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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

IN SEARCH OF THE HIDDEN SIN: or the search for the leaven and repentance


This time of year, between May and July, my coydog sheds, not just a tuft here or there wafting across the floor like some tribble wannabe, but another complete dog. What never ceases to amaze me is how much hair I continue to find knitted around the feet of the furniture like stockings, sticking to my leather sofa like a mohair mat, and generally from one end of the house to the other, as though she was turning the entire house into a fluffy dog den. Those fine, downy, electrified fibers humble me with their sheer number and ability to find their way into everything. Cleaning them up is not just a daunting task, but nearly impossible. However, I keep at it in the hope that I will be triumphant and cleanliness will rule the day.

What does this have to do with sin and repentance? Some of you may already be circling where I'm headed, but others will be scratching their head and wondering what the connection is between dog hairs and repentance. Think of the dog hairs as sin, not big giant sins like murder, but tiny infractions in our lives that we either don't notice or don't wish to notice. Maybe we've said things that are unkind and feel we are justified, or we cut someone off on the road to and from work, or we didn't speak up for someone when they were insulted by another, nor apologize when an apology was due. If there were times when we did not tell the whole truth, otherwise known as quibbling, because we were afraid, and a litany of other infractions too numerous to list. When these things happen you must ask yourself if you have become a servant to your small sins, as I've become a servant to my dog, that they rule your life instead of God. These small things may seem incidental in God's grand scheme, but they harm all of us individually and collectively.

Searching for Leaven

The hairs reminded me of a ritual we have called the bedikat hametz, or the search for the leaven, performed by Jews on the night before Passover. Oddly enough, the law in the scripture declares: “Seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses,” Ex 12:19 and, “There shall not be seen with you any leaven in your borders for seven days.” Dt 16: 4. Mind you, this is the final day of the seven days before Passover. So why is there a ritual of searching the night before? This represents that searching for leaven to remain faithful doesn't end, that we will search the hidden places within us, our homes, and our families to root out the hidden sin, that the search is ongoing like prayer, a continual repentance, that you cannot rest in thinking we've done our job. The opposite of that continual repentance is saying a prayer to believe in Jesus and assuring ourselves that is it, that you now believe and you're done, no matter what occurs after. The truth is that you're never done until the moment you reach heaven, or Hell, Gehinnon in Hebrew. This why the search is conducted on the night before.

There are two prohibitions in the scripture: Leaven is not to be seen (bal yeraeh), and leaven is not to be found (bal yimatze) on your premises during the Passover holiday. This is taken very seriously to the point the owner of the house renounces the ownership of any leaven still existing in his house without his knowledge. This declaration is known as bittul be-lev, a renunciation within his heart. Just as I cannot know where every tiny hair has flown off to within my small abode, neither does the Jew know where a molecule of yeast is hiding. The owner then takes it upon himself to fulfill these prerequisites by a physical search and a verbal renunciation. Note that this is not an either/or proposition, but both a physical and verbal act. You cannot have one without the other, for one fulfills the intent of the other.

In the Roman Catholic Church this ceremony is called the sacrament of reconciliation, where we physically make the trip to Church (unless there is a physical hardship for the penitent to make the trip then the priest will come to them) and search our souls, with the help of our priest to recognize our sin, then verbally renounce it. The priest forgives us as the duly sanctified representative of the Church called by God to impart and reassure us of God's mercy and forgiveness. The priest confers a blessing on us from the community and God in recognition of our search and subsequent declaration that we will sin no more. This is similar to the Rabbi who forms his hands into the double shin (remember Spock from Star Trek, “Live long and prosper,” only he did it with one hand). The priest asks us to pray or perform an act of penance in the view of the entire church or community. This is a sign that we are a witness to the world of our love of God and sincere desire to serve God with all of heart, soul, mind, and strength. (Dt 30: 6; Mk 12:30)

The other prescription for the Jewish ritual is that it must be carried out by candlelight. Not by the sun, nor by the moon, but by candlelight because it can shed light in places where the other two cannot. (Candles are ritually used in both Judaism and Catholicism and their importance and meaning will be explained in another post.) Because the Jew begins his day in darkness and ends in light, his days are guided by the cycles of the moon and not the sun. Therefore, the ritual is carried out in the dark, the night before. Allegorically speaking, the beginning of our journey begins in darkness with a fervent search to expose the darkness in our lives in order to come into the light. In other words, the walk toward God can only begin with a repentant heart and a public verbal confession, and not done in secret.

The mistress of the house places ten pieces of bread in different places around the house (noting where they all are to be found) for the searchers to discover. Why place bread with yeast in a house cleaned of yeast six days before? This is done so when the blessing for the search for hametz is recited, the participants will not take the Lord's name in vain. This certainly doesn't mean that we must sin in order to make a valid confession. The finding of the pieces are a physical representation of what we must do both spiritually and physically.

We often know what sins we have committed, where they occurred, and with whom, like the ten pieces of bread. Our position in the community is dependent upon our making a good confession, and making a sincere effort to participate in the community. This Jewish ceremony of searching for the leaven shows the joy of our transformation and adoption by God from a former outcast to a member of a family. The end game of the finding of the ten pieces is the culmination of that process of transformation, and the renouncing of the world of temptation and sin seals the covenant.

