31 March 2017

Cemetery vandalism… again!

by Bob Mendelsohn, JFJ National Director

Following are three reports of cemetery vandalism, in two different US cities. And all within a fortnight. And a conclusion which has hope and might surprise some of you. Concerning the cemeteries, what is sad is that none of the perpetrators have been caught, so far. What’s worrisome is that this appears to be a trend, and what that says about the US just now is troubling.

Police in Philadelphia are investigating a vandalism at a Jewish cemetery last weekend. This was the 2nd time in a fortnight that Philly cemeteries have had headstones knocked over and damaged.

At least 75 tombstones were overturned Saturday night at the Mt. Carmel Cemetery. The only targets were the Jewish graves according to Det. Jim McReynolds of the police department's Northeast Detectives Division. He said no damage occurred at the three neighbouring Christian cemeteries at Mt Carmel. Two weeks ago, a dozen headstones were damaged at a Catholic cemetery in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia mayor's spokeswoman Lauren Hitt reported.

That vandalism at the Holy Redeemer Catholic Cemetery didn't appear to target a specific group of people, Hitt said. The Catholic cemetery is about two miles away from the Jewish cemetery.

The vandalism at the Jewish cemetery was especially worrisome because it comes less than a week after a similar incident at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, said Nancy Baron-Baer, the Anti-Defamation League's regional director for the Eastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey and Delaware region.

"One stone in one cemetery being desecrated is one stone too many. We are talking about hundreds within a week," she said.
The ADL is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible. The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5 offered a $3,000 reward for the same purpose.

But there is hope. In a most unlikely show of support, after the Jewish cemetery in St. Louis was vandalised, Muslim-American activists Linda Sarsour and Tarek El-Messidi launched a fund-raising effort to help pay for the toppled headstones to be repaired. They set a goal to raise $20,000, but donors gave more than $130,000. El-Messidi wrote on Facebook that some of the extra funds would go toward the Philadelphia cemetery, and he visited Mt. Carmel on Sunday to help in the recovery efforts.

"Seeing this in person was very devastating," El-Messidi wrote on Facebook. "Many people there were embracing one another in tears due to what they saw."

"I want to ask all Muslims to reach out to your Jewish brothers and sisters and stand together against this bigotry," he said. Members of the Philadelphia branch of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, an American-Muslim organisation, also visited the cemetery and helped in the cleanup efforts, according to national spokesman Qasim Rashid.

Salaam Bhatti, another spokesman for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, told CNN there are as many as eight more members at Mt. Carmel cemetery Monday helping out with "whatever the cemetery needs."

"This attack is not just an attack on our Jewish brothers and sisters but on our common community," Bhatti said. "We believe we need to be protecting our fellow humans from this extremism."

I know some of our Blog’s readers will be suspicious of the kindnesses of these Muslims, but I reckon their words, their money and their personal attention to the cause of repair should all be highlighted more than their own religious persuasion.

If a person in time of need rejects the kindness of a neighbour, and fails to receive that measure of love, it says much more about the (non)receiver than about anyone else in the drama. The perpetrators of the evil in the desecration of the three cemeteries (and dare I add many more such desecrations worldwide in the last two years) will be caught in due course. God knows how to judge those who disparage his own people.

As northern Spring has begun, with the seasons of Easter and Passover to be celebrated in the next few weeks, may we pause and call to mind the harsh condition of the world in 1500 BC or 30 AD? May we remember that God heard the cries of his Jewish people and sent a redeemer to deliver us when Moses was born, raised in the royal comforts in Egypt, trained as a wilderness shepherd for four decades, then led us out of Egypt by God’s outstretched arm and mighty hand.

“Let my people go!” was Moses’ cry and eventually, and with regret, Pharaoh did let us leave slavery in Egypt.

1500 years later, God again heard the cries of the people, and in the darkness of Roman occupation of the land of the Jewish people, in what we today call Israel, God again sent a redeemer to deliver all people. Yeshua (some call him Isa or Jesus) was born, raised in Israel, trained as a carpenter at his father’s side, then led us out of slavery to sin by his death on the Roman cross and resurrection from the dead.

No one had an inside track on this redemption. In fact, the Good Books says of everyone on the planet, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.” (Paul’s letter to the Romans 5.10)

So whether a Muslim, a Jew, a Catholic or a none-of-the-above, here’s God’s good news for you this Passover. “God loved the world so much that he sent his only son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3.16)

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?