Dear Beloved in Yeshua,
Life Cycle in Hebrew Thought
This month’s topic has been on our hearts recently as God has made our family acutely aware of the cycle of life and its various seasons. The Jewish roots of our faith in Messiah go deep into our appreciation of life. We have all heard the toast, “L’Chaim,” to life! But may not be aware that the word in Hebrew is in the plural. There is a huge emphasis on LIFE—especially this life as opposed to the life to come. Many Jews erroneously believe that Christians are only concerned with eternal life, heaven and its rewards, as if believers have an exclusively monastic, other-worldly orientation. This is not true. The Messiah Yeshua stated His purpose in coming to earth as it concerns “life”: “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). We think that Yeshua would agree with the traditional Jewish view that since God looked and saw that what He created was good, man has an obligation to revere life, enjoy it, and be thankful for it.
From birth to death, all of life is sacred in Hebrew thought, since there is no distinction between the sacred and the secular areas of life. God is in everything. Avodah (ah-voe-DAH) is a Hebrew word which means both work and worship. In the historical separation of Church and Synagogue, the Christian world became divided into clerical and lay people, secular and sacred institutions, a holy people and holy things versus unholy people and unholy things. (See Our Father Abraham by Marvin R Wilson for more information.) A sacred-secular dualism replaced the wholeness of life that Judaism stresses.
Infusing God into every aspect of life includes blessing the Lord for every legitimate pleasure that He has provided. For this reason there is a blessing, a b’rakha (b’rah-KHA), for almost everything, from seeing a rainbow, to hearing good news, smelling fragrant plants, etc. The entire working day of an observant Jewish person is punctuated with short blessings which begin with the phrase, Baruch atah Adonai (Blessed are You, O LORD). The Apostle Paul was probably referring to this practice when he said, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Birth—the beginning of the life cycle—is a direct response to the very first commandment in the Torah, be fruitful and multiply (p’-ROO oo-r’VU). The birth of a child is a source of great joy to parents, family, friends, and community. Babies are a gift from God. We are thrilled to share with you that we are excitedly awaiting our gift from heaven, as our son Jonathan and his wife, Nancy, are expecting their first child in July. We will become grandparents for the first time. Nancy’s due date just happens to be July 25th—Jamie’s born-again birthday, the anniversary of the day Neil and Jamie met, and the date Jamie’s seashell ministry began. Our God is awesome!
Our precious daughter-in-law, Nancy, will become a mother for the first time. Sunday, May 8th, 2016 is the day our country sets aside to honor all mothers, but we think they should be honored every day. The Hebrew word for mother is pronounced “eem.” It is formed by the Hebrew letters alef and mem (אם). The original meaning of those letters is strong (alef) and water (mem). A mother, therefore, is like strong water. In a desert country, water is life. Strong water is water that is abundant and life-giving. An oasis. A giver of life. A mother!
A mother, a father, and God are considered to be the partners in the creation of a child. Parents imitate God in creating, in order to continue the world that He brought into being. The first blessing given to new parents in traditional Judaism is that they might raise their child to reach the huppah (marriage canopy). From joy to joy—with the focus on the cycle of life.
The Jewish people are even able to turn a surgery into a celebration. We are referring to the Brit Milah (b’REET me-LAH), sometimes called a bris in Yiddish. It is literally a covenant of circumcision, cut with Abraham and his seed: “This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised” (Genesis 17:10). This procedure, prescribed for an eight-day-old infant (vs. 12), continues to this day. (There have been attempts in some countries to ban infant circumcision, but God’s will has prevailed.) Following the surgery, done by a professional, highly skilled mohel (moyl), the baby boy is officially named. Baby girls are named at a Torah reading following birth. Ashkenazi Jews do not name babies after living relatives; Sephardic Jews do. Following the circumcision, the party begins.
Another celebration happens if a baby boy is a firstborn. This ceremony is called Pidyon Haben (PIDyohn haBEN), and takes place 31 days after birth. It is commanded in the Torah in Numbers 3:44-49 and Numbers 18:15-16. The father of the baby redeems his son by giving five silver coins to a kohen, a priestly descendant of Aaron. The reason? Originally, the Hebrew firstborns were the sanctified priestly class. After the episode of the Golden Calf, the firstborn forfeited their status, and the priesthood was transferred to the Levites (the tribe that did not participate) and particularly to the children of Aaron. Ever since, the kohens are rewarded for their service in the Temple, which they perform in place of the firstborn. (There is no Pidyon Haben for the firstborn of a kohen or a Levite. Therefore, since Neil is a Levite, our son Jonathan was not redeemed.) He serves the Lord willingly, and has been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb! We missed that party, but have had plenty of redemption celebrations in Messiah since then.