Ten Pieces of Leavened Bread

Why is ten important and what does it mean? The number ten comes from the tenth letter of the alphabet: The yud or yod (either is acceptable). This letter is barely bigger than a dot, but it is the first letter of the ineffable name of God. The yud was the letter used by God to create the World to Come. When we pray or read the scripture, the first thing that must come to mind is that future moment, where we will meet God face to face in the World to Come. Everything we do leads up to that moment, therefore, the yud further symbolizes humility and the metaphysical, meaning that a transfiguration of our soul takes place. The deeper meaning is that before creation the letter yud was crystallized by God into its essence, transcending time, space, and matter, and that is the reason why it is so small. The implication is that standing before the powerful essence of the yud, the name of God, that first letter should humble us, and through that humility comes our transformation both physically and spiritually; a metaphysical process. Its number is ten, which means it encompasses all the letters before it and the yud becomes the base, the number ten, for the following series of letters and their numerical equivalents: The next letter, kaf which is the numerical equivalent of twenty, then lamed is thirty, etc. As you can see, each letter after yud is a multiple of ten. Yud is the delicate hinge between all the letters of creation.

Knowing what the letter yud is and its equivalent number we can finally answer the why. The number ten is critical to the ceremony. The ten pieces of leavened bread are based on the ten generations from Adam to Noah to the complete breakdown of morality. God waited ten more generations until Abraham was born. With ten utterances God created the universe; there are ten commandments; ten miracles (plagues) in Egypt; ten more miracles at the Sea of Reeds; ten times the Israelites tested God in the wilderness; and ten miracles were seen in the Temple (Avos ch. 5). Ten is inextricably linked to every succeeding generation, and the act of finding these ten pieces of leavened bread helps us reconnect to every event that brought us thus far, that ten times we can repent of those generations lost to sin, and ten times we can see the hand of God in raising the Hebrew nation out of the morass of sin.

The bread is set aside to be burned ceremonially the next morning in the fifth hour before Passover. The daylight hours are subdivided by twelve even if there are only nine hours of daylight. Each division is counted as an hour (not always sixty minutes). Naturally in the summer there will be more daylight than in the winter where the daylight hours become shorter. Next comes the burning called biur hametz and everyone stands around as the ten pieces of leavened bread are burned. This is a joyous time of repentance and renouncing of all sin that we may or may not know of lurking within ourselves. You can also see the correlation to Lent for us Catholics. Lent is a time of reflection over how we've lived our lives, forty days (four times ten) in the search for the leaven within us. Lent is a time for fasting, praying, and repenting, and suffering with Christ in the stations of the cross, but it is a joyous time of anticipation too. Like a child who excitedly waits for Christmas day to arrive and the opening of their gifts, we look forward to our gift, the supreme gift of salvation. The glory of Jesus' sacrifice renews our fervent love for Him and culminates in the triumph of His resurrection. We spread the joy of the resurrection through to the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and finally on the day of Jesus' Baptism we prepare for the year, just as Passover prepares the Jew for his gift of the Holy Spirit in Shauvot and their coming year.

The Hidden Sin

Using the dog hair analogy we can see that sin can easily hide, it can masquerade as a justified good, or as a triviality that will do no immediate harm. I often wonder how many dog hairs I've swallowed over the years, like weevils hiding in my flour. These things we can only guess at and shrug our shoulders knowing that they really will do us no physical harm, of course, there might be some protein value in a weevil, but, in the long run, we aren't really harmed by these things. However, small sins can harm. In fact, they can be deadly both physically and spiritually.

Think about viewing pornography, which is becoming harder and harder to avoid if you just see some commercials on television while waiting for the evening news. Recently, I had the unfortunate viewing of a commercial when a man and a woman, although clothed, were doing everything that would lead up to having sex. This was a commercial for shaving hair from our legs and I had to avert my eyes. I haven't even mentioned perfume ads, or sanitary napkin ads, or underwear ads like Victoria Secret, that all are meant to arouse us sexually, and are even found in magazines and on internet ads. The continual bombardment of sexual scenes harms our marriages, or, if unmarried, can make us develop unrealistic expectations of our potential mate and cause us to alter our view of the sacredness of the marriage bed. Instead one pursues the thrill of sex over the sacred obligation that children are to be sought, as well as, the love of our husband or wife, and not multiple partners.

