Posts Tagged With: heart

Tu B’Shevat: The Lesson of Akhnai’s Oven

We are in the eleventh month of Shevat. Shevat comes from an Akkadian word that means a shoot, rod, or lashing, with the latter being a reference to the heavy rains of winter that end at this season. The fifteenth of Shevat (Tu B’Shevat) is the New Year for Trees in Judaism. In Temple times, it was vital for Israel to have a set time to separate one growing season from another in order to properly tithe and bring one’s first fruits to the priests. That is the purpose of the New Year for Trees. Which year does your fruit belong to? This is important for tithing in the natural and spiritual realms.

Winter might seem like an odd time of the year to celebrate trees and fruit, but in Israel’s more temperate climate, the fruit trees are budding and beginning to blossom in this month. In a sense, you are a tree, a planting of the LORD. What’s budding in your life right now?

“People have trunks and limbs. They grow roots, have seeds, and produce fruit. Trees and people feel pain and bleed when wounded. Both breathe and sway (move) when the wind (ruach) blows upon them. The growth of trees and people are deeply affected by the type of soil, the volume of water, and the amount of sunlight that they receive. Even the House (Temple) of YHWH is built with both trees and people. (2 Chron. 2, 1 Cor. 6:19) Thus, it is no wonder that the Scriptures abound with analogies, metaphors, similes, and puns that compare mankind to the majestic trees of the forest.”[1]

In tradition, the first of Shevat is when Moses began to deliver the Mishneh Torah, the second Law or repetition of the Law, or the Book of Deuteronomy. He spoke to Israel for thirty-seven days, passing away on the seventh of Adar. Because Moses delivered a full summary of the Law at this time, Rosh Chodesh Shevat is compared to Shavuot (Pentecost), when Adonai gave His Torah to Israel. Thus, this month and the first seven days of Adar are considered an auspicious time to study the Torah, as it teaches one how to produce proper fruit.

I’ve written elsewhere about the specifics of Shevat and Tu B’Shevat. This year, I will elaborate on the spiritual aspect of this season, specifically in regard to producing spiritual fruit.

Luke 6:43-45 (NASB) “For there is no good tree which produces bad fruit, nor, on the other hand, a bad tree which produces good fruit. 44 For each tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they pick grapes from a briar bush. 45 The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart.

You are a tree, and the fruit that you produce is your words and actions. No one can escape this reality. If one wants to know what is really in their heart, examine your words. What is coming forth from your mouth or from your keyboard? Life or death? Edification or accusation? Hymns and praise or rants and derision? Good news or mockery? If rotten buds are sprouting, repent before the fruit comes into full bloom, earmarked for destruction.

Proverbs 4:23-24 (NASB) Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life. 24 Put away from you a deceitful mouth and put devious speech far from you.

In Hebrew, the bolded words above are both about deception. Since the fall from the Garden, man struggles with the polarities of two natures. One must learn the difference between these two voices, and submit to the renewed man in Messiah, who is governed only by the Spirit of Adonai, not the old nature that is dying; and yet, continually trying to resurrect and rule. (Romans 7) Speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, Adonai reminds man that he is like a tree:

Jeremiah 17:7-8 (NKJV) “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, and whose hope is the LORD. 8 For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, which spreads out its roots by the river, and will not fear when heat comes; but its leaf will be green, and will not be anxious in the year of drought, nor will cease from yielding fruit.”

But, in the very next verses, Adonai warns that one’s heart, from which the issues of life flow, can trick, deceive, and distort. Therefore, it is imperative that we examine our fruit.

Jeremiah 17:9-10 (NKJV) “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? 10 I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings.”

What are we producing? What words are we speaking (typing)? What actions result from these words? Have we received seed/fruit from a tree that we should not be consuming that is producing fear, suspicion, doubt, paranoia, anger, strife, and division? And, are we then spreading that sort of “news” to others instead of the Good News? You will know them by their fruit. You will know whose seed you have received into the soil of your heart by examining FRUIT.

King David, the man after God’s own heart, prayed:

Psalms 141:3-4 (NASB) Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips. 4 Do not incline my heart to any evil thing, to practice deeds of wickedness with men who do iniquity; and do not let me eat of their delicacies.

Since the Garden, receiving words, whether they be of Adonai or from another, are likened to ingesting seed. Seed is found in fruit. Things and words that appeal to the flesh are “delicacies.” In Hebrew, these are man’ammiym. They refer to choice, luxurious portions of (spiritual) food. Above, David knows that receiving such morsels from the wicked and lawless might taste good to his flesh, but in the end, they lead to death. We must be careful of the fruit we partake of because it contains a seed that will grow into a full-grown tree. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil produces more of the same. Just because something seems good or even is good, doesn’t mean it produces Life.

This is true in every area of life: marriage, family, child rearing, community, relationships, fellowships, education, careers, governments, politics, medicine/health care, and even in theology. Two seeds. Two trees. Two worldviews. Two Kingdoms. We are either of one or the other. Thus, it is vital that we become expert fruit inspectors, beginning with our own hearts.

 

Difficulty in Discernment

Aside from leaving Egypt, rarely are the people of Adonai required to act in haste. Patience is a fruit of the Spirit. Thus, while inspecting fruit is paramount, so is discretion. Things are not always as they appear. We must not be quick to judge, because we are not omniscient.

Proverbs 15:28 (ESV) The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things.

One can listen to the voice of fear or other emotions, or even the voice of one’s own desires and be deceived. One can believe that they are full of light, and that light can, in reality, be darkness.

 Luke 11:35 (NASB) “Then watch out that the light in you is not darkness.”

This is just as true for the Believer as the unbeliever. The Hebrew worldview is not as black and white as western, Greek trained minds would prefer. Hebraic thought centers around the tension between opposites, and seeks to find balance. The Hebrew language reflects this. Most Hebrew words function as contranyms.[2] This is confusing for those trained in western logic. And yet, this is the mindset in which the Bible was written. It is also the mindset that produced Rabbinic Judaism and the Talmud.

Much of the Talmud is debate and argument, something westerners, particularly those of faith, do not wish to participate. If religious arguments become the norm in western faith circles, there is a strong likelihood that the group will choose sides and splinter into new groups. They do this to avoid debate, and to peacefully function in the echo chamber that agrees with one’s conviction.

While this isn’t an evil thing to do, and it certainly has some benefits, it is not spiritually healthy to never have one’s faith, beliefs, or doctrines challenged. The nature of growth, birth, and harvest is toil, pain, and struggle. This is how we learn. While hostile debate can be draining, or even damaging, especially for those young in the faith, having no challenge or debate is equally destructive. It’s akin to one dying on the vine. Hebraic thought challenges one to find the balance between these polarities.

“The nature of a man or doctrine or movement can be rightly estimated only when the results have had time to develop.” (F. B. Meyer)

Wait for the fruit. Do not be deceived. Many in religious (and secular) circles prey upon one’s ignorance of the “whole story” or all the facts. According to Scripture, ignorance leads to exile, separation, and destruction, not bliss.[3] The Talmudic story called “Akhnai’s Oven” has been used by detractors to speak evil about Jews, particularly those that adhere to Rabbinic Judaism.

Whether these accusers are ignorant, deceived, or willfully dishonest, I know not. What is obvious is their dependence upon the listener’s ignorance. By choosing to quote a small portion of the this aggadic story out of context, they build a vile strawman and attach it to Rabbinic Judaism. Their goal is to incite fear, doubt, suspicion, and hatred. And sadly, some will receive this seed and it will grow into a wicked tree of antisemitism in their hearts. The irony is that when one reads the entire story in context, it is a teaching about NOT disparaging others with words!

Akhnai’s oven is not a true story, rather it is a parable with great moral lessons about how brothers treat one another, especially in regard to speech. Like much of the Talmud, the rabbis are having an argument about halacha, rulings about “how” to properly keep or walk out the Torah. Hebraic Roots folks often do the same, so this little story has some pearls of wisdom if we have ears to hear, and can reserve judgment for a time.

