Tag Archives: End of Days

Gentiles Becoming Jews

The Haftarah for this week’s parasha, Beha’alotkha, is a passage from the prophet Zechariah in which we read that in the End of Days, “many nations will attach themselves to Hashem and become [part of] My people, and I shall dwell among you…” (2:15) This is reminiscent of a more famous verse later in Zechariah: “In those days, ten people from nations of every tongue will take hold—they will take hold of every Jew by a corner of their cloak and say, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’” (8:23) What we find in these verses is that in the lead-up to the Messianic Age, many nations will start to realize the truth of Hashem and His Torah and wish to learn with the Jewish people and even become Jews themselves. Today, we are living the fulfilment of this prophecy and witnessing mass-conversions and similar “Judafying” trends all over the world.

Semei Kakungulu

One of the first such notable cases was that of Semei Kakungulu of the Baganda tribe in Africa about a century ago. Kakungulu had converted to Christianity in his youth, before becoming a powerful British-backed chief and warlord. Later in life, Kakungulu took a deep dive into the Bible and started to find inconsistencies and errors in the New Testament. According to legend, he isolated himself in a room and emerged some time later having thrown out the New Testament and declaring only the “Old” to be true. He then circumcised himself and his son and started to live according to Torah law. In 1925, a group of Orthodox Jews passed by Kakungulu’s village, and ended up staying to teach the locals proper Jewish laws and practices, including shechitah and prayer services. By the end of his life, Kakungulu had inspired 8,000 Africans to join him and built a network of 36 synagogues. Despite challenges and persecutions over the subsequent decades, today there are still some 2,000 of them in Uganda (called Abayudaya), and the community is recovering and growing.

A more recent case is that of Segundo Villaneuva of Peru. Like Kakungulu, he found many inconsistencies in the New Testament, and ultimately ended up immersing in Torah. He started his own community, called Bnei Moshe, which soon grew to over 500 people. In 1989, Villaneuva and 160 others completed Orthodox conversions, and the following year made aliyah. Two more waves of conversions and aliyahs followed. Villaneuva’s story inspired many more Latin American communities to embrace Judaism, and it is estimated that there are now 60 such communities across 14 countries in the region.

Parallel to this are many Christian communities that are not abandoning their core beliefs, but still choosing to transition towards traditional Torah observance. This isn’t new, and groups like Seventh-Day Adventists (currently numbered at 21 million around the world) long ago switched to a kosher-style diet and Sabbath observance on Saturday. The Evangelical “Living Church of God”—with 400 congregations around the world and over 10,000 members—commemorate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, along with the three regalim, and have embraced other Jewish practices. Similar to them are the 8,000 or so Brazilians that are Pentecostal Christians but keep a host of Orthodox Jewish laws, down to circumcision, going to the mikveh, covering their hair, and eating kosher. While these communities still retain their wayward Christian beliefs, they are nonetheless starting to wake up to the truth and shifting in the right direction. Even the Pope said (in a 2018 interview) that more people should keep Shabbat like Jews do! I believe all of this, too, is a fulfilment of Zechariah’s vision.

Of course, mention must be made of the rapidly growing Noahide movement. The Bnei Noach are righteous people who choose to abide by the Torah’s Noahide Laws, without converting to Judaism. It is estimated that there are between 20,000 and 50,000 Noahides around the world today, and the unofficial number could be much higher. The Lubavitcher Rebbe played a key role in launching the Noahide movement, and was particularly adamant about educating non-Jews about the Noahide Laws. He hoped to make the Noahide Laws the backbone of all societies and legal systems, and famously corresponded with President Reagan on this matter.

Rethinking Conversion

Today there are converts to Judaism from all over the globe, from hundreds of different ethnicities and cultures. This includes Palestinians from Gaza, even a former Hamas terrorist, and the famous case of Abraham Sinai, a one-time Shia Hezbollah terrorist who ended up becoming a rabbi! Many African-Americans are converting to Judaism, including the well-known cases of NBA superstar Amar’e Stoudemire (now Yehoshafat) and musician Nissim Black.