Joan of Arc admonished the soldiers of France to behave morally by not swearing, or having sex with prostitutes, and to make a good confession before they went into battle. She knew it was crucial in order for God to be on their side. Many saints have asked the people of their community to root out their sin and confess before God in order for God to favor them with the miracle they all sought. Think of Jonah and the people of Ninevah. Once they repented because they learned the value of what Jonah had to say, the sinning stopped, and goodness became abundant. Even Jonah learned a lesson that you can't fear following God and doing what He ask of you, the consequences of not following Him could be deadly. Our fears can also become a looming sin as they collect like dog hair socks.
There was a time when people thoughtfully considered everything they did or said. The cultural restraints on people were legion, but they kept us from being rude, obnoxious, or inappropriately sexually enticing through word, act, or dress. Reputations were taken very seriously. Today, nearly all social constraints in our culture have disappeared or been trampled over like a pack of wild hogs. Rudeness abounds, inappropriate sexual enticements are everywhere, and those who broke all the rules are celebrated and crowned with laurel wreaths as though they had actually accomplished something wonderful. Even those who represent us in government have lied and seem to get away with it. Reputation appears to be irrelevant. But is it? Lately, there has been a push to tell young people, even in grade school, that you must be careful what you say on the social media sites because that could be used against you when you try to apply for entrance into college or a job. It shows what kind of character the child has to the world, to their chosen college, to the potential employer. At least, some are taking this problem seriously. Virtue is something that should be sought at a very early age. With practice it can become a way of life, keeping us from harm.

Iago, a character from Shakespeare's play Othello declared, “Virtue! a fig!” in Act I Scene iii, and he succeeded in destroying those closest to him along with his intended victim, as well as, himself. In the end, he found virtue is not a fig, and without it only death remains. Although that is an extreme example, Shakespeare is excellent reading for moral tales. His stories are rife with reputations lost, found, and some destroyed, and he emphasizes that even the virtuous can be killed when those who lack any begin their determined march, like the Iagoes of the world. The media also falls prey to the allure of the salacious instead of exposing evil and behaving virtuously. They would rather report on some trial about people we don't know and never will, or the affair of General Petraeus rather than search for the answers to what happened in Benghazi. This diminishes the lives lost there, and diminishes their profession. They are reduced to pornographers of the worst kind, and their reporting is bereft of any moral value. The blood of those victims is on their hands.

It can be difficult to find that small sin in a sea of blatant inappropriate behavior here and abroad, and it doesn't looks as though it's getting any better. A number years ago, someone started the What Would Jesus Do campaign. I found it a useful approach to ferreting out the yeast fermenting in us by our actions. It did help some to consider what they did through the eyes of the divine before plummeting off a cliff or taking the wrong road. And I do believe it did help some to look at the cinemascope of their lives from God's viewpoint. Today, instead of asking What Would Jesus Do, a better question would be Will This Crucify Jesus Again? We use the crucifix in our churches for a purpose. It helps us to be continually aware of what our slightest infraction caused; the excruciating death of Our Lord Jesus.

There are consequences to every word, action, or thing left undone. The crimes of omission are many times as serious as the crimes of commission. If we avoid doing the right thing and choose to do nothing, that is an action. It is a crime of omission and it is serious. We cannot wallow in fear and believe we are skirting the consequences of our inaction. When we see bullying we should say something. When we know something is wrong and don't stand up for what's right the scripture says the blood is on our hands. We become responsible for the spiritual and physical death of those around us, like the unborn, and the painful dismemberment of partial birth abortions, of the women who die from taking oral and patch contraceptives, or are butchered by abortionists, of those who died in Benghazi, of the Christians brutalized and murdered in Islamic countries, and I could go on. Cain was wrong. We are our brother's keeper. Helping another elevates us as a sign to the world that God is real, that virtuous acts are what make us human, and raise us from the animal. This is why our feasts, our ceremonies have communal elements. The searching for the leaven, although deeply personal, is also a communal act. Those hidden sins must be found and burned until even we notice our transfiguration.

Upon rising in the morning offer up your days actions and inactions to God, ask Him to remind you that Christ was crucified for everything, no matter how small. And keep searching for those tiny sins that fly everywhere, and, when we least expect it, they come back to haunt us. My first prayer of the morning is by Charles de Foucauld:

Father, I abandon myself into Your hands; do with me what You will. Whatever You may do, I thank You: I am ready for all, I accept all. Let only Your will be done in me, and in all Your creatures—I wish no more than this, O Lord. Into Your hands I commend my soul; I offer it to You with all the love of my heart, for I love You, Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands without reserve, and with boundless confidence, for You are my Father.”
~ Let this be your prayer too.

Thursday, June 13, 2013


Rabbinic theology has recently found its way back into Christian theology because of the recent availability of their scholarly writings in English. The inimitable Rashi or the Baal HaTurim or Ibn Ezra or the great Ramban can now be studied to enhance the reading of the Old Testament, as well as, the New Testament. The delectable mystical theological dish has now been served across the table between Judaism and Christianity bringing the two brother religions closer than ever before. Thus, the subtle and nuanced mystical Jesus the apostles knew has returned with all of His delicate flavor permeating New Testament studies. Jesus, the Jew, comes into a clearer focus eclipsing the revolutionary Jesus into the dark hole of oblivion wrongly taught by too many with their own agendas. What we discover is the second Adam, the embodiment of Isaac, the Jacob renamed Israel, the savior Joseph in full flower. This is the Messiah the Hebrew peoples prepared to meet for over four thousand years, kept their genealogies, and why they consistently celebrated their feasts. These acts taught them to recognize Him as the Word made flesh, the Christ their Savior.