I will warn you that this is NOT a simple story. It contains layers of moral truth that requires one to wrestle with what is “right.” But, isn’t that just like everyday life? Godly discernment often isn’t black and white. Consider Judah and Tamar. By Torah standards, she APPEARED to have played the harlot (and the irony is that she did), thus Judah wanted her to be burned alive.

When the accusations were brought to her, she said, “Discern, I pray thee, whose are these—the signet ring, cord, and the staff.” Tamar called for discernment. That is how she was vindicated, and that is how the line of Judah was secured. May we have that same discernment as we investigate Akhnai’s Oven.

 

Ahknai’s Oven

Proverbs 18:21 (NASB) Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.

On the surface level of this story, the ancient rabbis are arguing about whether an earthenware oven that has come in contact with a corpse is clean or unclean (pure or impure/ kosher/nonkosher). In the Torah, an earthenware vessel or oven contaminated by death is impure, and must be shattered. (Lev. 11:33-35) But, the debate arises because of the way in which the oven was built; in this form, is it still considered such a vessel?

The placement of this argument is key to the context of the story. It is sandwiched between sections of where the rabbis made rulings about PROPER SPEECH. Words and how one uses them indicates the state of one’s heart. One is meant to consider that he/she is from the earth, an earthenware vessel.[4] What does an “oven” have to do with this? It is a symbol in this story. Ovens bake BREAD – and bread is a metaphor for The Word and one’s words. What are we cooking up or eating from the ovens of others? “Those who love it WILL EAT its fruit.”

Bava Metzia 59a and 59b (quoted from Sepharia.org)

Apropos the topic of verbal mistreatment, we learned in a mishna there (Kelim 5:10): If one cut an earthenware oven widthwise into segments, and placed sand between each and every segment, Rabbi Eliezer deems it ritually pure. Because of the sand, its legal status is not that of a complete vessel, and therefore it is not susceptible to ritual impurity. And the Rabbis deem it ritually impure, as it is functionally a complete oven. (59a)

That’s the opening argument. R. Eliezer thinks that the oven shouldn’t be considered a complete “vessel,” thus the commandment in Leviticus 11 doesn’t apply. Whereas, the majority of the rabbis see it differently. They think that since it functions as a complete oven, it is also a complete vessel, and subject to ritual impurity. The story begins:

And this is known as the oven of akhnai. The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of akhnai, a snake, in this context? Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: It is characterized in that manner due to the fact that the Rabbis surrounded it with their statements like this snake, which often forms a coil when at rest, and deemed it impure. The Sages taught: On that day, when they discussed this matter, Rabbi Eliezer answered all possible answers in the world to support his opinion, but the Rabbis did not accept his explanations from him. (59b)

Consider a couple of things before moving forward. First, the rabbis immediately associate the oven with WORDS. The tongue is likened to the oven, because words originate in the heart. So, based on their explanation, consider whether the tongue is an incomplete example of one’s heart (a separate or incomplete vessel), or if Yeshua is correct when He says it figures the entire heart of a man (a complete vessel).

Second, notice that the “owner” of the oven is called Akhnai, which means SNAKE. Immediately, one is faced with the real issue. Snakes are “hissers,” and are associated with deception and damaging words. The rabbis surrounded it (the argument) like a coiled snake. And, Rabbi Eliezer counter argued (literally translated), “All the words in the world,” to support his conclusion. Both sides use many WORDS. At this point, you might be wondering which group in this story is the actual snake (or in the wrong). Keep wrestling with that idea as the story builds.

After failing to convince the Rabbis logically, Rabbi Eliezer said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, this carob tree will prove it. The carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, and some say four hundred cubits. The Rabbis said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from the carob tree. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the stream will prove it. The water in the stream turned backward and began flowing in the opposite direction. They said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from a stream.

 Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the walls of the study hall will prove it. The walls of the study hall leaned inward and began to fall. Rabbi Yehoshua scolded the walls and said to them: If Torah scholars are contending with each other in matters of halakha, what is the nature of your involvement in this dispute? The Gemara relates: The walls did not fall because of the deference due Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten because of the deference due Rabbi Eliezer, and they still remain leaning.

 Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, Heaven will prove it. A Divine Voice emerged from Heaven and said: Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion?

This story is a type of Jewish literature called aggadah, which are parabolic stories meant to convey a moral lesson in support of halachic rulings. Rabbi Eliezer, a highly respected (and real historical) rabbi, stood alone in his opinion of the oven. This story exemplifies the tension between two schools of thought in first and second century Judaism, the struggle after the destruction of the Temple, a nation facing exile (again), and the necessity of unity to maintain Jewish identity. While all those issues can and should be explored, our focus is on the timeless issues of the tongue, and why WORDS will either justify or condemn us. (Mt. 12:37)

At first glance, it appears that Rabbi Eliezer is indeed correct. Miracle after miracle comes forth as a sign for him. But, the other rabbis are not persuaded by such signs. Then, R. Eliezer asks the walls of the house of study to prove that he is right. They began to fall inward and Rabbi Yehoshua rebukes them, so they stopped. It seems the walls decided to agree with both sides of the argument, which we will get to later. Finally, Rabbi Eliezer pulls out his ace card. He calls on heaven and a Divine Voice (Bat Kol) agrees with his ruling. You’d think that this would settle the dispute, but then:

Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: It is written: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of the phrase “It is not in heaven” in this context? Rabbi Yirmeya says: Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a Divine Voice, as You already wrote at Mount Sinai, in the Torah: “After a majority to incline” (Exodus 23:2). Since the majority of Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, the halakha is not ruled in accordance with his opinion. The Gemara relates: Years after, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time, when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration? Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.

Yikes! That last bit sounds rather sacrilegious. Indeed, it is typically where one promoting antisemitism will stop quoting the story to say horrible things about Judaism or Jews. But, reserve judgment for a moment. There is much more going on than meets the eye, and the story is far from finished.

Rabbi Yehoshua and the other sages do not trust in signs and wonders, not even a heavenly voice, because the Torah warns them about such things. Instead, they stand on the firm foundation of “it is written.” The heavenly Torah was given to earth at Mt. Sinai. And, the Torah plainly states that a contaminated earthenware vessel must be broken. Since the majority agrees with this, the ruling is settled.

In the eyes of an inexperienced reader of the Talmud, controversy arises when it says, “My children have triumphed over me.” That sounds like man has defeated Adonai (God forbid), which is NOT the moral of this story. Nor does it imply that man’s word or judgment is higher than YHWH’s. Instead, the rabbis point to this section to support the fact that God has given His Word (from Heaven) and EXPECTS man to make judgments based on His revealed truth. They also see this is as a support for Rabbinic authority, with the majority ruling in halachic matters. You don’t have to agree with the latter, because if Akhnai’s oven teaches one anything, it is that we are free to disagree. What matters is how we treat one another, and how we speak about each other during and after the fact.

One is also faced with another conundrum. Were the miracles and the heavenly voice false signs and wonders? The text implies that they were the real deal, hence the controversial phrase at the end of the above passage. Or, were the majority rabbis correct by strictly sticking to “it is written?” Two polarities. Two schools of thought. Divine tension. Who is correct?

The truth is that we face similar tensions in our faith walk all the time. In many instances, one could argue for either side and be correct (at least to a degree). However, there is a test that can help with discernment. Yeshua said, “You will know them by their fruit.” The second half of Akhnai’s oven reveals the aftermath (fruit) of this argument. It quickly becomes apparent that both sides were correct… and incorrect. There is a much greater Torah principle being taught in this story for those that have ears to hear.

The Sages said: On that day, the Sages brought all the ritually pure items deemed pure by the ruling of Rabbi Eliezer with regard to the oven and burned them in fire, and the Sages reached a consensus in his regard and ostracized him. And the Sages said: Who will go and inform him of his ostracism? Rabbi Akiva, his beloved disciple, said to them: I will go, lest an unseemly person go and inform him in a callous and offensive manner, and he would thereby destroy the entire world.

What did Rabbi Akiva do? He wore black and wrapped himself in black, as an expression of mourning and pain, and sat before Rabbi Eliezer at a distance of four cubits, which is the distance that one must maintain from an ostracized individual. Rabbi Eliezer said to him: Akiva, what is different about today from other days, that you comport yourself in this manner? Rabbi Akiva said to him: My teacher, it appears to me that your colleagues are distancing themselves from you. He employed euphemism, as actually they distanced Rabbi Eliezer from them. Rabbi Eliezer too, rent his garments and removed his shoes, as is the custom of an ostracized person, and he dropped from his seat and sat upon the ground.