This ties right back to our parasha, in which the Torah tells us that Moses married a Cushite woman. While there are certainly numerous differing interpretations of what exactly happened there, the simple pshat seems to be that Moses married a black woman and Miriam apparently had a problem with this. In turn, measure-for-measure, God punished Miriam by making her skin “snow-white” (Numbers 12:10). Perhaps God was sending Miriam a message: you’re not so white yourself! We should remember the words of the prophet Amos (9:7) in which God declares: “Are you children of Israel not like the children of Cush to Me?” (הֲלוֹא כִבְנֵי כֻשִׁיִּים אַתֶּם לִי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל נְאֻם־יְהֹוָה) We must not forget that all human beings were made in the image of God, and every person is precious in Hashem’s eyes. Indeed, the Midrash states in several places:

I bring Heaven and Earth to witness that the Divine Spirit may rest upon a non-Jew as well as a Jew, upon a woman as well as a man, upon a maidservant as well as a manservant—all depends on the deeds of the particular individual. (Yalkut Shimoni II, 42; Eliyahu Rabbah 9)

מעיד אני עלי את השמים ואת הארץ, בין גוי בין ישראל, בין איש בין אשה, בין עבד בין שפחה,
הכל לפי מעשיו של אדם רוח הקדש שורה עליו

Just about everyone agrees that we are in the Ikvot haMashiach, on the doorstep of the Messianic Age, and our dear prophets told us long ago to expect in these days that many people will wish to join Israel. We are living this time now, and we must do everything possible to welcome more people into the Jewish fold. The Orthodox world urgently needs to rethink how conversions are carried out: to simplify and soften the process, to remove the unnecessary roadblocks and red tape, and to make it easier (and more pleasant) for people to become Jewish—in fulfilment of prophecy. Let’s not forget what our Sages said in the Talmud that “Israel was exiled among the nations only to draw converts” (Pesachim 87b). Indeed, the actual laws of conversion according to the Talmud, Mishneh Torah, and other ancient halakhic sources is very simple and straight-forward, and could even be done in a single day! If Hillel could famously convert a man “while standing on one foot” (Shabbat 31a), there’s no reason why we can’t.

Some worry about the consequences of such an approach, namely that it will result in inauthentic or “fake” Jews. The truth is, as our Sages state in multiple places, all you need to be considered a bona fide “Jew” is to reject idolatry! In Megillah 13a it says “anyone who spurns idolatry is called a Yehudi” (שֶׁכׇּל הַכּוֹפֵר בַּעֲבוֹדָה זָרָה נִקְרָא ״יְהוּדִי״) while Nedarim 25a says “so grave is idolatry that anyone who rejects it is considered to have acknowledged the entire Torah” (חֲמוּרָה עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה, שֶׁכׇּל הַכּוֹפֵר בָּהּ — כְּאִילּוּ מוֹדֶה בַּתּוֹרָה כּוּלָּהּ). Others pose a similar argument that loosening conversion standards will “dilute” Judaism and result in more secularism and less Torah observance. The reality is that some 90% of the Jewish world is already secular anyway, so what difference does it really make? On the contrary, in absolute terms you will have more potential for Torah observance and Torah learning, plus a larger number of people overall keeping mitzvot and doing good, going to shuls, giving tzedakah, supporting Israel, and so on.

In short, the positives far outweigh the potential negatives. And at the very least, it will lessen the scourge of antisemitism, and will serve to strengthen our nation through sheer numbers. At the moment, Jewish people are easy to pick on because there are very few of us. For instance, we are outnumbered about 100 to 1 by Muslims, and this is one reason why Muslims have little fear in abusing Jews around the world, and why many Jews fear their far-more-numerous Muslim neighbours. In recent months, Jews have sadly been taking down their mezuzot and hiding their Star of David necklaces. This wouldn’t be the case if we weren’t so terribly outnumbered. If every other house in the world had a mezuzah, there would be no fear in displaying one. If half the university was made up of Jewish students, there would be no fear of going to class (nor would there be such flagrant, raging anti-Israel protestors shutting down the campus).

