Maker knew this and so He created a special Day, the Sabbath for this very purpose. What a thoughtful and loving Father, Creator and King we have!

Moshe’s article is so good that I would really encourage you to read it in full. I have copied it below to make this easy for you:

Vayetze: Going Out (Israel National News – Published: Thursday, November 22, 2012 4:48 PM)

“And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will restore you to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken concerning you.”The Torah portion of VaYeitze begins with Jacob leaving one place ands with him leaving another. Yet the two words used to describe each “leaving” are vastly different.

When Jacob is leaving the land of Canaan,he is fleeing from his house. He was escaping from a brother who was set to kill him. He was running from a father who may have lost some measure of faith and confidence in his son. He was leaving without knowing when he was to return. And he was leaving into a land of the unknown, and into a future filled with challenges and doubt.

The verse tells us ” And Jacob left Beer sheba, and he went ( VaYeitzeh) to Haran.”( Genesis 28:10) In the midst of Jacob’s running away from Esau he sees the vision of the ladder to the heavens in a dream. In this vision he is promised by G-d , great things.

And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will restore you to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken concerning you.”( ibid :15)

When he returns from the land of Laban we read; “. So Jacob rose (vaYakam) , and he lifted up his sons and his wives upon the camels.” (ibid 31:17) This too occurs connected to a dream. Yet in Haran, it was a very different sort of dream.

And it came to pass at the time the animals came into heat, that I lifted my eyes and saw in a dream, and behold, the he goats that mounted the animals were ringed, speckled, and striped.”( ibid 31:10) As opposed to the spiritual dream of angels that he dreamt while still in the land, here Jacob dreams about physical goats and material acquisitions. The materialistic seduction of Chutz LeAretz- Exile – seems to have begun to affect Jacob as well. He understands that he needs to leave.

What is to be learned from those two differing words, Vayeitzeh ( and he went out) and Vayakam( and he arose) ?

When we read in the book of Deuteronomy, of G-d’s instructions regarding the going out to war .The verse reads: “Ki Teitzei LaMilchamah – If you shall go out to wage war against your enemy.” (Deuteronomy 21:10) The verse could have simply been, “If you shall wage war?”

The Torah wants us to remember that warfare is not harmonious with our inner essence. In order to go to war you must exit your oasis of spiritual and holy comfort. Yet his must be done only with the purpose of achieving goals of spiritual and national importance.

We see his again with Noah when G-d commands him the following;” ‘Go forth( Tzeh) from the ark, thou, and thy wife, and thy sons, and thy sons’ wives with thee. … be fruitful, and multiply upon the earth.’ ( Genesis 8:16-17).

We see it as well with Jacob’s leaving of the land of his forefathers. Jacob was destined to begin the creation of the Jewish people in the land of Haran. That necessarily involved the spiritual pain of VaYeitzeh.

That is not the case when Jacob leaves Haran. When he leaves the land of Lavan , he is escaping the quagmire of materialism, falsehood and idolatry. In order to do this he must rise up (VaKam) . He must gather his spiritual strength and courage in order to be able to continue to fulfill his destiny in the land of his forefathers.

There will be many times, that the people of Israel will need to leave the comfort of their spiritual existence and venture into the dangers of coping with a world that is both dangerous and menacing. That is what we learn from Jacob’s leaving and his returning. That is what going out to war- ki teitze el hamilchama teaches us. If one’s purpose and goal remains clear ,then the continuation of the verse becomes a promise “. If you go out to war against your enemies,… and Hashem, your G-d, will deliver him into your hands...”( Deuteronomy 21:10)

When this piece was being written, it was still unclear if the Israeli defense forces were compelled to enter gaza or not. Yet the courage of going out from their homes and the courage of entering battles that need to be fought will hopefully bring about the Divine promise of protection. And either way, it is only a matter of time before they do.

It is just as Hashem promised Jacob in his personal “going out”.

“And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will restore you to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken concerning you.” – see http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/12477#.UK8rNY6ZQsm

For more on the last scripture quoted and the restoration of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel I recommend the article ‘Israel: Return in Belief or Unbelief’ at circumcisedheart.info.

Isaac and Rebekah: A Failure to Communicate?

At the heart of the world is the family. At the heart of the family is the relationship between a husband and wife.

This relationship is the foundation upon which a family is built, children are raised and they in turn become contributing adults and normally marry and become parents and begin the whole cycle over again.

For a marital relationship  to work well, good communication is vital and yet, there are few courses that offer the in-depth and strenuous training needed for couples to enter into a relationship with the communication skills needed to cope with the inevitable tensions and relationship break-downs that occur.