The sages burned Rabbi Eliezer’s previous work, and then excommunicated him. Can you imagine the pain this caused R. Eliezer, whether he was right or wrong? His work, devotion, and service to God, were all destroyed because of one argument. The rejection must have been unbearable. Elsewhere, the rabbis teach that humiliating another person in public is akin to murder, as is destroying their livelihood. His colleagues did both. Hence, Rabbi Akiva dressed as a mourner when he delivered the news to R. Eliezer. Something had indeed died: their relationship.

In a sense, the sages knew what they were doing because they feared that if the news reached Eliezer in an unsavory manner, “he would destroy the entire world.” What does this mean? Surely, Eliezer didn’t possess such power, did he? This is symbolic, of course. Think metaphorically as you read the following:

The Gemara relates: His eyes shed tears, and as a result the entire world was afflicted: One-third of its olives were afflicted, and one-third of its wheat, and one-third of its barley. And some say that even dough kneaded in a woman’s hands spoiled. The Sages taught: There was great anger on that day, as any place that Rabbi Eliezer fixed his gaze was burned.

 And even Rabban Gamliel, the Nasi of the Sanhedrin at Yavne, the head of the Sages who were responsible for the decision to ostracize Rabbi Eliezer, was coming on a boat at the time, and a large wave swelled over him and threatened to drown him. Rabban Gamliel said: It seems to me that this is only for the sake of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, as God punishes those who mistreat others. Rabban Gamliel stood on his feet and said: Master of the Universe, it is revealed and known before You that neither was it for my honor that I acted when ostracizing him, nor was it for the honor of the house of my father that I acted; rather, it was for Your honor, so that disputes will not proliferate in Israel. In response, the sea calmed from its raging.

 When we have suffered great pain, loss, betrayal, rejection, or injustice is it not like the “entire world is afflicted?” At least “our” entire world has been destroyed in that moment. Why do you think the crops of harvest are affected in “thirds?” Have we read about judgment occurring in thirds elsewhere? The Book of Revelation has many judgments in thirds, and it is indeed a judgment on the seven abominations that all deal with the tongue in some way.[5]

Dr. Alewine points out the good side of thirds, which are the chaggim, the three pilgrimage or foot festivals, where brethren gather in unity at Mt. Zion.[6] No one is left out or ostracized. Tongues are used to praise and worship the King of kings. Moreover, they occur at the harvest times of the aforementioned crops (barley, wheat, olives). The destruction in this story symbolizes the consequences of both parties’ actions. No longer will they gather as one at the appointed times of the LORD; hence, a third of the chaggim harvest is afflicted. Likewise, the Sabbath dough is spoiled before it is baked, insinuating that the gathering spirit of breaking bread on Shabbat has been tainted.

Rabbi Gamliel understands that they mistreated Rabbi Eliezer, and that this is the reason his life is threatened, so he prays to the Almighty. What he really did was “explain himself” to the Almighty. I wonder how many of us do the same when we’ve taken our judgment too far with others? Do we tell God all the “good” reasons for our poor actions? Our intentions might be good, but the subsequent fruit reveals the tree.

At this point, we should understand that we can be so right that we are wrong. No matter which side of the argument one is on, there is a right and a wrong way to say things. And, there is a right and a wrong way to cast judgment or bring correction. The last part of the story ends with a woman called Imma (mama) Shalom. She is connected to both men, and both sides of the argument.

The Gemara further relates: Imma Shalom, the wife of Rabbi Eliezer, was the sister of Rabban Gamliel. From that incident forward, she would not allow Rabbi Eliezer to lower his head and recite the taḥanun prayer, which includes supplication and entreaties. She feared that were her husband to bemoan his fate and pray at that moment, her brother would be punished. A certain day was around the day of the New Moon, and she inadvertently substituted a full thirty-day month for a deficient twenty-nine-day month, i.e., she thought that it was the New Moon, when one does not lower his head in supplication, but it was not. Some say that a pauper came and stood at the door, and she took bread out to him. The result was that she left her husband momentarily unsupervised.

 When she returned, she found him and saw that he had lowered his head in prayer. She said to him: Arise, you already killed my brother. Meanwhile, the sound of a shofar emerged from the house of Rabban Gamliel to announce that the Nasi had died. Rabbi Eliezer said to her: From where did you know that your brother would die? She said to him: This is the tradition that I received from the house of the father of my father: All the gates of Heaven are apt to be locked, except for the gates of prayer for victims of verbal mistreatment.

Imagine Imma Shalom as a figure of the Holy Spirit or Woman Wisdom. She is wife and sister to the men who argued. Now, consider Adonai. Is He not intimately connected to us AND our opponents? Like Imma Shalom, He loves both sides, both men. They are close family. While she is devastated for her husband, R. Eliezer, she is also deeply concerned for the consequences that her brother will face if her husband pours his broken heart out to God.

Imma Shalom diligently watches over her husband. One day, she believes it is the new moon, a time like other feast days and Shabbats when one (in Judaism) doesn’t make personal supplications to God; rather, those days are all about worshipping and praising the King. So, with her guard down, she leaves him alone, not realizing that it is a normal week day, a time when one does make supplication and entreaties to God. She walks in to find Eliezer on his face before God, and says, “Arise, you already killed my brother.”

Suddenly, they heard the voice of the shofar come from the house of Gamliel. He had, indeed, died. Eliezer asks her how she knew this would happen. She quotes a tradition passed down from her father’s father, “All the gates of Heaven are apt to be locked, except for the gates of prayer for victims of verbal mistreatment (ona’at devarim).”

Ona’at devarim are stealing words. Words that fraud, oppress, and damage. There are no winners in this little tale. Both sides made grave errors in words and deeds, even though both sides served the Most High God. Neither Eliezer nor the rabbis were 100% correct in their halachic ruling or in the way they spoke to and treated one another. Words brought death in each case, not life. “Those who love it WILL EAT its fruit.” – even great rabbis.

This is the Snake’s Oven. It brings forth poisonous bread that once consumed cannot be undone – just like one’s words.

Perhaps, we are like Eliezer, eagerly looking for a loophole to make the unclean, clean. Maybe we are arguing “all the words in the world” to convince others that our private interpretation is right, even though the more words we use, the closer we align with Ahknai, the snake. Or, perhaps the majority is on our side, and there is a sense of safety in those numbers, so we take this as confirmation that we are “right,” and search no further for balance and truth. Maybe our conviction is so strong that even a heavenly voice won’t change our mind. Will we coil like a snake around the minority and choke them out? Can you see the irony on both sides?

The walls of the “house of study” are still leaning to this very day. In the Book of Revelation, the foundation and “walls” of heavenly Jerusalem consist of people, living stones. The overcomers in the church of brotherly love are promised to become “pillars” in the Temple of Adonai. These walls do not lean, they are straight, strong, and true.

But, this side of the Olam Haba (World to Come) the walls in the house of study continue to lean. It is all so precarious, and so are our relationships. They are what matter most, because God desires that we be One with each other, and Him. Anything that seeks to divide brothers should be a bright orange caution sign for Believers. (Pr. 6:16-19)

Last year was the Hebrew year 5780. Eighty is the letter peh, which is also the word for mouth. We have entered a decade of 80’s or mouths. Do you think it is a coincidence that the whole world has had to cover their mouth since mid 5780? In Biblical understanding, one’s (evil) words cause leprosy, a spiritual condition that requires one to be separated (socially distanced) from the camp.

Leviticus 13:45 (TLV) “The one with tza’arat who has the plague-mark should wear torn clothes, the hair of his head is to hang loose, he is to cover his upper lip and cry, Unclean! Unclean!’”

Perhaps, we collectively represent R. Eliezer and the Sages. Everyone in the case of Ahknai’s oven was found to be unclean and contaminated, just like the snake’s oven. And it was all on account of disguised evil speech by those that should know better. We must stop defending and justifying our big, fat mouths.