The Basics

There are three principles in the canon of Jewish theology:
      1. The giving of the Torah; the infallible timepiece,
      2. the mutuality of the covenant between God and the Jews made in the Sinai wilderness,
      3. and the relationship between the spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, the Shekinah, or the second soul, and the believer.
All three of these principles are found in the event known as the ma'amad har Sinai in Hebrew, or the theophany of God's appearance to the Hebrew peoples after their exodus from slavery in Egypt, chronicled in the Book of Exodus. In the history of the world, no other peoples have struggled as much or had such a troubled and marvelous relationship with their founder like the Hebrews. But these three principles have remained intact in spite of their struggles and failures. Primarily, because of their meticulous devotion to the Law, the Torah, their prayerful adherence to their covenant to do and hear (Ex 24: 7), and their traditions and feasts, even when the jealous world turned against them or tried to annihilate them. Their identity, strength, intelligence, and valor are all tied to this singular event, a fact unequaled by any other peoples, save the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus for the Christians. It is in the basic belief of these principles that Jesus the man, the Jew was born and lived.

The Second Creation – The Gift of Torah:
The Five Books of Moses

The Hebrew people are unique in their history with God. Unlike their scandalous cousins who perished in the flood, they have virtuous ancestors beginning with Shem. Their history as a people, however, began in the piety of the man Noah. At over 600 years old, Noah became the first lawgiver when he established the seven Laws, called the Noahide Laws (Gen 6: 9) following the flood. These laws bound all of his offspring, as well as, the rest of the world—whether they liked it or not. Noah's nephew, by a few generations, was the benevolent and faithful Abraham, who knew these laws very well. He was the second personality in the scripture to willingly make a covenant with God. Abraham was also the first to do what God asked by offering Isaac his son as a sacrifice on an altar before hearing why God commanded him to perform such an act. However, he followed dutifully, giving up his most beloved child, and learned the reason why after the fact. His elevation to Patriarch of the nation Israel, Abram to Abraham, was the hallmark of God's plan for the future. 

Even before Moses burst upon the scene with his unique rearing and the majesty of the exodus, there were men and women in the pantheon of the faithful to God, such as Isaac, who obediently allowed his father Abraham to bind him for a sacrifice. Jacob wrestled with God to win a blessing and rested his head upon the foundation stone for the coming temple. Following him was his son Joseph, who although his brothers tried to do him harm learned that it was in keeping with God's plan, that there is a measure of good found in every act of evil. He would not have been able to help his family, or the future nation of Israel, if God hadn't used his brothers' jealousy as an act of salvation. All received revelations, promises, dreams, and protection from a marauding world to bring the Hebrew people to this moment in time, to this place to experience the theophany of Sinai.

Astrophysicists describe the moments before the Big Bang unlike any other succeeding moments in the history of the universe. There is a similitude in describing the moments before the giving of the Torah to the Jews. In the seconds before the Hebrews promise to do and hear, the Talmud says, “Not a bird chirped, not a fowl flew, not an ox lowed, not an angel ascended, not a seraph proclaimed 'Holy.' The sea did not roll and no creature made a sound. All of the vast universe was silent and mute. It was then that the Voice went forth and proclaimed, I am YHWH, your God!” All of olam (creation) knew the singularity of that moment as the universe held its breath.

The Talmud explains that the Jews found themselves holding the continuation or extinction of the universe in their hands. Just as the universe began with a word, the words of the promise to do and hear would recreate the universe to be held accountable to God through the Law given in the Torah, and the Jews would be the new container for the universe, holding it within their assent and their bodies (the washing and circumcision) to the covenant with God. Saying no never occurred to them. Yes was the only answer they had to give, because they had inherited the totality of the sublime qualities of their exalted ancestors.

Their willingness was demonstrated by their desire to not preexamine the contents of the Torah before accepting it. The Sadducees, over the years, had caustically accused them of being “an impetuous nation who put their mouth before its ears.” They knew the Jews uncalculated reaction to God actually validated their worth. It was jealousy speaking because of the favor bestowed on Israel by God that prompted such acrid remarks. Isn't the hatred toward Jews today a remnant of that same irrational jealousy? The Sadducees knew the Jews had discovered the secret of the angels. When negating themselves by acting first to do God's bidding, and then listen, is the behavior of angels. It is said that their exalted spiritual state at the foot of Mt. Sinai had given them a prophetic vision of this secret.

Usually, one volunteers first to learn, then to listen and grow in knowledge in order to do, to pattern your life after the learned gestalt before you go out into the world to experience it. The Jews had discovered an even deeper wisdom, they purposely invalidated their self-will to become the devoted slaves of God by shackling themselves to the Law in perpetuity, a Law that was unseen by anyone but God. The naturalness with which they volunteered mirrored angelic behavior, but with one exception, man was created with free will. Angels were created with one purpose: Messenger, guardian, etc. Angels do not have the power to determine truth from falsehood, nor does an angel have any private aspirations. They were created to perform a singular mission, and nothing more. (This makes Lucifer's fall all the more mysterious and part of the destiny of man.) Man was given divine intellect (made in the image of God) giving him the ability to determine truth from falsehood, and the free will to act on that determination. Man's power to choose the negation of his own desires to appropriate that of God's is dissimilar to that of any other creature both in heaven and on earth. Mystically speaking, in that unselfish occasion, the Jews were truly the crown of God's creation.

