This week’s parasha is Bechukotai, infamous for its long list of curses. Tragically, we find that all of those curses have been realized in Jewish history. And yet, we also find that out of each catastrophe comes tremendous blessing. God declares that although He will punish the nation, He “will not despise them nor reject them” for the covenant is everlasting. The punishment serves only as retribution, middah k’neged middah, “measure for measure”, but it also has a deeper purpose to bring forth renewed life. Let’s take three examples from the past two millennia to demonstrate this phenomenon. Continue reading
For Jews in Israel, Pesach will end this Friday, and on Shabbat the Torah reading will be the next parasha, Acharei. For us in the diaspora, Pesach will extend an extra day to Shabbat, meaning we will be reading more holiday-related passages, and continue with Acharei the following Shabbat. It will take quite a while until the Torah readings in Israel and in the diaspora will re-synchronize (at parashat Massei)!
Here outside of Israel, we get to read a special Haftarah for the eighth day of Pesach which centres on Isaiah 11. Fittingly, it is all about the coming Final Redemption and end of the exile, which we in the diaspora are particularly eager for. We read about the miraculous Messianic Age, when “the wolf will dwell with the lamb… the cow and the bear shall graze, with their young lying down together…” Some of our Sages understood this verse metaphorically, symbolizing a time of great peace, and a return to an ecological balance. Others took it literally, that even carnivorous animals will become vegan, and there shall be no death of any kind anymore. One Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 15:21) takes the latter approach, and enumerates this miracle as one of ten “new” things that God will do in the Messianic Age. This comes as a response to Kohelet who had stated that there is currently “nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
The first of the ten is that the world will be newly illuminated, as it is written: “No longer shall you need the sun for light by day, nor the shining of the moon for radiance [by night]; for God shall be your light everlasting, your God shall be your glory.” (Isaiah 60:19) It is interesting to note that if we take this verse literally, it has already come true that we no longer need the sun and moon for light, thanks to electricity! Of course, the verse is primarily metaphorical, saying that God will be our light. The Midrash asks how this is possible, since we know man is incapable of gazing at God. It answers based on Isaiah 30:26, that “The light of the moon will be like the light of the sun, while the light of the sun will be sevenfold, like the light of the seven days [of Creation].” The verse continues to suggest that this special light will have healing properties. The Midrash adds a quote from Malachi (3:20) that “for you who revere My name a sun of victory shall rise to bring healing…”
Intriguingly, the Midrash says that this new light will shine with 49 parts (based on the seven-by-seven wording of the Isaiah verse). That number always alludes to the 49 aspects of the lower Sefirot, particularly relevant to us now during Sefirat HaOmer when we count the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot. As is well-known (and recorded in most siddurim), each day corresponds to a particular quality tied to the Sefirot. In turn, these relate to the Nun Sha’arei Binah, the “Fifty Gates of Understanding”. The 50th gate is far too lofty, and even Moses was unable to attain it, though he did grasp all the remaining 49, as we hope to do, too (see Rosh Hashanah 21b). Perhaps the Midrash is teaching us in that in the Messianic Age we will finally be able to grasp the 49 levels, and make full use of light’s mysteries to repair the world.
We might see something of an analogy to this in the fact that the world is turning to more and more solar power for our energy needs, which has the potential to significantly improve the health of our planet. While water- and wind-powered machines have been around for centuries (in various mills, for instance), solar power really is a new phenomenon. The sun bathes us with essentially unlimited energy, and can easily satisfy all of the world’s energy needs many times over. The clunky and rudimentary stuff we have today is only just the beginning. There are some truly incredible solar-based and light-based technologies in the works, including artificial photosynthesis and lightning-fast, radiation-free “Li-Fi” internet. And who knows what other secrets are contained within light, of which we still have quite a minimal understanding.
The second new development in the Messianic Age is that healing waters shall go forth from Jerusalem, as prophesied in places like Zechariah 14:8. The Midrash specifically cites Ezekiel: “Every living creature that swarms will be able to go to the streams and be revived…” (47:9) These waters will heal all illnesses. A few verses later, Ezekiel says that “All kinds of trees for food will grow on both banks of the stream… they will yield new fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the Temple. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.” This is the third miracle of the Messianic Age: special Jerusalem trees that will perpetually give healing produce every month. (On another related scientific note, researchers have already been able to genetically engineer certain medicines directly into fruits and plants!)