Maybe God has allowed this plague to come upon us because our words have been found wanting. Maybe we’ve coiled around others like a snake with hissing taunts or we have murdered someone’s reputation or livelihood with our words. Perhaps, our entire ministry is devoted to accusing the other side of wrong doing, which makes one a “satan.”

We have poorly represented the King of the Universe, which makes us false witnesses, an unclean earthenware vessel that needs to be shattered. Yeshua tells the assembly in Thyatira that He searches the minds and hearts of man, no one can explain away or justify their rotten words or deeds. In the end, His rod of iron WILL shatter the unclean human clay pots.

Revelation 2:23-27 (TLV) Then all of Messiah’s communities will know that I am the One who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you according to your deeds. 24 But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold to this teaching and have not learned the so-called ‘deep things’ of satan—I place on you no other burden. 25 Only hold firm to what you have until I come. 26 To the one who overcomes and guards My deeds until the end, I will give him authority over the nations 27 and he shall rule them with an iron rod, as when clay pots are broken into pieces.

We will give an account for every idle word that we speak. Did they produce life or were they contaminated with death? (Mt. 12:36-37) In Greek, it literally says we will PAY BACK with logos, words. Middah kenedgo middah – measure for measure.

Yeshua comforts the Philadelphians, those immersed in brotherly love, by making the synagogue of Satan (accusers) bow down and worship (use words) at their feet to make them know that Yeshua loved them. I wonder how many of us will do this at the feet of those we have disparaged, hated, and spoken poorly of in this life?

Perhaps, we will be required to cover our lips until we admit that we are unclean. I pray that we freely repent (the rightful use of one’s tongue) before we are forced to do so by further judgments.

Matthew 12:36-37 (NASB) “But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. 37 For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

To learn more about Proper Speech click here.


[1] https://graceintorah.net/2017/01/28/tu-bshevat/

[2] A word with two opposite meanings, e.g. sanction (which can mean both ‘a penalty for disobeying a law’ and ‘official permission or approval for an action’).

[3] Isaiah 5:13 (NASB) Therefore My people go into exile for their lack of knowledge; and their honorable men are famished, and their multitude is parched with thirst.

Hosea 4:6 (NASB) My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest. Since you have forgotten the law (Torah) of your God, I also will forget your children.

[4] For example see: Is. 45:9, Jer. 19, Rom. 9:20-21, 2 Cor. 4:7-18, 2 Tim. 2:20,

[5] For more information, see The Creation Gospel: Workbook 1 and 2, by Dr. Hollisa Alewine. Also see Proverbs 6:16-19.

[6] See footnote 3.

Categories: Moedim, Mussar | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Matters of the Heart Part III

Mussar 101

This post is rather long, 
but I do hope you'll take the time to finish it. 
This topic is very close to my lev (heart)!

How do we prepare and practice in order to pass the myriad of life’s tests for our souls?

I ended Part II of Matters of the Heart with the above question. In this post, I will attempt to answer it. The battlefield may be in the mind (lev), but unless our minds are renewed, we are doomed to make the wrong choice again and again. Sadly, many of us are only aware of one way of doing things, one way of feeling, and one way of responding when our Father presents us with a test. Thus, we often find ourselves in similar situations and circumstances making the same mistakes in every relationship we have.  And worse, because of our narrow mindedness, we blame these patterns on anything and everything — except for our own choices, behaviors, and attitudes. It’s always someone else’s fault that I’m this way or that I acted this way or that I said what I did.

While it may be true that someone else provoked you or that they really don’t do what they should be doing, you have control and authority over one thing: yourself. You are not responsible for the behavior, attitude, or short-comings of any other soul besides yourself. (Obviously, child rearing is another story not covered here.)You do not control your circumstances or other people.

So, the real issue is YOU and your heart. In Part II, I mentioned the idea that we have “two” hearts or what the rabbis call the good and evil inclination. Christians may refer to this dichotomy as the battle between the spirit and the flesh. But the latter view often demonizes the flesh, which is NOT exactly accurate. True balance is found when our spirit man rules the older beastly/fleshly nature. Remember the advantage a man has in working the field with a trained beast? There is much POWER and DIRECTION (purpose) found in ruling the nephesh, beast, flesh, or evil inclination.

“He who has not yet ruled over his evil inclination is like one lost along the paths [of the maze] unable to differentiate between them.” – The Path of the Just, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto

In the DreamWorks production How to Train Your Dragon, a dragon, Toothless, and young Viking, Hiccup, are the protagonists. This unlikely duo discovers that warring against each other does nothing to conquer the real enemy: the great dragon that has enslaved them all. I cannot help but to see this story as a parable for real life. Like Hiccup, we have a real dragon or beast/nephesh. He is NOT our enemy. With a little training or taming, we can achieve great heights together! And best of all, when we harmonize this relationship, we are equipped to truly fight the real enemy of our souls, the great dragon  — that serpent of old (Rev. 12:9).

ToothlessSo, how do we TRAIN our personal dragon, or beast/nephesh? Obviously, the first step is to submit ourselves over to the King of kings. But then what? Does YHWH automatically give us a new heart (levav)? Based on my personal experience and the testimony I see in the lives of every believer I’ve ever met, the answer is yes…and no. God can certainly change and renew our hearts to serve Him, but that doesn’t imply that we have no choice after this initial change. Freewill isn’t tossed out the window once we place the blood of the Lamb on our doorposts. Sinai is still there, giving us the instructions of life. And like the Israelites’ of old, we will be tested in the wilderness. Even after the advent of Yeshua, we are daily offered the choice of life or death.

I believe that each day presents a multitude of opportunity for us to choose. The good news is that if you do have a personal relationship with the Creator, every tool you need to choose life is at your disposal. The problem is that many of us that have this relationship have no idea how to use a power tool or even where they are kept. This is where the Jewish practice of mussar has helped me the most.[1] It’s as if someone finally turned a light on in the garage and I can now see the toolbox and blueprints to build (character) more clearly.

How to Train Your DragonBeast

Do you remember Pharaoh’s hard heart that we discussed in Part I? I believe the converse of this pattern is also true. First Pharaoh hardened his own heart, which led to YHWH eventually handing him over to his own (wicked) desires. If this is true, could it also be said that if we continue to submit and humble our hearts toward YHWH that He will strengthen that choice? I believe He does; and we will explore this notion by reading some of Paul’s writings in a bit.

Php. 4:13  I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

Indeed, God can strengthen us in a positive way just as He strengthened Pharaoh in a negative way.[2] The determining factor, it seems, is the state of our heart. By continuing in sin, we become strengthened to sin more. By continuing to practice righteousness, we are strengthened to act with more righteousness.

Rom. 6:16  Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?

Believe it or not, this understanding is not lost on the rabbis. The whole of Jewish ethics is based in this principle. Mussar, which literally means “correction”, is about holding your own soul/nephesh/heart accountable to God. Mussar requires both thought and action. It is a meditation and a practice. The entire process is meant to be the study guide to help you pass the many exams of life. If this sounds too mystical or too Jewish for you, please at least finish reading before you throw the baby out with the bath water.

King Solomon wrote the Book of Proverbs in order to teach his son (and us) mussar; and thus, we see this Hebrew word most often in this book.

Pro. 1:3-5  To receive instruction (Mussar) in wise behavior, Righteousness, justice and equity;  (4)  To give prudence to the naive, To the youth knowledge and discretion,  (5)  A wise man will hear and increase in learning, And a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel,

Notice that our correction or instruction (mussar) is for the purpose of wise behavior. Solomon goes on to say that it is only fools that reject such instruction/mussar.

Pro. 1:6-7  To understand a proverb and a figure, The words of the wise and their riddles.  (7)  The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; Fools despise wisdom and instruction (mussar).

Mussar, therefore, is meant to instruct, correct, and in some cases even reprove our walk. I don’t know about you, but I can certainly use all the help I can get. Long before the Jewish Sages developed the practice of mussar, King Solomon, the wisest man on earth, was teaching this method. If you look closely, you will see that Yeshua and even the Apostle Paul encouraged us to practice mussar. (We will look at an example from Paul’s writings later in this post.)