Bar / Bat Mitzvah
Bar Mitzvah (literally, “son of the commandment”) and Bat Mitzvah (literally, “daughter of the commandment”) are the titles given to Jewish boys who reach the age of 13 and Jewish girls who reach the age of 12—regardless of whether or not they have studied to commemorate the occasion with a ritual, ceremony, or celebration.
It has become common usage to call the coming of age celebration itself a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, but technically the term applies to the son or daughter who now begins to assume personal responsibility for his or her moral and religious life. They are now accountable for their actions, separate from their parents.
The Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a rite of passage in which a Jewish youth takes his or her place in K’hal Yisrael (k’AHL Yis-ra-EL), the community of Israel. There is no agreement concerning when the age of 13 became the age of maturity, given the fact that the age of maturity in the Torah is 20 (see Exodus 30:14, Numbers 1:3). It is interesting to note that the Messiah Yeshua was 12 years old when his parents found Him discussing the Scriptures with rabbis in the Temple (Luke 2:41-49). Perhaps Yeshua was the first Bar Mitzvah!
Beginning in the 16th century in Eastern Europe, the bar mitzvah often gave a d’rash (d-RAHSH), an interpretation of the Torah portion of the week. This practice continues today. Both our sons became bar mitzvahs and chanted the blessings during the Torah service, and gave a d’rash with their personal thoughts and applications.
There is great variety in celebrating a bar/bat mitzvah. Each congregation, within all branches of Judaism, has its own unique ceremony as well as its specific program of preparation for the special day. In our Messianic Synagogue, all youth who are committed to Yeshua and a Messianic lifestyle (whether Jewish by birth or not) can read from the Torah as a bar or bat mitzvah. We, as a mishpocha, family, greatly rejoice each time we witness a young person loving God and His Word and obeying Ecclesiastes 12:1, “Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth…”
Then the party begins. As with all other joyous occasions in Judaism, there is food, a “meal of the commandment” called a se’udat mitzvah (seh-oo-DAHT mitz-VAH). If the number of guests is large, an abbreviated meal is also acceptable. This is called a kiddush (kih-DOOSH). Whichever the case, delicious food is part of this and every other Jewish celebration (simcha, sim-KHA).
A parent looks at a bar or bat mitzvah and realizes that separation is inevitable. One day they will leave the nest and God willing, find their bashert (bah-SHAIRT), Yiddish for the one destined for them before they were born. Marriage, a continuation of the life cycle, was God’s idea. He ordained this relationship in the first book of the Bible: “And the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him’” (Genesis 2:18). This is the only time in the creation narrative that God said, “It is not good.” (There isn’t even a word in Hebrew for “bachelor.”) More than simply a divine description of loneliness, it seems that God was saying that Paradise was meant to be shared with another person. One man. One woman. Made for one another. God’s idea and God’s ideal.
The Book of Proverbs says, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the LORD” (Proverbs 18:22). Ancient rabbis, affirming the goodness of marriage, insisted that a man should first find a wife for himself and then apply himself to the study of Torah. They taught that marriage is a union whereby two people are matched by their Creator so as to form a unique oneness in which they complement (not compete with) each other.
Marriage, in Hebrew thinking, is a sacred union. Its name, kiddushin (ki-due-SHEEN), indicates this, coming from the word kadosh or holy. The essence of biblical marriage is COVENANT, a permanent binding agreement like the covenant God has with Israel (see Hosea 2:19, Jeremiah 31:32, Malachi 2:14). A marriage contract, or ketubah (ke-TOO-bah), is an ancient official document that testifies of this covenant. The ketubah concerned itself with women’s rights thousands of years ago, offering protection for women in societies where their rights were mostly non-existent. In this document, the bridegroom promised to provide and care for his bride. (The New Covenant is the ketubah for Yeshua’s bride!)