Following that consentience, the universe was wrapped in a garment of righteousness it had not felt since the beginning of the world. The universe now had a potent reason for its existence: the marriage of God and Israel, with the Torah as the nuptial testament, the ketubbot, and all of creation as the huppah, the canopy. The longing of God to be intimately connected with the crown of His creation was finally fulfilled. The earth could breathe again, birds chirped, and fish swam, for the Law, the keystone for all life, was given and sealed upon a willing and prepared people by a loving God.

Hebrew tradition tells us that the Torah was offered to the rest of the world first, but was refused by every nation of peoples. Their writings tell us that God offered the Torah to Esau's offspring, but they would not tolerate a law that prohibited murder; Ishmael's progeny could not accept a law that banned thievery; and Lot's children would not accept a law that banned adultery. By accepting the Torah they would have to deny their history and their culture, literally erasing their identity and everything that made them unique. However, a merciful God could not exclude anyone from this gift. He allowed their rationalizations and refusals not only because of mans' free will, but as a contrast to the sublime character of the Hebrew peoples. It was into this strain of DNA that the Messiah would be born. For this reason the genealogies were carefully kept, and through God's mercy the door was left open to the iniquitous cousins by the inclusion of the likes of Ruth and Rahab, the only women named in the genealogies. Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, caught up with the tribes after their exodus from Egypt, but refused to stay and submit to the Law. He literally put in his two cents (system of judges) and left as quickly as he could in case he might be held accountable to the Law by proximity.

The Talmud goes on to explain that if the Jews had said no, all of creation would have ceased to exist, for there would have been no one left to make the fallen world righteous through the Law, no lineage left for the Messiah's birth. The Talmud made the dramatic statement, “not a bird chirped . . .” to enucleate the critical mass in which creation found itself in those seconds. Although man was unaware of the importance, the universe itself had a consuming awareness of the importance of a yes to God.

The Ma'amad har Sinai—Days of the Heaven on Earth:
The Giving of the Ten Commandments

The Talmudic sages write, the Presence of God was simultaneously in heaven and on earth when the Torah was given. God's presence on the mountain would forever change the substance of creation, for God hadn't walked on the earth since the Garden of Eden was closed to man. Rashi teaches that God bent the upper and lower heavens and spread them over Mt. Sinai like a sheet on a bed. Science had not conceived of the idea of folding space to move from one point to another in a short span of time and distance at the time Rashi lived. Frank Herbert's Dune had creatures who possessed this ability, a forecasting of what science was just beginning to contemplate when he originally wrote his trilogy. Rashi, Rabbi Shlomoh ben Yitzchak, lived over nine centuries ago, long before the science fiction author Herbert conceived his creatures, and long before the science caught up with him. It is said that the Burning Bush was a branch of the huge Tree of Life, found in the midst of the Garden of Eden, that Moses saw on Sinai before the exodus. (I speak of this in my novel The Garden of Souls) Rashi explained that the folding of heaven took place at that moment, allowing Moses to see a small glimpse into Paradise.

Before receiving the Law, Moses was instructed by God to place boundaries around the mountain, separating the nation Israel from God, for it had become holy ground. They were forbidden to touch the mountain, or ascend lest they would die, and turn this joyous moment into mourning. Only Moses was allowed to ascend the mountain. Aaron was permitted to be the closest to the fence, the Kohanim, or priests were on the next lower level, and the rest remained on the outside of the boundary.

Imagine the scene: The sound of the shofar growing louder, and the deafening voice of God roaring “like the sound of many waters” (Ez 43:2), the skies were lit up with thunder and lightening (Ex 19:16), and a million people were standing at the foot of the mountain in anticipation. Not since the creation of the earth had there been such a display by God, but this was the first time there were spectators of the event. The Jews believe that scene, that sacred space is still brought forward into this world through their prayers, their adherence to the Law, and their faithful attendance to the practice of their faith.

NOTE: In light of this biblical precedent, it frightens me to think that so many Catholics are so casual about tromping around the altar and touching the holy body of Christ. Many have forgotten to genuflect before Him upon entering and exiting, showing their respect for the Holy One. It wasn't that long ago that it was unthinkable that anyone except the priest would be allowed to touch the body of Christ. This was understood that the priest's hands are sanctified to perform the theophany on the altar, and receiving was on the tongue only, kneeling on the other side of a fence. Neither was it acceptable to chew it like bubble gum, or receive after eating a meal, like it was an appetizer. This concern has been voiced by a number of people to me, and, I've witnessed this abuse first hand—a young boy received in his hand, dropped his arm to his side, and made a great circle to put the host in his mouth, then skipped toward the eucharistic server with the cup, as if it was a game—this incident has become one of many, and the very reason why many Bishops in the assembly of Vatican II rightly objected to receiving on the hand. Many disagree with this note. However, it is something to at least consider thoughtfully.
The Mutuality of the Covenant:
The Jews Fiat

A Lutheran pastor once told me, “Man only has the ability to stop saying no, and is incapable of saying yes to God.” Israel did not merely assent by means of becoming neutral toward receiving the Law, nor were they an acquiescent crowd of children, terrified of being punished if they said no. They were active participants, interpenetrating God's realm and the temporal world at the same moment. Man's divine intellect gives him the power to say yes and to say no. The divine, creative yes erupted from their souls in a jubilant shout. It was an act of sheer will.