Jewish Mussar can be very simply defined as a spiritual practice that enables one to refine one’s character traits, allowing us to transform ourselves, to move toward wholeness, to realize our highest spiritual potential and to live everyday life with happiness, trust and love.[3]

There are essentially three stages to “practicing” mussar. I say “practice” because this easy and non-time consuming method is meant to prepare you for life’s exams. How can we pass the test unless we study for it? So, think of mussar as the study guide you’ve been missing all these years. Mussar isn’t about doctrine, tradition, or the like. You won’t find your faith in Yeshua challenged or lessened by doing Mussar. In fact, you’ll find yourself drawing closer as you become more like Him!

Mussar Stages

Stage 1: Sensitivity

Mussar begins with you being completely honest with yourself and the choices you make. In a sense, it’s becoming AWARE of who you are, what you say, what you do, and how you feel. Denial is the antithesis to sensitivity. This process will require you to really open yourself up to the gentle correction and revelation of the Holy Spirit. The more open you are to allow the truth of what’s in your heart to be revealed, the more progress you’ll make towards shalom. Thus, repenting for what HaShem shows you is vital. This leads to stage two, which incidentally, is the next step in repentance.

Stage 2: Self- Restraint

Once you become aware of your own choices, attitudes, feelings, and actions, and have repented for those that are incorrect, you must make a conscious effort to stop the wrong behavior. Teshuvah (repentance) means “to turn” away from the bad activity. This is not always easy — don’t give up! Mussar would also have you recognize those actions, feelings, and behaviors that are good and godly in order to continue their growth.

Stage 3: Transformation

The more we practice the two stages above, we gradually change or “renew our minds”. As you will soon discover, the traits we focus on are from the Word and it really does have transformative power! You will find yourself in yet another repetitive situation and for the first time —- you will know how to respond appropriately and godly! It’s as if door number two has been there all along, you just couldn’t “see” it in order to make a better choice. Now, door number two is clearly seen and you have made the first step toward overcoming in that area in which you struggle.

Does this sound too good to be true? I thought so too until I started practicing mussar. It is worth pointing out that mussar is a little different for each us. This is because we do not all share the same struggles. For example, you might not have any issue with being generous (one of your good traits), whereas your neighbor may have a tendency toward being stingy. Thus, we each will have our own personal “soul” curriculum to work on. Stage one, sensitivity, should help you to discern where you lack and where you excel. And sometimes, we “think” we excel in an area, and only later discover that there was still much room for improvement.

photo (7)Keep an Accounting

We begin mussar practice by keeping an “accounting of the soul” (Chesbon HaNephesh) diary or journal for a week or two. It’s simple. Every night for a week, record (it doesn’t have to be lengthy) the instances in your day where you believe your lower self (beast/nephesh/flesh) had the upper hand. Be specific. It can be anything from over eating to doing or saying something you should or shouldn’t have. For example, did you find yourself behind Ms. Slowpoke with three carts at the grocery store? Did bad thoughts cross your mind? Write them down. What about traffic? Any road rage today? What about a stranger asking for money? Did you open or close your hand? Why? Did you lose your temper with your spouse or child? Did you look upon someone and judge them for what they wore or didn’t wear? Did you lust after or covet something that wasn’t yours? Be honest. No one will see your journal but you and God.

The areas that you need to work on can be narrowed down into one word. For example, you may find that you have a pattern of impatience. Lacking patience quickly ignites ungodly anger and rage. This area of your life is out of balance. In a word, the trait you need to improve is patience. Perhaps you are highly critical of other people. It matters not how they’ve behaved. By criticizing them (even in your mind), you are making an unrighteous judgment that is fueled by a lack of honor and respect for a being created in the image of God. The trait you must work on is honor. (It may be very difficult to see the “good” or “holiness” in a person that lives contrary to the Word, but Yeshua died for them too. Thus, the point isn’t to overlook or condone their bad behavior, but for you to realize that they too were created in the image of God. The practice isn’t about them, it’s about you. Can you honor them … anyway?)

This type of journaling will reveal PATTERNS in your life and areas that need to be corrected (mussar). For years now, my family has been doing this in mini fashion in preparation for Yom Kippur. An accounting of the soul[4] chart is what my family uses before we perform the tashlich service. Until rather recently, I had no idea that this accounting was part of mussar work! But, repentance and accounting should occur more than once a year, right? Start a mussar journal and you’ll find that YHWH can speak to you in your own handwriting! This isn’t mystical. In being transparent and honest with yourself, you are in effect being open and honest with the Creator and He strengthens your heart to dive deeper and be that overcomer you desire to be.

Soul Traits (Middot)

Once you’ve discovered the traits (areas) that you need to improve, you will spend one week practicing or focusing on each one. If you have a hard time making or discerning your list (curriculum), you can use a preformed chart with traits already listed. Most mussar programs recommend starting with thirteen or eighteen traits. A list of thirteen would take you through each trait four times in a year.

It is vital to meditate upon and learn more about each of your soul traits. You cannot improve if you do not understand what it is that is the problem. This is where a good mussar book or an online program comes in handy. My favorite book is Everyday Holiness by Alan Morinis. If you can’t spare any money, you can go through a free online course in order to get the hang of doing mussar. This program is also written by Mr. Morinis:  http://www.jewishpathways.com/course/mussar-program

Reading about the trait you are working to improve is an exercise of your mind (lev). The Word of God is your best resource. If you are working on honor, do a concordance search for all the verses that speak to about honor. Read them in context and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal how you can act and think with holy honor. I also recommend that you read an article or two during this week about honor. Riverton Mussar has some excellent articles on many soul traits.

To help you focus throughout the days you are working on a particular trait, it is advisable to develop a phrase that will remind you of that trait. For example, for honor, Mr. Morinis suggests thinking “each one, a holy soul” to encourage us to honor our fellowman. He also recommends finding another person to practice mussar with in order to go deeper. Accountability is always helpful and so is another person’s insight. We can learn much from one another. (This doesn’t mean you have to reveal your personal journal.)photo (6)

Mussar in a Nutshell

  • Work on one trait for a week. Throughout the week, read about your trait from Scripture and other resources.
  • Every morning meditate upon the phrase you’ve chosen for that trait. Pray and ask the Father to give you an opportunity to exercise this muscle you’re trying develop. (Be prepared for this: like in exercise, your muscles/flesh may complain.)
  • At the end of the day, record your triumphs and failings in this area. Pray and ask the Father to help you improve.

This may seem too simple to warrant results. And I must admit that at first, I thought this was the case. However, that thought was quickly overruled when I was actually tested in an area I had “studied” for. Instead of reacting as I usually did, I was sensitive to my emotions and unhealthy soul patterns. Though its not what I wanted to do (nephesh), I chose differently and gained much better results! Moreover, I think it surprised the person I was dealing with and disarmed them from a normal escalation.

Remember, your mind (lev) can only choose differently when it is taught differently. A renewed mind/heart has been changed by steady diet of godly instruction. But like any test, you must study the areas where you lack knowledge and understanding in order to pass. Mussar guides you to these weak areas and builds up your awareness and knowledge.

Paul’s Mussar

I thought that it would be helpful to see a mussar example from the Brit Hadashah (N.T.). I’ve chosen to use the passage from a verse I quoted earlier. Let’s begin by looking at the context of the following verse.

Php. 4:13  I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

The following passage is lengthy, but I urge you to read it in its entirety for the best perspective.

Php 4:4-9  Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!  (5)  Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near.  (6)  Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  (7)  And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  (8)  Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.  (9)  The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Paul is giving us some pretty awesome advice that is not unlike the practice of Mussar. Notice the bolded words above. Each is one is a middah or a “soul trait” that can be meditated upon and practiced in Mussar. I hardly believe this is coincidence. Best of all, Paul says that the shalom of God will guard our hearts and minds (levav) IF we do these things! The passage continues:

Php 4:10-13  But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity.  (11)  Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.  (12)  I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.  (13)  I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

It was in doing these things that Paul LEARNED to be content in all circumstances — good or bad. I want to know what Paul did. How exactly could he end this discourse with “I can do all things through Him that strengthens me”? We quote this last verse all the time, but I can’t help but to wonder if we are missing something important that is revealed before Paul arrives at this summation.