Judaism has never really been a missionary religion, but perhaps it’s time to change that. After all, Moshe Rabbeinu told us that when the nations of the world hear Torah, they will be inspired and say “Surely, this great nation must be a wise and discerning people!” (Deuteronomy 4:6) And Isaiah predicted that in the End of Days, we will no longer be a small people serving God, but shall become a “light unto the nations, so that My salvation should reach the ends of the Earth.” (Isaiah 49:6) The verses are clear and unambiguous: it’s time to spread Torah openly and outwardly, to all the nations, to every corner of the planet. The world is thirsty for it, and needs it now more than ever.

Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh, too, argues that now is the time for the “Fourth Revolution in Torah Learning”: The first revolution was putting the Oral Law into written form—which had previously been forbidden. Nearly two thousand years ago, the Sages decided it was time to break that taboo and record the Oral Torah. The result, of course, was entirely positive, and resulted in an explosion of Torah learning. The second revolution was allowing Torah to become “one’s trade”, and have full-time Torah scholars and rabbis. This was originally unheard of, and Torah scholars in previous generations all had jobs and businesses of their own. However, changes in society necessitated having dedicated people who are full-time facilitators of Torah and mitzvot for the community. We wouldn’t be able to have the beautiful Jewish communities we have today without full-time rabbis. The third revolution came in the late 1800s, when advanced Torah study was finally opened up for women. Now, Rav Ginsburgh says, we are on the cusp of the fourth revolution, to teach Torah to the non-Jewish world, and this is the key for bringing about the Final Redemption.

Coming back to this week’s parasha, we read that “when a stranger who resides with you offers a Passover sacrifice to God, it must be offered in accordance with the rules and rites of the Passover offering. There shall be one law for you, for the stranger, and the citizen of the land.” (Numbers 9:14) The Torah says that even foreigners and those non-Jews dwelling among us could participate in Passover. Meanwhile, Zechariah describes that following the final war of Gog u’Magog, which will see a coalition of nations from around the world seek to destroy Israel, those same nations will be required to “pilgrimage to Jerusalem from year to year to bow to the King, God of Hosts, and celebrate the holiday of Sukkot.” (14:16) The Torah is inviting the nations of the world to join the Jews. Let’s extend that invitation, welcome with open arms all those who seek Hashem, and bring the whole world one step closer to Geulah.

Understanding Mashiach ben Yosef

Who is Mashiach ben Yosef? What is the true origin of the Mashiach ben Yosef idea, and where can it be found in the Torah? What are the four prophesied stages in the era of Mashiach ben Yosef at the End of Days? And what does it have to do with recent events in the Holy Land? Find out in this class where we embark on an in-depth exploration of Mashiach ben Yosef from Tanakh through the Talmud, Midrash, Zohar, Arizal, and the mysterious Kol haTor. 

This class is based on a set of essays in the recently-published third volume of ‘Garments of Light’, available on Amazon and here.

Mysteries of the Haggadah

The Passover Haggadah is one of the most ancient compilations of Jewish text. Its core goes back to the Mishnaic era (1st-2nd Century CE), and it came to its final version, more or less as we know it today, about 1000 years ago. The Sages filled the Haggadah with profound secrets and mysteries, giving people both young and old much to meditate and reflect on. In fact, we read in the Haggadah at the very beginning that although “we are all wise, discerning, sage, and knowledgeable in Torah”, it is still a mitzvah for each person to plunge into the Exodus story and uncover its secrets, and to share one’s thoughts and interpretations with others. Not surprisingly, the Sages embedded many such secrets and mysteries in the Haggadah itself. A small sample of them are presented below.

The Sefirot of Mochin above (in blue) and the Sefirot of the Middot below (in red) on the mystical “Tree of Life”.