No marriage is immune (or at least I am not aware of any). Few, if any couples, begin a marriage with perfect skills in communication. Effective, supportive and helpful communication is easy when times are good; when the full bloom of the relationship is in its ascendancy. When the inevitable disagreements arrive and the tension and separation occurs, good communication is difficult. If the tension escalates; normally the emotional separation grows and the barrier to effective resolution rises and begins to seem insurmountable.

A wall is built up, a dividing wall of pain and misunderstanding, of hurt and frustration and fear. How is this dividing wall to be torn down, but even more importantly, how can the communication skills be improved so that it rarely begins to build in the first place?

Well-developed communication skills are needed in great measure. It is at this point that we all need guidance. This guidance surely includes an appreciation of how serious the consequences can be to relationship breakdown and poor communication, even while the marriage remains intact.

This brings me to this weeks Torah Portion, Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9). In this parshah, we read about the deception of Rebekah.

While some may search hard to excuse Rebekah’s apparently immoral and unethical behaviour, on reading and reflecting on the narrative here, most would feel that Rebekah acted in a deceptive manner. Rather than try to find excuses for her behaviour, let us instead accept it at face value and ask the question, what can we learn from this mistake of Rebekah’s? What lead to this inappropriate behaviour and what life lessons should it teach us.

There is a link below to a brilliant article from Chief Rabbi Sacks of London about this very situation. He argues that there was most likely a power/position imbalance in the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah that made it difficult for Rebekah to be as direct and up-front with Isaac as she should have been. This meant she kept things to herself and when suddenly faced with a potential calamity in her eyes, her reaction was underhanded instead of open and trusting.

Isaac was much older than Rebekah when they met and married. It was also some 20 years before Rebekah fell pregnant with her first babies, the twins Esau and Jacob. And yet, Isaac knew the promises that the Almighty had made to his father Abraham, that through him (Isaac) would come a great nation. The tension of these barren 20 years would have had some impact and perhaps negatively affected their communication and harmony.

Add to this the great, yet troubling message that Rebekah received while pregnant: “And the LORD said to her, Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.” – Gen 25:23.

It appears she never shared this prophecy with Isaac. So when the time of the blessings arrives, it is quite possible that there was a significant communication barrier, a dividing wall, between Rebekah and Isaac, and therefore she looked for an ‘easy way out’.

I would suggest that there are at least two central lessons we can take away from this:

1)   Honesty and good communication are central to all relationships and in particular to the relationship at the centre of this world, the marriage;

2)   We can often learn more from the imperfect lives of the great characters of the Bible, than from the explicit teachings contained therein. Often, it is the mistakes that the Biblical heroes make that help us to better see ourselves reflected in their human frailty, and in turn, this enables us to reject their mistakes and instead turn from error to truth, from distance to close communication, and heal our relationships. I believe an appreciation of the conflict of the ‘good’ and ‘evil inclinations’ also helps with this – see the 2 part series of podcasts on the Hebraic Mindset for some more details on this – at http://aubreyandpaul.podomatic.com/

The great Chief Rabbi of London, Lord Sacks explains this all brilliantly in his blog post ‘The Tragedy of Good Intentions’, which I strongly recommend – at Aish.com –  http://www.aish.com/tp/i/sacks/134230588.html

Update: 2nd December 2016

Since writing this short reflection over 4 years ago, I have revisited this Torah Portion and few times and read a number of books that discuss these events surrounding Rebekah (including Gary Rendsburg’s brilliant ‘The Redaction of Genesis’ and Rabbi Sacks great ‘Not in God’s Name’.

I wrote a couple of articles related to insights gained from Gary’s book – see Feeling for Rebekah – http://circumcisedheart.info/Feeling for Rebekah.pdf

I have also read a number of books on marriage, and now would argue that the best book on marital relationships that I have ever read (of 10’s of books on Marriage and Divorce), is Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s ‘Kosher Lust: Love is Not The Answer’.

I strongly recommend all three books!

Hopes and Fears

This weeks Torah portion ‘Chayei Sarah’ describes two events in the life of Abraham, which may not appear that significant, but which actually carry an incredible depth of meaning and insight.

Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks writes a great article on this Parshah which brings out the amazing lesson and conclusion, that God’s great promises to Abraham do not mean that Abraham can sit back and have it all come to him without his total involvement. As Sacks’ states: “Faith does not mean passivity.”

The Hebrew language and the Hebrew mindset is all about action; about movement, energy, courage, passion, will, drive, and of course, trust (faithfulness).