Going back to the beginning of these quotes from Philippians, let’s look at the things he tells us to DO so that the peace of God guards our hearts and minds (levav).

  1. Dwell on these things. (vs. 8)
  2. Practice these things. (vs. 9)

Hello? Does this not sound like mussar? Number one uses the Greek word logizomai (Strong’s G3049), which literally means to “to take an inventory”. The entire point of doing Mussar is to take (or give) an accounting of your soul. You are to do this (in part) by meditating upon godly attributes, characteristics, or qualities. The King James Version of verse 8 translates logizomai as “to think on”. We are to purposefully think upon godly attributes and weigh ourselves in that balance. Paul mentions these particular qualities:

  1. Rejoice (This is akin to the common mussar trait of enthusiasm or zeal, vs. 4, notice that is repeated)
  2. Gentleness (vs. 5)
  3. Trust (inferred as the opposite of being anxious, vs.6 )
  4. Thanksgiving (vs. 6)
  5. Truth (vs. 8)
  6. Honor (vs. 8)
  7. Righteousness (vs. 8)
  8. Purity (vs. 8)
  9. Love (vs. 8)
  10. Goodness (vs. 8)
  11. Excellence (vs. 8)
  12. Worthiness (vs. 8)
  13. Generosity (inferred by “concern” for another, vs. 10)

I purposely drew out thirteen qualities from this passage because most mussar programs choose this number as a starting point to begin your work. Paul tells us to THINK upon these things and to PRACTICE these things. This is mussar; and the Biblical path to overcoming, contentment, and shalom.

The result will be none other than our hearts and minds being guarded by the peace of God. Moreover, it is the key, according to Paul, as to how he LEARNED to be content in ALL circumstances. If Paul had to LEARN these things, what makes us think that we don’t have to? How many of us would give just about anything for either one of these things?

 “Mussar aims to help you close the gap between your ideals and the life you actually lead” –Alan Morinis

Doesn’t that sound wonderful? I believe Mussar is the hidden power tool in our garden shed. The question is, are we willing to wield it?

 


 

[1] I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the fantastic Creation Gospel series as the springboard that led me to mussar in the first place. Dr. Alewine’s work is incomparable in its scope to treat and remedy the whole person in the glorious light of the Messiah and His Holy Spirit.

[2] This is explained in Matters of the Heart Part I.

[3] Rabbi Rosalin Mandelberg

[4] This accounting is called an Chesbon HaNephesh.

Categories: Messianic Issues, Musings | Tags: , , , , , | 12 Comments

Matters of the Heart Part II

Two Hearts?

© Simi32 | Dreamstime.com - Heart Devil Or Angel Icon Photo

© Simi32 | Dreamstime.com – Heart Devil Or Angel Icon Photo

In my last post on Matters of the Heart Part I, we laid the foundation for the Hebraic and Biblical understanding of the heart or the lev/levav. As I was researching this Hebrew word, I discovered that the Rabbis have long understood the dual nature of the human heart. (No surprise there.) I mentioned in Part I that this duality is most akin to us being double-minded, since the lev is also our mind.

But the Rabbis take this a step further and make a Midrash on the fact that the Hebrew word for heart comes in two forms: lev and levav. Even looking at these transliterations, you can see that the latter form has a “doubled” vet. The Rabbis point out that we each have TWO hearts or two conflicting impulses (good and evil) at the core of our being. The lesson isn’t that we are to neglect the evil inclination and strengthen the good inclination, as we might assume. Rather, a truly righteous person will yoke both inclinations to the mitzvot or commandments of God in order to direct us toward godliness.

This may seem strange to our Greek minded nature. But the Rabbis make a point that we often miss. The evil inclination is really our nephesh. It is our fleshly desires, appetites, emotions, and intellect. It serves a godly purpose – IF— we bring it into obedience to the Word of God. The strong urge or desire to procreate is only evil when it not sought within the holy bounds of matrimony. The drive to expand our territory is good if that expansion is for the Kingdom of YHWH. Without the “evil” inclination of our levav, we would have no passion, drive, or desire to accomplish anything!

black horse 2The analogy that best describes this lesson of the sages is seen in our domesticated beasts or animals. My son and I just finished reading Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. Many of you will be familiar with this classic, but for those of you that are not, it is a tale about the life of a horse named Black Beauty. Beauty grows up around people and learns to work early in life. He is a gentle and loving horse, but faces many challenges as he is bought and sold numerous times — sometimes to good men and other times to cruel ones. Beauty is the epitome of a tamed beast. He is well trained and desires to please his masters. As a matter of fact, the owners that take good care of him and show him love, mercy, and compassion only makes Beauty a better work horse and companion. Beauty grows to love and trust them and their families. His diligent service in these homes is driven by love rather than compulsion.

Along his journey, Beauty meets many other horses and hears their life stories. Those that had a wild or cruel upbringing have “issues” with man. They fear giving new owners their trust and often step out of line in disobedience or ignorance. Beauty is grateful for his loving upbringing and sound instruction when he hears stories like these; for he knows that had he not known love, compassion, and gentle training when he was young, he might have the same struggles as his new friends.

While reading this old story again after many years, I have been struck by it in a profound way. We, like Beauty, are also (partially) a beast (nephesh). And like his friends, our upbringing has a great impact on our future. Those of us raised with godly parents that gently guided us do have advantages, and in some cases, less “issues” than those that didn’t. This in no way implies that those less fortunate in their upbringing cannot overcome through Messiah. But I can’t help but to recall the Creator’s mandate that we are to diligently teach our children. These words aren’t arbitrary. They are purposeful and would not be in the Torah if obeying this commandment didn’t have a direct impact on the earth, us, and our children.

But that isn’t what impressed me the most about Black Beauty. Mrs. Sewell went into great detail about the proper and improper handling, training, and treatment of horses. It was as if Adonai was speaking to me through this children’s story about our “older” nature, our nephesh, the beast. Our nephesh must be broken in and tamed just like the wild stallion. We must bring it into the submission of our renewed spirit that is ruled by Word of Elohim.work horse

All those wild passions, strengths, and desires must be broken and reforged for a NEW purpose —-to serve HaShem and our fellowman. In other words, that part of your heart (levav) that likes to have its way instead of doing what you “know” to do is really an unruly and untamed BEAST. It is just as strong and powerful as the majestic Black Beauty. It must learn to serve the master (your spirit) and the Master of masters, Adonai. If this nature is brought into obedience, great things will happen. Think of how much more a man with a work horse can do in the field than one without!

The Beast Within

The Scriptures that reference our heart, mind, and soul are meant to instruct us in taming our “older” nature and bring it into submission to YHWH. When taming and training a beast of the field, we well know that this is a PROCESS — it doesn’t happen overnight. Thus, this natural picture of the spiritual should bring encouragement for those of us that still struggle in particular areas of this process.

As I was meditating on this practice and Black Beauty, it became clear as to why it is so important to search out the “roots” behind many of our struggles. These (bad) roots would have been formed when we were young or may have even been passed through our bloodline (generational).[1] Conversely, they could form as we age as a response to unfair, abusive, or hard circumstances.

horseThese “roots” are basically made-up of thoughts and agreements with falsehoods. In other words, our lev or levav has rooted itself with a wrong mindset which brings about incorrect feelings, actions, words, attitudes, and deeds. How can one break free and walk, live, or think another way unless he is taught with much patience and kindness? Like Black Beauty’s friends, it takes the long suffering of a good trainer to help the beast see that there is a better way to behave and that some people really can be trusted.

Although godly people are the key to us hearing and receiving the Good News, we have our own homework to do as well. Please don’t misunderstand that last statement. I’m not inferring that the Gospel isn’t enough or that it must be earned. What I am saying is that once you RECEIVE the truth, you must learn to walk in it — if you truly desire to be an overcomer and have abundant life. I’ve met many people that were saved by the grace of God, but they were still living with much pain from the past, patterns of broken relationships, and great bondage in general.