The fourth development of the Messianic Age is the rebuilding of all the ruined cities in Israel, and perhaps elsewhere around the world. As prophesied by Ezekiel (16:55), even Sodom and Gomorrah will be restored! Again, we are already living in a reality where this prophesy has been partly realized, as many ancient towns have now been rebuilt in modern Israel, including Modi’in (of Chanukah fame), Caesarea, Be’er Sheva, Rehovot (not at the same site as the Biblical one), numerous settlements in Judea and Samaria, as well as Jerusalem itself. This leads to the next miracle of the Messianic Age, which is that Jerusalem will be overlain with sapphire stones and other precious gems, and will “shine like the sun” (based on Isaiah 54:11-2).
The sixth miracle is the one with which we started: the restoration of an ecological equilibrium, where all living organisms will be at peace. Related to this is the following development, that all people, animals, and living things on the planet will form a new covenant with God, as it is written: “In that day, I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground…” (Hoshea 2:20) The verse continues to say how there will be no more wars, with Earth entirely at peace, idolatry will be eliminated, and all will know God. This is the true, divine “new world order” which we await.
With this new order come the final three developments, all based on verses in Isaiah (65:19, 25:8, 35:10). The first is that there will be no more sadness or wailing. The second, that there will be no more death. Some take this to mean not that people will live eternally, but simply that people will live very long lives (as Isaiah says in 65:20 that the youngest shall die at 100). Perhaps it means there will be no more tragic, untimely deaths, and that all people will live to a ripe old age and die of natural causes. Whatever the case, the final new development in the Messianic Age is that there will be no more sorrow, but only real joy for all humanity.
From the Archives: ‘Did the Patriarchs Celebrate Passover?’
As we approach Christmas and New Year’s Eve and start seeing “Christmas trees” popping up all around us, it is worth exploring where this custom came from, and what the Torah might say about it. It is especially important to address because some Jews from the former Soviet Union continue to have a (seemingly) non-religious “New Year’s tree” yolka in their homes, as do assimilated and intermarried Jews across Europe and America. Is it okay to have such a tree in a Jewish home? As might be expected, the short answer is “no”. To properly understand why, we must take an eye-opening trip back in time.
The ancient Nordic and Germanic tribes celebrated a winter solstice festival usually referred to as Yule. Part of the ritual involved worshipping and decorating an evergreen tree, which symbolized life in the dead of winter. Many tribes associated the tree with Odin, the “father of all the gods” in Norse mythology. He was the most powerful figure in the Nine Worlds, represented by Yggdrasil, the sacred tree. Yggdrasil was a “tree of life” of sorts, while beneath its roots lay Hel, the underworld of the dead, and the origin of the English word “hell”. The word Yggdrasil itself means “Odin’s horse” or “Odin’s gallows” (Ygg, or Yggr, is another name for Odin). Others associated the tree with another powerful deity, Thor, “god of thunder”, Odin’s son and protector of Earth. (Fun fact: Wednesday and Thursday are named after Odin and Thor, ie. Odin’s-day and Thor’s-day!)
In 723 CE, the Christian missionary Boniface went forth to convert the pagan Germanic tribes. He came upon a village in the midst of worshipping an oak tree in honour of Thor and were apparently about to sacrifice a baby. Boniface took an axe and chopped the tree down—according to legend, miraculously in one swipe. He didn’t do away with the tree-worshipping ritual entirely, though, and offered the pagans a way to hold on to their old customs: Boniface pointed to a baby fir tree and said “let this tree be the symbol of the true God”. So goes the story, anyways.
While the Germanic and Nordic tribes were all eventually converted to Christianity (some by choice, most by force), they retained many of their old customs. Another example: In Norse myth, “Father Odin” (with his long white beard) would go around on his eight-legged horse to deliver gifts at Yule-time, with the help of the alfar, “elves”, which play an important role in the Norse worldview. “Father Odin” became “Father Christmas”, ie. Santa Claus. To make this less pagan and more palatable to Christians, the figure of Santa Claus was eventually associated with “St. Nicholas” instead, much like the pagan evergreens became symbolic of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. In fact, the spherical red ornaments commonly hung on Christmas trees evolved from apples once hung on Christmas trees to represent the Forbidden Fruit.