In the third month from the Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt, on this day, they arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai. They journeyed from Rephidim and arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the Wilderness; and Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain.”(Ex 19: 1,2) The emphasis on the word arrival and encamped are significant in this scripture. Previously, they came to Rephidim with an indolent attitude. They had neglected their study of the Torah parts given to them at Marah, and had argued with Moses and God. The wine press of experiences in Rephidim crushed their arrogance, and refined their faith. The journey from Rephidim to Sinai was completely different. It was a pilgrimage of repentance. They left Rephidim as a consecrated people with only the journey of Sinai before them.

The phrase “encampment in the Wilderness” is an indicator they were in a spiritual wilderness, for the word wilderness appears three times. Their spirit had been winnowed of sloth and selfishness, and they had gained a deeper understanding of who they were. The verb encampment is in the singular here. Rashi teaches this abundance of people were encamped as one person, with one desire. They were truly a nation of people with a singular purpose. The scripture “encamped there, opposite the mountain” indicates their willingness for a mutual participation in this event, for they were opposite God as two parties at a table facing each other to sign an agreement.

The elders were summoned and Moses “ . . . put before them all these words that YHWH had commanded him. The entire people responded together and said, 'Everything that YHWH has spoken we shall do!'” (Ex 19: 8) Never before or since had an entire people been of such a singular purpose. Their yes had created a new world, a new nation, and a new foundation. The Law had become the supporting infrastructure for the weight of the world, of the universe, or as the physicist Abbe Lemaitre coined the cosmological term the primevil atom, the Torah is the piece of matter from which all of the universe derived.

God spoke all the words, to say: I am YHWH, your God, . . .” (Ex 20: 1) The Mechilta teaches that all the commandments were spoken in a single utterance. This is from the first scriptural sentence, “God spoke all the words.” Rashi and Ramban explain that because “God spoke all the commandments” instantaneously they were incomprehensible to the Jews. God then began to repeat them word for word beginning with the declaration of who He is and His relationship to them. The Gur Aryeh predicates the reason why God spoke all the commandments in a single utterance was to instruct the Jews that the Torah was a single entity and could not be separated, removed, or changed in any way, for to do so would be heresy.

Rashi explains, “to say” means God expects answers to His commandments. Israel was to say yes to that which is positive and no to that which is negative. It often is translated “as follows” but it would be redundant, because it is implied that the words would follow. Therefore, this was a direction for the Jews to answer each word spoken, “to sayyes and no. This is another reference to the mutual nature of the relationship between God and the Jews. Each affirmation spoken created a world of righteousness, altering the face of the earth, and every no confirmed what would be prohibited, the negation creating a fence to where no one should trespass.

The Oneness of God

Each of the attributes of God are expressed in His declaration, “I am YHWH, your God, Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt . . .” (Ex 20:2) Sforno teaches the first three words of the Ten Commandments are of prime importance, because they express an attribute of His relationship to Israel. “I” denotes the oneness of God, “I am” who grants existence, the Prime Cause known to you through tradition. “YHWH,” the Tetragrammaton, revealed to Moses, is He who loves life and abhors cruelty and death. YHWH is the God of relationship, the one who longed for intimacy with man, “your God” who is accessible to His people, open to all communication. These three elements (I am, YHWH, your God) are the fundamental characteristics of the God who longed for a relationship with His people.

Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt . . .” Many sages asked why God did not say He was the creator (although it is implied in the YHWH). Rashi explains that God did not want the Jews to think He was many gods, because of all the different ways in which He had previously manifested Himself: Warrior, judge, merciful, fertility, etc. It was made clear by this statement who He is and what He has done. There were to be no misconceptions leading back to the pagan beliefs from which He had rescued them. These people still had much to learn and were not ready to understand the fullness of who God is. “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is the one and only!” (Dt 6:4) This phrase has become the single declaration every Jew uses upon rising and before he lies down at night. This is the fundamental lesson they learned after receiving and studying the Torah.

Christ is the Torah:
Christ is the Word

John's Gospel is a monumental achievement in an economy of words. His gospel did not concentrate on genealogies or in the mission of Christ as did the other three. His interest lay in the mystical union of the Law and man in the Christ, in the one who was to come, the Messiah. John sees completion, he sees fulfillment of the Old Testament's prophecy in the man Jesus. He begins his treatise, “En arche en ho logos . . .” or “In the beginning was the Word . . .” (John 1: 1) Arche meaning original beginning or starting point, but the verb en is what makes this phrase so crucial. En is in the imperfect tense. The implication is that the existence has no beginning. This Christ predates all time and creation.