Many would suggest these people are in need of deliverance and I agree with that counsel. However, most references in the Bible about deliverance are about salvation and rescue from real enemies or adversaries. Not all of our ailments and problems come from the outside. Many are issues of our heart (lev) which have been left unchecked because we SEE no other alternative or we just don’t know HOW to get from point A to point B. We have no clue as how to rein in the beast (nephesh/flesh) and change for the better. This is where the washing of the water of the word becomes our guide to success.

Eph. 5:26-27  so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,  (27)  that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless.

What I’m really speaking to here is sanctification, not deliverance. I personally believe that some people fail to receive deliverance in certain areas because the problem isn’t about an outside force or enemy, but an inward (heart) issue that is in need of cleansing and circumcision. That which is neglected is the MIND or heart, the lev or levav.

Tit. 2:11-15  For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men,  (12)  instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age,  (13)  looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus,  (14)  who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.  (15)  These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you.

Are you zealous for good deeds? I like to think that I am until I am tested, but then the real truth in my heart comes forth. (Which is why we ARE tested in the first place — so we can see what really lurks in our hearts.)

For example, you’re running late for an appointment and every possible delay seems to prevent you from getting there on time. You find yourself trying to turn onto a traffic laden highway and no one will let you in. Finally there is a tiny break and you take your shot into traffic. You slowly inch through two stop lights and as you approach the third you see a car trying to join the mob from a side street. Who knows how long they’ve sat there trying to turn? Any other day, your kindness would allow them to enter just in front of you. But today, you’re already late. Do you let them pass anyhow, knowing it may cost you passage through the next stop light? Or do you justify your selfishness because you are late for a very important date?

Does that example seem too “small” of an issue to really matter? What about this one?

It seems as though every day you have to remind your son to do what he knows to do — clean the cat box and take out the trash. Without fail, every day you are forced to remind him. This constant cycle has you immensely frustrated. Today has already been a trying day with other matters. Do you grab him by the ear and drag him to the cat box and demand he fulfill his duty? Do you scream and shout out of exasperation? Do you mete out severe punishment while furious? Or do you slip into indifference and apathy and do his job yourself? There are so many choices as to how to respond. Which one, if any, are correct and supports the notion that you are zealous for good deeds?

How about this? Your spouse has a bad habit that drives you up the wall. (Maybe it’s leaving the toilet seat up) You’ve kicked, screamed, cried, begged, and pleaded that they change this one thing. Why won’t they just do this one thing? Do they not love me? Why? Why? Why? Today you sit down to do your business and… ker-plop! Your bottom touches the cold ceramic edges of a seatless loo and you barely miss falling into the water. Immediately your blood pressure skyrockets. As usual, your response is to rush into the other room to announce your frustration and disdain for your spouse’s carelessness. Your spouse goes on the defensive at your furious tantrum. Shalom in the home flies out the window along with any and all of your sensibilities. The evening is completely spoiled, the children have witnessed yet another verbal outburst with tears and slamming doors and the whole house is now on edge. Any plans for family time have been lost. Reading Scripture together as a family is reserved for another day. All this because your precious bottom touched a little potty water. Worst of all, you feel justified in your actions. All blame goes to the REAL guilty party: your spouse!

toilet_flushing_5While it is true that your spouse needs to be more respectful of your wishes (and your tuchas), he is NOT the villain in this little tale. You are. His little oversight didn’t wreak havoc in your household and teach your children the “wrong way” to handle life’s problems. It wouldn’t be surprising if YHWH was allowing him to continually “forget” the toilet seat in order to teach you a lesson! Your actions are so disgusting that they belong in the toilet!

Now replace any of the scenarios above with issues you seem to face again and again. Who is the one in need of more “training”? I firmly believe that YHWH works on multiple levels. Even when it comes to correcting our children, there is an opportunity for us to be corrected as well. Repetitive issues should grab our attention the most. Apparently we are NOT passing the exam, and it’s usually because we are oblivious to our own need for “correction”. Pride and self-justification can mask a plethora of character issues. The focus shouldn’t be our fellow man’s problem — it should be our own! Didn’t Messiah say something about this very thing?

Mat. 7:3-5  “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?  (4)  “Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye?  (5)  “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

 

Today, I will leave you to ponder the issues of you own heart during these last days of the month of repentance (Elul). The fall Moedim (feasts) are quickly approaching and they truly are all about the heart! I’ve actually written this second part multiple times over the past weeks. There are so many facets to this topic that I’ve had a hard time deciding which angle to take. The next one will hopefully expand upon this post and offer some solutions to the dilemma that seems common to us all: How do we prepare and practice in order to pass the myriad of life’s tests for our souls?

Part III


[1] My understanding of “generational curses” is more akin to the passing along of unholy thinking. For example, if all you ever learned as a child was to “deal” with life by over drinking, then you will probably mimic the actions of the parent that presented you with this “way of life”. It’s as if you see no other course or way in which to go. The same could be stated for issues such as abuse, depression, poor work ethics, obesity, drug abuse, thievery, anger, etc. There is a reason why we are commanded to teach our children in the way that they should go. Most children watch everything their parents do for good or for evil. Later when they are an adult themselves, when life presents them with opportunity (and it always will), most will choose to follow the path taken by their parents —- even if they hated the parents actions as a child. The mind (lev) only has experience with what it has been taught or trained for; thus, without the transforming power of the Word, most will follow the footsteps of their earthly trainers (parents/guardians). This is a vicious cycle and indeed a curse. Thank Heaven we have the Living Word to show us the way of truth, life, and blessing!

Categories: Messianic Issues, Musings | Tags: , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Matters of the Heart Part I

lev 2

We all have our own ideas of what we mean when we say things like:

“God knows my heart.”

“My heart just isn’t in it.”

“She has a good heart.”

“My heart is breaking over this issue.”

“His presence makes my heart skip a beat.”

“Just accept Jesus into your heart.”

 Heart Defined

But what exactly is our heart, biblically speaking? Is it merely the blood pumping organ in your chest? Is it just an idiom for your deep seated emotions and convictions? How does the heart differ from your mind? Is our heart deceitful or has Messiah given us a new heart?

The Hebrew word most often translated as heart is “lev or levav.” These Hebrew words are also used to refer to the mind, reasoning, will, and understanding of a person. As a matter of fact, there isn’t a single Biblical Hebrew word to express the western idea of the “mind” or even the brain. When you see the English word “mind” in your Bible translation, it is usually the Hebrew word lev or levav.

Why does this matter? According to Jeff Benner’s Hebrew pictograph’s, the lev, depicts the staff or authority (lamed) with the tent or house (vet). In other words, the lev is a pictograph of “the authority within.” The question becomes one of authority. Who is on the throne of your life? You or the Creator?

What about those times when you feel pulled in two different directions? Could this be an indication that you are fighting YHWH for the throne? For example, have you ever been faced with a decision where you truly felt like you knew the obvious answer in your mind, but your heart didn’t want to follow your own sound reasoning? The heart wants what the heart wants, right?

You might have felt like your heart and mind disagreed in these instances. But in Hebrew thought, your heart and your mind cannot be in opposition to one another. This is because biblically and Hebraically speaking the heart and the mind are one and the same. Thus, a conflict of your seeming heart and mind means that in reality you are double-minded. Ouch. Perhaps the sound instruction you knew to be true (God’s Word) or even good common sense, just isn’t what you desired.

James’ answer is to SUBMIT to God. Apparently that inward struggle is us trying to take the reins and have our own way. We are told to resist the “devil” or the enemy (which can very well be our own flesh) and the “feeling/drive” will flee.

Jam. 4:7-8 Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. (8)  Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

Circumstances such as these are indicators that our lev needs to be purified, because we are suffering from double-mindedness. You see, the real battle you are experiencing is between your “renewed” mind/lev and your flesh or nephesh. The nephesh is that big bundle of appetites and desires that we share with all living beasts. Sadly, the things we generally associate with our heart are really no more than this animalistic nature.

I don’t know about you, but when I’ve been faced with such inner conflictions, I KNEW what I SHOULD do (my renewed mind); it’s just that my DESIRE was to do to the opposite (my heart). My nephesh wanted what it wanted, regardless of logic or the Word of God. This is why James calls a double minded person “unstable.” (Jam. 1:6-8) They don’t have a legacy of overcoming the desires of the flesh, making them more akin to a beast than a human. This can also be a maturity issue. The beast (flesh) must daily be placed on the holy altar — something we must learn.