Trust that God is involved; that He will support our righteous actions and even guide them through his teaching (His Torah) and His covenants, but that ultimately, we must act, we must step out with faith and courage and create the future that God has promised us. The Almighty wants to work with us, to work alongside us, to build our future together, to repair the world together (Tikkun HaOlam), and ultimately reward us with Eternity!

This was true in Abraham’s day and it is true today. It was true for the first Hebrew, the first man who ‘crossed over’, Abraham, the father of Israel and it is true for all Israel today, but it is also true for all the peoples of the many nations who call Abraham their father and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob their One True God and Saviour.

I strongly recommend reading Rabbi Sacks short article on the Aish.com site – see ‘Hopes and Fears’ at http://www.aish.com/tp/i/sacks/177159951.html

Abraham, the Father of the faithful:

This weeks Torah Portion (named Lech Lecha) is from Genesis 12-17. There is so much here; so much to read; grasp and grapple with. From the founding of a new people in a new Land, to the incredible covenant and promises made to Abraham.

The covenant and promise in Genesis 17:4-5 is in my opinion, one of the most significant of all, as it speaks to a time when the Word of God is embraced by Gentiles. “…You will be the father of a multitude of nations.Neither will your name any more be called Abram, but your name will be Abraham; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.”

Note that the Almighty declares a future promise as if it is already past, as if it has already been fulfilled. The Word of God cannot be stopped; it’s intent will always come to pass.

There is a lot, and I mean, an awful ‘lot of water to pass under the bridge’, looking forward from that day, before this promise fully comes to pass.

Before Abraham can be the Father of all who put their trust in the One True God, he must first become the Father of the Chosen People, and these people must separate themselves to God; become ‘holy’ (meaning separated), before they can become a ‘light to the Gentiles’ and ultimately lead many Gentiles, many peoples of many nations, into the family of Abraham, so that the promise to Abraham can be fulfilled.

When this promise is finally and totally fulfilled, ALL the children of Abraham will stand as equals before the Almighty, as demanded by their status as children of the father of the faithful, the man so specially chosen to announce, and proclaim the One True God to the world.

I love the way that Rabbi Ari Khan brings out the apparent contradictions that need to occur as a lead in to the ultimate fulfillment of his great promise. To quote just a little of his brilliant article (see link below for full article at Aish.com):
“ … The joyous, really incredible news that a nation will emerge from the loins of Avraham, is tempered by the knowledge that a certain tension will always surround this nation. As this nation emerges, we learn that others will never be indifferent….They will always elicit some sort of reaction from others, (they will) always serve as a source of blessing or a curse for others.

Furthermore, this blessing may be limiting: it is particular in nature, it is directed exclusively to the people who will become known as the Jewish People. In Avraham’s eyes, universal dreams may be challenged by particular nationalistic aspirations. Whereas Avraham has seen himself as a citizen of the world on a mission to help elevate all of mankind, his mission now becomes linked exclusively with this new entity, “the Children of Avraham.”

… in Shechem nationhood emerges. This is where Dina is abused, and where the local residents offer the family of Israel to join destinies, to join them and form one nation. This offer is rejected, and a process is set in motion:

A nation with its own unique history begins to chart its path, undertaking the long march to fulfill its particular, unique destiny. A nation, indeed; but at this point a small, vulnerable nation that rejects the benefits of assimilation into a strong, well-established local clan. This is a defining moment, a decision that crystallizes and forms the Nation of Israel.

… With the command to perform the Brit Milah (circumcision) Avraham’s life will change. There will now be a boundary between him and everyone else. He will now be viewed even more suspiciously by his neighbors. In fact, the rabbis express their sensitivity to Avraham’s conflict between universalism and nationhood as a “hesitation” on Avraham’s part when he was commanded to perform circumcision.

… Clearly, then, the Brit Milah (circumcision) is a test. The challenge may be heightened by the paradoxical nature of the command which he receives:

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Avram ; your name will be Avraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

Then God said to Avraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner-those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (Bereishit 17:1-14)

Avram is told that from now on his name will be Avraham, signifying that he will be a father of many nations – Av Hamon Goyim. This would seem to be the ultimate universal message: Not only will Avraham be a part of the larger universal existence, he will bring nations toward God.

And in the next breath he is told to perform circumcision which creates boundaries and will forever separate Avraham and his descendents from all others. In one fell swoop, the universal vision and the narrow, parochial, particular approach.

Apparently, Avraham is confused. How can he impact the entire world when he must first perform an act of self-mutilation that people will view as grotesque?