The second phrase, “and the Word was with God . . .” (Jo 1: 1). The preposition pros means with indicating a personality distinct and equal in nature. The Torah, or the Word, is God's name, equal in stature with YHWH (the Father). Robertson's Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research says, “The literal idea comes out well, 'face to face with God,'” predicating personality and coexistence. Christ is face to face with the Father (YHWH). The third phrase, “and the Word was God” is the indicator of Christ's deity. “Theos en ho logos” which means God was the Word has an article ho or the to show the specific subject is the Word.

John's thesis lies in the Greek word logos, which in Hebrew is dabar and literally means word. In the Old Testament the words traditionally used to describe the Law given on that day in Sinai are the Ten Commandments, but in Hebrew they translate as the Ten Words. Therefore, John's opening words of his gospel are the crux of his entire thesis and what follows all the way to the sacrifice at the end. The Zohar, an ancient mystical book of the Hebrews whose ideas predate Christ's birth, could have influenced John's writing, and explains the Names of God. Daniel C. Matt writes in The Essential Kabbalah, “The Zohar . . . transforms the biblical narrative into a biography of God. The entire Torah is read as a divine name expressing divine being.” Christ is the incarnation of the Torah, no longer words burned into a stone, but the mystical marriage of God and man: “The Word became flesh . . .” (Jo 1:14). The Law was made flesh and a new covenant was engraved upon his body, a better sacrifice than all the animals proscribed in the Law.

The Zohar tell us that when God created the universe He withdrew His Shekinah, or the fullness of His presence, and He hovered above His creation, holding His Law (the Torah) in the Heavens. However, He left behind luminous sparks of His Shekinah, which is the cosmic glue of the universe, the substance which holds everything created together to keep it from flying apart into chaos. This idea is expressed in the very first words of Genesis, “. . . when the earth was bewilderment and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep, and the breath of God was hovering upon the surface of the waters—” (Gen 1: 2; translation from The Torah: with Rashi's Commentary Translated, Annotated, and Elucidated; The Sapirstein Edition). At this point, only God's words create order in the chaos. These sparks are concealed, as though covered in a garment, the temporal flesh or matter of the universe. This garment of creation, although seemingly to conceal God, in fact, is the revelator of Him.

In the Canticles Rabbah we find the story of the angels pleading with God to not give the Torah to the Jews: “At the time when the Holy-One-blessed-be-He sought to give the Torah to Israel the ministering angels . . . said, 'Master-of-the-universe, it is for Your happiness, Your honor, Your glory, that Your Torah be in Heaven.' He said to them, 'no satisfaction comes from you . . . it is written in it, 'when a person dies in a tent' (Num 19:14). Is there any death among you?'” Only the Torah had the power to differentiate or exercise judgment by separating life and death, righteousness and sin, because Adam and Eve had muddled the world with their act of rebellion bringing death into perfect life and sin into righteousness. The Torah, the Law bound us, defined us, and would be the only object that could release us by its observance from that death and sin. Christ would be that person to die in His tent, Shem's tent, Abraham's tent to act as the mediator for us through His perfect sacrifice. Angels would not, nor could they ever bring satisfaction to the turmoil of death and sin.

The Torah, the Law became finite when it left Heaven and was limited to the spoken and the written word, even though it was spoken and written by God. The Law was fenced by the physical manifestation of stone, and it defined the enclosures of life and death and the daily activities man pursues, but the sparks of the Shekinah were kindled into a holy fire by the jubilant yes of the Hebrew peoples. Christ the man was also bounded by flesh, yet His sacrifice ripped open the fences, the boundaries restraining man. Christ's divinity allowed us to climb the mountain to meet God face to face, no longer restrained by a fence at the bottom of the mountain or a veil in the sanctuary. And the priest came out into the open and served everyone who was willing to believe.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us . . .” (Jo 1:14). The verb lived means to pitch a tent, to dwell temporarily. The Greek is better translated as tabernacled among us referring to the temporary tabernacle in the Wilderness, organic, subject to decomposition, and frail. It was erected by and carried on the backs of the Levites until the permanent structure of the temple could be built in the promised land. The Sukkot dwelling, lived in during the period of the celebration of the Feast of Succos, became the pattern to watch for by the Jews. Christ's coming as a man was the perfect expression of God's will, the definer of the pattern, the frail, subject to death fleshly man.

Celebration of the Law in the Eucharist—When we eat this Bread and Drink this Cup...

The Kabbalah describes the study of the Torah as the discovery of a soul wrapped in a garment. The stories contained in it are not just stories, they are the garment. What lies beneath the garment is the true meaning, the body of the Torah. The observance of Judaism is in performing a mitzvot, or a duty, a commandment, or a good deed, such as the study of Torah. The celebrant sees himself arrayed in mitzvot as he is arrayed in his tefillah (the phylacteries containing the commandments the male Jew binds on his forearm and his forehead), or the tallis (the prayer shawl the male Jew drapes over his head or the smaller one he wears under his shirt with the fringes showing). He isn't merely performing rituals as something he is obligated to do. He acquires, performs, and pursues mitzvot because it is his lover, a personality, rather than a concept. He waits expectantly before each act, as a groom waits for his bride, anxious and deliciously in love.

