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!