The statement that we are all wise [chakhamim], discerning [nevonim], and knowledgeable [yodi’im], is a clear allusion to the upper three Sefirot of Chokhmah, Binah, and Da’at. The same verse also says we are all zkenim, literally “elders”, which is strange because obviously not everyone around the seder table is an elder! What does this really mean? We must remember that Da’at is only the inverse and the application of the highest Sefirah, Keter. There are, in fact, four mental faculties: Keter, Chokhmah, Binah, and Da’at, or willpower, information, understanding, and applied knowledge, respectively. (The Arizal actually teaches that these four are the reason the head tefillin has four compartments!) Now we can understand the purpose of inserting zkenim in the Haggadah: The highest Keter reflects the “face” of God known as Atik Yomin, the “Ancient of Days” (a term that comes from Daniel 7:22). This is the “elder” zaken in the Haggadah’s phrasing. All four mental faculties are stimulated at the seder, just as the tefillin stimulates all four.

The Haggadah continues by saying it is a mitzvah for us to lesaper, speak at length about the Exodus. Speech corresponds to the bottom of the Sefirot, Malkhut. And what of the six Sefirot in the middle? The Haggadah goes on to tell us that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon were all celebrating Pesach together one year. The teachings of these Mishnaic sages formed the core of the Haggadah text itself. They can be said to correspond to the six middle Sefirot (which are collectively called Zeir Anpin, and parallel the realm of Yetzirah, literally “formation”). You might ask: but wait, that’s only five rabbis—where is the sixth? The Haggadah itself answers: “Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said to them: ‘Behold, I am like a man of seventy years, but I never merited to understand why the story of the Exodus is told at night until Ben Zoma expounded…’” The great Shimon ben Zoma is hiding here, too!

Recall that Ben Zoma is a contemporary and colleague of these wisemen, and even ascended up to the heavenly Pardes alongside Rabbi Akiva (Chagigah 14b). An amazing chiddush (that belongs to my wife) is that we can parallel the “Four Who Entered Pardes” with the Four Sons of the Haggadah: The wise one is undoubtedly Rabbi Akiva—the only one able to enter and exit Pardes in peace. The wicked one is, of course, Elisha ben Avuya who became the apostate Acher and traitorously joined the Romans. He totally separated himself from the Jewish community, so he said: “‘What is this service to you?’ To you and not to him.” The Passover service was no longer relevant to him. Hak’heh et shinav, Acher needed to have his teeth blunted! Then we have “the simple one” or “innocent” one, Ben Azzai, the bachelor who never married, and simply “gazed” at the Divine Presence only to immediately perish, his soul never returning back to Earth. Finally, the one who doesn’t know how to ask is Ben Zoma. Recall that upon his return from Pardes, Ben Zoma was thought to have gone “mad”, unable to converse with regular human beings or keep up a discussion with the Sages. Ben Zoma, quite literally, could no longer “ask”!

The Sages of the Haggadah were deeply contemplating the past redemption of Pesach, but also the future redemption of Mashiach. We find that much of the seder is centered around not ancient events, but forthcoming ones. This is, of course, evident from the concluding part of the seder with a wish for next year’s Pesach to be in a rebuilt Jerusalem, with a rebuilt Holy Temple, where we can properly bring a korban pesach. It is the deeper meaning behind reciting dam esh v’timrot ‘ashan, “blood, fire, and columns of smoke”—spilling a drop of wine for each—which actually comes from the prophet Joel’s vision of the End of Days (Joel 3:3). We are not talking here about the past miracles and plagues in Egypt, but the future signs and miracles that we await! The same goes for pouring a fifth cup for Eliyahu, with a prayer that Eliyahu returns speedily to usher in the Messianic Age. And this is the secret meaning behind those cryptic words we recite: sh’fokh hamatcha el hagoyim asher lo yeda’ukha! “Spill Your wrath upon the nations that don’t know you!” (Psalms 79:6)

Redemption & the War Against Rome

To fully understand the Haggadah, we have to keep in mind that its core was composed in the Mishnaic era, and the undisputed adversary and oppressor of the Jewish people at the time was the Roman Empire. In fact, Rabbi Akiva would end up being martyred at the hands of the Romans. And this connects to an incredible idea that has been proposed to explain that strange episode in the Haggadah where the five chief rabbis are getting together on Pesach. We must ask: why are the rabbis sitting together all night? Where are their families? The Torah commands that one must celebrate Pesach with family, and make sure to instruct one’s children and grandchildren. It seems here in the Haggadah that the five rabbis are alone, confined to a room until the morning when “their students came and said: the time for the morning Shema has arrived!” Even their own disciples were not with them at the seder. What’s going on?