There is a great deal of irony here, in that something symbolizing life is chopped down and killed! (And plastic tree alternatives are no better, for they will go on to contaminate the Earth with toxic chemicals for centuries.) It is fitting, then, that the Christmas tree is decorated with “apples” of the Forbidden Fruit, which did not grow on the Tree of Life, but rather on the Tree of Knowledge which brought death into the world. Rabbi Abraham Abulafia (c. 1240-1291), one of the great Sephardic mystics, in his Sefer Sitrei Torah, likened the wooden cross upon which Jesus presumably died to the Tree of Knowledge. (In Hebrew, the word for “wood” and the word for “tree” is the same, etz.) Jesus claimed to be the Tree of Life, the only path to eternal life in Heaven, and for this preposterous claim—supplanting the singular God and His Torah—he was punished measure for measure by being killed on a “tree of death”.
Abulafia held that believing in Jesus was undoubtedly a form of idolatry (and, for those who like numbers, he gave a further mathematical proof in that the gematria of “Jesus”, Yeshu [ישו] is 316, equal to “elohei nekhar”, אלהי נכר, the Torah term for a foreign or false god). We should remember to stick to the one true God and His Torah alone for, as King Solomon said, “it is a Tree of Life for those who grasp it, and whoever upholds it is fortunate.” (Proverbs 3:18) In case anyone was doubting what Solomon was referring to here, he began by stating Torati al tishkach, “do not forget My Torah, and may My mitzvot always be upon your heart.” (Proverbs 3:1) The Torah, and fulfilment of its mitzvot, alone holds the true spiritual path—that is the Tree of Life.
One of those 613 mitzvot of the Torah is not to worship trees, nor bring trees anywhere near the sacrificial altar in the Temple, not even to plant trees that might later be used for worship (Deuteronomy 16:21). Throughout the rest of Scripture, we find that Jews unfortunately sometimes went astray and succumbed to the idolatries of the nations around them, including worshipping Asherah trees and using them as ritual objects. The prophet Jeremiah warned us long ago: “Thus said God: Do not learn from the ways of the nations… for their customs are worthless; they chop down a tree from a forest, they adorn it with silver and gold…” (Jeremiah 10:2-4) As such, there is certainly no room for Christmas trees in a Jewish home. But what if the trees are devoid of any religious significance?
After the October Revolution of 1917, the Communists in Russia went on to ban all religious activity, including Christmas trees. Nonetheless, as the famous saying goes, “old habits die hard”, and people weren’t willing to give up on their customs. Thus, just as Boniface had done centuries earlier, the leaders of the USSR decided to simply replace the symbolism. In 1935, they reintroduced the ritual as a novogodniya yolka, a “New Year’s tree”, along with Dyed Moroz, “Grandpa Frost”, and his snowy female helper Snigurachka, in place of the more religious Santa Claus and his mystical elves. Instead of Christmas Eve, Dyed Moroz would come on New Year’s Eve. (Interestingly, the mysterious word yolka probably comes from that pagan Yule festival.)
In the past, we’ve written about the permissibility of Jews celebrating the secular New Year’s Eve. While there is some leniency regarding New Year’s Eve, the tree in the home is an entirely different issue. When the Torah is so explicit about avoiding any tree rituals, and considering how strongly the Tanakh cautions us about Jews going astray and mimicking the tree-customs of the nations, and keeping in mind how the origins of the tree are deeply pagan first and foremost, as well as extensively Christian thereafter, it is important to stay away from anything remotely resembling a Christmas tree or yolka.
Thankfully, we have a much better tree-related celebration just a month or so after in Tu b’Shevat. This one requires no wanton destruction of trees, nor any pagan-like tree rituals, instead simply appreciating all the good that trees and plants do for us. And it comes with a mystical custom to hold a Tu b’Shevat seder, like on Pesach, symbolizing the forthcoming Final Redemption. When the actual Mashiach does come to usher in the Redemption, our Sages say he will “flourish like a palm tree; thrive like a cedar in the Lebanon.” (Psalm 92:13) May we merit to greet him soon.