The Occupied Mind (Lev)

Knowing that we each have this warring nature within, YHWH gives us the remedy.

Dt. 6:4-5 “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! (5)  “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart (lev) and with all your soul (nephesh) and with all your might (meod).

Loving YHWH begins in the mind (lev) which encompasses our emotions and will. This leads to one making their flesh/nephesh come into obedience (self-control). The more we exercise this type of submission, the stronger we become spiritually. But, the key is the lev as the next verse attests that the Word/commandments of God are to be UPON our lev. (Dt. 6:6) We must purposely choose to meditate on the Word of God day and night. This will strengthen our lev (mind) and we will have much better chances of overcoming our greatest enemy, our flesh.

So far, we have discovered that:

  1. The lev is more than our heart; it is our MIND.
  2. The lev involves thinking, planning, feeling, knowing, remembering, intent, etc.
  3. The lev can listen to your nephesh (flesh/desires) or the truth (Word of God).

Now let’s consider some verses that use the Hebrew lev and read them with this fuller understanding. There are hundreds of verses to choose from; I encourage you do to your own concordance search for more detail.

It searches:

Dt. 4:29 “But from there you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and all your soul.

It speaks to you:

Dt. 8:17 “Otherwise, you may say in your heart, ‘My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth.’

It’s in need of circumcision:

Dt. 10:16 “So circumcise your heart, and stiffen your neck no longer.

Ps. 51:10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me.

It can be changed and enlarged:

1 Sam. 10:9 Then it happened when he turned his back to leave Samuel, God changed his heart; and all those signs came about on that day.

Ps. 119:32 I shall run the way of Your commandments, For You will enlarge my heart.

It can carry you away:

Job 15:12  “Why does your heart carry you away? And why do your eyes flash,

It can rejoice:

Ps. 13:5 But I have trusted in Your lovingkindness; My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation.

It can meditate and be taught:

Ps. 19:14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart Be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my rock and my Redeemer.

Ps. 86:11 Teach me Your way, O LORD; I will walk in Your truth; Unite my heart to fear Your name.

It has a tablet or record that must be guarded:

Pr. 3:3 Do not let kindness and truth leave you; Bind them around your neck, Write them on the tablet of your heart.

Pr. 4:23 Watch over your heart with all diligence, For from it flow the springs of life.

It can deceive you:

Jer. 17:9 “The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it?

Our hearts/minds must be guarded and “fed” a healthy diet of God’s Word in order to stay steadfast and righteous. It truly is a well spring of life —- or death. Thoughts are like seeds. They have the power to produce fruit/deeds. Our natural inclination will be to produce death. This is because a sinful person is really sick. The virus wants to reproduce itself. The only remedy we have or need is the Living Word of YHWH.

The good news is that YHWH is not only willing, but desires to renew our minds. But, it will require us to relinquish ourselves to Him. This reminds me of a quandary that I often meditate upon (a faculty of my lev).

Does YHWH supernaturally place or write His Word and Commandments on our heart (lev) upon receiving Yeshua? Or is this a “process” that we must choose to allow by the washing and watering[1] of His Word? My meditations have caused me to consider that this isn’t a real either/or question. Both are true, if you can take off the Greek/western lenses. Let’s look at a familiar story in the Scriptures that forces us to look at the “heart of the matter.”

cropped-exodus1.jpgPharaoh’s Hard Heart

The passages concerning the Passover and exodus from Egypt are read every year in the Torah cycle and are commemorated each spring with the first moed (feast) on YHWH’s calendar. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that Pesach (Passover) is FIRST on YHWH’s calendar. This story retells the Israelites redemption and release from slavery. Followers of Yeshua also understand that He is our Pesach Lamb year after year. Like Israel of old, we are redeemed and saved by the blood of the Lamb. We are released from the bondage of Egypt and Pharaoh. And, not because we deserve it, worked for it, or earned it. YHWH’s great compassion, mercy, and loving-kindness moved Him to act on our behalf.

But after our release, we must get to know our Redeemer. We must choose to trust and follow Him. We will all face the wilderness. In the wilderness we will be tested and tried, so that our true lev or heart/mind will be revealed. This is life, folks. Will we die in the desert or move on to the Promised Land?

Dt. 8:2 “You shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.

Each year as we commemorate Israel’s and our freedom, we are faced with a seeming paradox in regards to the heart. In the account of the plagues of Egypt, sometimes we see YHWH hardening Pharaoh’s heart and sometimes Pharaoh hardens his own heart. These verses were most confusing to me in the past. How could Pharaoh be held accountable for his resistance to God’s Word if YHWH was pulling all the strings? You might have asked the same question. YHWH loves an honest question—— it requires us to exercise our mind. We have just learned that it was actually Pharaoh’s lev that was hardened. But first, let’s look at this “hardening.”

The Hebrew word for hardened is chazak. This word may be familiar to you if you have a Jewish Bible. There is a traditional phrase that is chanted at the completion of each book of Torah in the reading cycle. It is: “Chazak, chazak, v’nit’chazek!” It means, “Be strong! Be strong! And let us be strengthened!” Thus, what should our lev be strengthened by? The Torah! Isn’t this what the Shema and V’ahavta are all about? (Dt. 6:4-9)

When I looked up the Hebrew word chazak, I was rather amazed by the fact that this word is only translated as “hardened” in reference to Pharaoh’s heart. It is most often translated as “be strong.” It literally means to seize, to grab hold, to strengthen.

What actually occurred was that Pharaoh’s mind (lev) was strengthened. He had convinced himself or “set his mind” to keep Israel subjugated. He wouldn’t even allow the evidence of miracles and plagues to change his mind. He wanted what he wanted. Unfortunately, this strengthening was against the will of God. If you look closely at the text, Pharaoh hardens his own heart toward Israel throughout the first five plagues. And then, YHWH hardens Pharaoh’s heart during the last five. It seems that YHWH eventually turned Pharaoh over to his own desires. Paul tells us that this is very possible:

Eph. 4:17-19 So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, (18)  being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart;  (19)  and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness.

Sadly, if we continue to resist the Holy Spirit’s direction to appease our flesh, God will let us have our way. Paul urges us to lay aside the “old self” or the evil inclination and be RENEWED in the spirit of our mind.

Eph. 4:20-24 But you did not learn Christ in this way, (21)  if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus,  (22)  that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit,  (23)  and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind,  (24)  and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.

Paul continues in the Book of Ephesians by advising us to be imitators of God. The process of laying aside the “old man/self” and taking on the “new self/man” is often called sanctification. It is NOT salvation. It is a process. A journey. A walk. A way of life. This is the wilderness experience.  But how do we know what to kick aside and what to take on? Paul again exhorts us:

Eph. 5:8-11 for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light (9)  (for the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth),  (10)  trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.  (11)  Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them;

Eph. 5:15-17 Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, (16) making the most of your time, because the days are evil.  (17)  So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.

We must be careful and diligent as we follow the Lord. We must seek YHWH’s will and learn what is pleasing to Him. This is much different than pleasing men, their tradition, and their theology. Nevertheless, we can do this without sinning in anger or speaking evil of those that aren’t in the exact place we are on the path. In other words, our lev must become obedient to YHWH.

The only instructions we have is the Bible. Thus, the Words of Life are contained within its leaves (pages). I can either reject them or follow them. But this is where the controversy arises. Is the whole Book meant for my instruction or are there parts I should ignore? When I stand back from all the theological arguments and the thoughts of men, the answer seems rather simple.

Ecc. 12:13-14 The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man(adam). (14)  For God shall bring every work into the judgment concerning every hidden thing, whether it be good or whether it be evil. (JPS)

A whole (restored/complete) adam or man will fear God and keep His commandments, because he has a mind (lev) set on serving the Creator. This is a person that has given his inner authority (lev) over to the ultimate Authority of the Universe.

 

But there is more to come, controversial as it might be for some, as I share my lev in the Matters of the Heart in Part II.

 


 

[1] Eph. 5:6

Categories: Messianic Issues, Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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