We must remember that Rabbi Akiva’s generation lived at the time of the Bar Kochva Revolt. Rabbi Akiva himself supported Bar Kochva, and believed the latter to be the potential messiah of the generation:

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught: “My rabbi, Akiva, used to expound that ‘A star shall emerge out of Jacob…’ [Numbers 24] is Bar Koziva… when Rabbi Akiva would see Bar Koziva, he would say: ‘He is the King Messiah!’ Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta would say to him: ‘Akiva, grasses will grow out of your cheeks and still the Son of David will not come!’” (Yerushalmi Ta’anit 24a)

Bar Kochva did indeed get very far in the war, managing to expel the Romans (albeit temporarily), re-establishing a sovereign Jewish state (and minting his own coins), even clearing the Temple Mount and starting to rebuild the Beit haMikdash. This would not have been possible without Rabbi Akiva’s support. Unfortunately, the war ended in disaster, with 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students killed, along with Rabbi Akiva himself.

Coins minted by Bar Kochva

When exactly did Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues make the decision to support the revolt against Rome? This certainly would not have been an easy call to make. It would require all the chief rabbis of the time to get together and deliberate carefully. And, according to Rabbi Dr. Ronald Eisenberg (Essential Figures in the Talmud, pg. 16) this is precisely what they did on that Pesach night where they were all together. Confined in a room with no one else around, they stayed up all night to come to a verdict. The students arrived in the morning and said: Time’s up! Do we revolt or not? And what did the rabbis answer? They quoted that last part of the Haggadah: sh’fokh hamatcha el hagoyim asher lo yeda’ukha! “Spill Your wrath upon the nations that don’t know you!” This was the signal to go to war against Rome. And we do know that the main part of the war subsequently took place between Pesach and Shavuot (Yevamot 62b), which is why we still observe a mourning period during this time today. All the puzzle pieces add up neatly to explain this Haggadic mystery.

The Sh’fokh verse in the Darmstädter Haggadah (c 1430)

Bar Kochva wished to throw off the oppressive and idolatrous Roman yoke. In supporting him, the rabbis were hoping to usher in the Messianic Age. It was Nisan, the month of Redemption; and Pesach, the holiday of geulah. And those same Sages taught: b’nisan nigalu, u’b’nisan atidin liga’el, “In Nisan we were redeemed, and in Nisan we are destined to be redeemed again.” (Rosh Hashanah 11a) This was the maxim of Rabbi Yehoshua—the very same Rabbi Yehoshua of the Haggadah, sitting and deliberating with his colleagues all night on that fateful Pesach. It seemed the time was ripe for redemption. The Vilna Gaon taught (as relayed in Kol haTor) that Bar Kochva really was the potential messiah of the generation (otherwise, Rabbi Akiva surely would never have supported him!) Unfortunately, the potential wasn’t realized.

Nonetheless, that same potential exists in every generation, just as there is a potential messiah in every generation. The power to bring the Redemption is in our hands. It takes two things: proper Torah observance and true repentance on the one hand, as well as a collective “Mashiach mass-consciousness” on the other. Rabbi Akiva’s generation had the former, but not the latter. This is evident from the Yerushalmi passage above, where Rabbi Akiva was constantly declaring publicly that Bar Kochva was the messiah—to spread that “Mashiach mass-consciousness”—yet other rabbis were quashing people’s hopes and telling them to stop dreaming, as Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta did.

In this difficult time that we are currently in—where all of the prophecies have already been fulfilled and there are none left to await—let’s make sure we do both, and finally bring about the Geulah.

Wishing everyone a chag Pesach kasher v’sameach!