Apparently, what Avraham still lacks is “holiness” – kedusha – which is literally rendered as “set apart”. This separateness is a new phase for Avraham, and not one to which he would have come without God’s command. This separateness may be seen as that which contradicts Avraham’s innate attribute of chesed (loving kindness), the attribute through which he has served God up to this point in his life.

How is he to reconcile chesed with kedusha? How is he to be a part of the world – involved, engaged, interested, even responsible for the world – and live a life of kedusha, set apart, indelibly marked by “differentness”? How will he and his descendents reconcile living in a mundane world with their unique destiny and closeness to God?

The answer presents itself later on in the text, as Avraham finds himself enmeshed in his next paradoxical challenge: the Binding of Isaac. Here, too, logic is defeated. If Yitzchak is to be offered, how can he effectively be the living progeny destined to carry on the family line? Avraham and Yitzchak nonetheless set out to fulfill God’s command, and they bring two other people along. Our Sages identify them as Yishmael and Eliezer – Avraham’s first son, and the man who was like a son.

… Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place far away. And Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come back to you.’(Genesis/Bereishit 22:4-5)

Those last words, “and come back to you,” cannot be ignored. Avraham encapsulates a unique religious experience in this short statement, and we should take note of every element: This awesome religious experience would not be complete until Avraham came down the mountain and shared with others his epiphany, his feelings and his enlightenment. Avraham would have the greatest impact on the two men he left behind only after parting ways, dedicating himself to the more particular religious experience at the summit, and then returning to their company.

Similarly, for the Jewish People to have an impact on the world, we must first disengage, separate ourselves, and fully explore our unique relationship with God.

There will be times when we must wrest ourselves away from our deep involvement, even our responsibility for the world. We must climb lofty mountains, even engage in divinely-mandated, though seemingly paradoxical, behavior. But we must always remember that eventually we must come down from the mountain, re-engage, return to the people that we left at the foot of the mountain. We must find the language and establish the relationship that will allow us to share with them what we learned at the summit.

Avraham learns to resolve the tension. Both the universal and the particular are important, but they are intertwined.

The way we can accomplish our universal responsibility is by first becoming separate, different – as holy as we can possibly become. Only this will enable us to fulfill our mission of tikkun olam, to enlighten, to educate, to heal and repair the world.

… Our world, then, is not so different from that of Avraham and Sarah after all. The world still lacks holiness. By observing the commandments, both those we understand and those that seem to us paradoxical, we add holiness to our lives. We set ourselves on a higher rung, as it were. And as holiness accrues, we will find our spiritual, ethical and social abilities exponentially increased, and thus our ability to effect change and fix a broken world.” – see http://www.aish.com/tp/i/moha/48952101.html

The Jewish people have spent their time in the desert and their time learning holiness. They ‘came back to us’ (Gen 22:5), to the Gentiles in a sense, when Yeshua lived the perfect example of true holiness and oneness with the Almighty.

His example, to the point of giving up his life for his friends, for his people, calls out across the divide to the Gentile people, to God-fearers throughout the world, that we too can separate ourselves to God and in having the some trust in the Almighty, the same faith(fullness) in God that Yeshua had and that Abraham had (Rom 3:22 & 4:16), we too can indeed become fully ‘children of Abraham’ and full members of the Commonwealth of Israel. The Resurrection was the Almighty’s stamp of approval on the witness of Yeshua; the ‘circumcision’ of Yeshua (his ‘separation’ to God), can then become the ‘circumcision’ of the Gentile God-fearers.

This is the mystery revealed in Yeshua’s day; the mystery of how Abraham was to become the father of many nations; the mystery revealed to Sha’ul, and to Peter through Cornelius.

In part 2 of our podcast on the Hebraic Mindset, we will speak more about ‘tikkun olam’ (repairing the world).

Shout in Unity – the Day of Shouting

Yom Teruah/Rosh Hashanah has already drawn to a close for some of us (it’s after sunset on Tuesday 18th Sept. 2012 here).

If you enjoyed the Podcasts at ‘A Sharp Arrow & a Strong Draught Horse‘ and would like some supporting documentation, our background doc is now online  – Click here: 10 Questions on Yom Teruah

The Day of Shouting (also called the Day or Feast of Trumpets; Yom Teruah or Rosh HaShanah) is a great day;  an amazing and intriguing Day of Celebration instituted by the Almighty.

Why? What is it’s significance? Why is the theme of Unity so foundational to this time? Listen to the 2 Part Podcasts or read the article – if you have more questions please be in touch.

Shalom!