Many modern ketubot are egalitarian, and include statements of commitment by both the groom and the bride. They are beautiful pieces of artwork. A one-of-a-kind ketubah was designed for the wedding of Jonathan and Nancy by Israeli artist Amy Sheetreet. Amy has reproduced their ketubah in various forms which can be purchased on her website: www.amysdesignsofisrael.com
When the big day arrives, a wedding canopy (hu-PAH) awaits the bridal couple. The huppah symbolizes the new home that the couple will establish. It can be a prayer shawl (talit, ta-LEET) or other cloth supported by four poles, that can either be freestanding or held by family members or friends.
The huppah is open on all sides, indicating a fundamental function of the Jewish home: hospitality (hakhnasat orkhim, hakh-nah-SAHT ore-KHEEM). Love of the stranger, welcoming of guests of all classes and types, is very much a part of biblical Hebraic thinking and marriage (Genesis 18:1-5, Leviticus 19:34, Isaiah 58:7, Hebrews 13:2, James 2:14-17, 1 John 3:17).
Finally, marriage in Hebrew thought is not just an individual or private matter. It is a institution in which the entire community has a stake. The home, not the synagogue, is to be the center of religious life. Instead of a “honeymoon,” Orthodox couples are invited to a different home each evening to be treated as royalty and given help concerning building a happy home together. Love within community.
Old Age and Death
Neil turns 80 next month on June 10th, 2016. He is excited about it! He likes to quote Psalm 90:10, “The days of our lives are 70 years, and if by reason of strength they are 80 years.” Neil is strong—in the Lord and the power of His might (Ephesians 6:10). On his 75th birthday, Jamie had everyone pray Psalm 128 over Neil. It ends with a promise, “Yes, may you see your children’s children. Peace be upon Israel.” We are believing God for many more years with each other, our children, and our grandchildren.
In a culture that idolizes youth, staying and looking young, living longer and avoiding gray, the aged are not venerated nor appreciated as they were in times past. But the Holy Scriptures place great value on those whom we call today “senior citizens.” Just a sampling: “Wisdom is with aged men, and with length of days, understanding” (Job 12:12). “You shall rise before the gray-headed and honor the presence of an old man, and fear your God: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:32). “Even to your old age, I am He, and even to gray hairs I will carry you! I have made, and I will bear, even I will carry, and will deliver you” (Isaiah 46:4).
The life cycle ends in death—then life again. This was the accepted belief among the ancient Hebrews. As Marvin Wilson says in Our Father Abraham: “During Bible times, those who faithfully walked with God in this age (olam hazeh, oh-LAHM ha-ZEH), were also confident they would be with him in the age to come (olam haba, oh-LAHM ha-BAH).” While the Hebrew Scriptures teach about the resurrection of the dead (see Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2), the hope of eternal life is a vague notion at most Jewish funerals today. For secular Jews, especially, loved ones live on in one’s memories, and heaven is not a spiritual reality. This is sad since the traditional Orthodox view of death sees death as a matter of going from one room to another, to a more beautiful location. This life is seen as the eve of Shabbat with the world to come being an eternal Sabbath. In Yeshua, who said He is the “resurrection and the life” (John 11:25), this is true. We go from life to life.
The traditional Jewish way of mourning has been shown to be highly effective in comforting those who have lost loved ones. A seven-day mourning period (shiva, SHE-vah) is a time set aside for friends, neighbors, and relatives to visit the mourners, bringing food and just being with them. The next 23 days complete a 30-day period of mourning (sh’loshim, sh’low-SHEEM), which allows the mourners to begin to adjust to life again. The entire first year continues with a degree of grieving and readjusting. The Kaddish prayer is traditionally recited for eleven months after the death of a loved one. Rather than mentioning death, however, the prayer exalts and praises the Holy One of Israel who gives life and takes it at its appointed time.
Each year on the anniversary of the death of a loved one, a candle is lit (yahrtzeit, YAHR-zeit) and the life that was lived is remembered. Finally, a remembrance service (yiskor, YIS-kor) is held in most synagogues on Yom Kippur and during the holy days to remember the departed of the community.
For us as Messianic Jews, our greatest comfort comes in having the assurance that our Messiah defeated death on the tree of sacrifice, took the keys of death and hell, and gave us the promise of eternal life in a very real heaven. “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory? The sting of death is sin, and the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Yeshua HaMashiach” (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).
Blessings in your particular season of life through the one who IS life: Yeshua, our Messiah!