The study of the Torah is compared to a man tasting bread, then cakes, then royal pastry which are all composed of wheat. He declares he is the master of wheat (the master of Torah), but learns nothing of the delectable delights found by the eating of those cakes. His is the mind of the minimalist. His observance is based only upon what is observed, the single ingredient; wheat. The true student searches for the deeper meaning through the four levels of observance: simple (what is immediately observed—could also include grammar and punctuation and history), midrashic (moral and theological), allegorical (description of a subject under the guise of some other subject of aptly suggestive resemblance), and mystical (having a certain spiritual character or import by virtue of a connexion or thought or union with God transcending human comprehension). His delight in the eating of bread, then cakes, then royal pastry discovers more than wheat. He notices the differences in taste, the added ingredients, how it makes him feel, how he digests each substance, its celebratory significance, where it came from, etc.

We would do well to learn this example, to not stop at a simple explanation and congratulate ourselves that we have truly studied the scripture by glancing at the history of that period and the grammar used by the author. If we do that we have failed to grasp the meaning of what the scripture tells us, ingested its true nourishment. Many popular Catholic bible studies generally add feelings to the mix in the mistaken belief that it will engage us more fully, such as: “How do you feel about this particular passage and how does it apply to your life?” Your feelings about a particular scripture are irrelevant. If we don't fully comprehend what the passage means how can we possibly apply it to our lives or know that we are having appropriate feelings?

In the Sanhedrin, those who apply a minimalist interpretation are referred to as the porek ol, or he who throws off the yoke of heaven. They are as the man who worships idols because he treats the Torah as antiquated matter and declares its laws abrogated. Manasseh, the son of Hezekiah, preached scandalous homilies and was considered a porek ol. One cannot pick and choose what they are to believe as if they were in a store and those items that pleased their eyes were the items that found their way into the basket. Either we believe with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength, or we struggle forward in a lifelong commitment to reach that exalted state.

Once, someone remarked, as a woman finally became a Catholic after sitting in the pew beside her husband and children for over twenty years, that some people are a tough nut to crack. It took twenty years, but the truth sunk in, softening that hard outer layer one Mass at a time. She didn't give up going to Mass, she didn't wave her hand and dismiss church as a fruitless endeavor. She stayed. Perhaps she couldn't verbalize it, maybe even she felt satisfied up to a point, and that sustained her through that twenty years, but the Holy Spirit continued to draw her each Sunday to Mass, and helped her to reach that point where she was capable of saying yes.

John admonishes the reader to understand who Jesus is as a Jew. He is the One expected, the Word made flesh. When we process forward to partake of our royal cake, to meet our nuptial partner, we should declare, “AMEN!” with exuberance, our yes to the theophany on the altar. That what we have witnessed is an act that transcends time and space. Christ is risen! He has come! And He made us family, seated us at the table with Him, partaking of the last supper, the Passover feast along with the apostles in that upper room. We have been arrayed in the garment of grace, and now know that one day we will meet God face to face at the wedding feast in heaven.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Study Guide for THE GARDEN OF SOULS by Cheri Vause

(If you don't want the mystery of the novel spoiled, wait to view this Study Guide!)

The novel can be purchased through Xulon Press Books,, It is available in paperback or e-book format.
 Study Guide:
  1. Pope Francis stated recently that “careerism is a leprosy in the Church.” The opposite of careerism is a calling or a vocation. How does the character Liam Connick learn what path he is called to take? Is his struggle between obedience and God's calling one that you can identify with? How?
  2. The character Alana Morgan grows in her faith by confronting her poor life's decisions while on her journey to Eden with Liam and Avi. What things did Liam and Avi do to help her to find her way to God? Which worked better: Liam's gentle encouragement or Avi's stern accusations? Or was it a combination of both? What did she let go of to finally see the truth? Can you see yourself or a loved one in Alana's journey to faith? Are there things or people in your life who hold you back from a closer relationship with God for fear of embarrassment or rejection?
  3. When Liam shares the story of Rabbi Akiva's wife with Alana, she rejects Akiva's years spent studying scripture as a poor example of husbandry. Is his wife's sacrifice something that you would do for your husband or wife, or mother or father, or brother or sister? Do you believe that marriages or relationships with family members are too easily broken today?
  4. Liam's relationship with his parents taught him how to find his way in life. It was a map to guide him through the trials of his life and it helped him find his way to Eden to meet God. He literally runs to service and to meet God leaving everything behind him. How would you begin a journey to Eden? What devotionals and ways can you use to discover your path to Eden?
  5. On the river of dreams or the river to Eden, Liam and Alana have very different visions: Liam finds the secret to crossing the fiery threshold, but Alana is forced to face her complicity in the deaths of the archaeologists in the Andes; her conscience is pricked by guilt. Are you willing to face whatever is holding you back? Are you willing to risk crossing a fiery threshold to see God? In what ways has God revealed the key to your path and your vocation like God revealed Liam's?
  6. Liam isn't allowed to see his fate, but he sees the fate of others. Why do you believe that God withheld that information from Liam? Explain how that would apply to you.
  7. Avi Schwartz writes an email to his wife explaining how the discovery of the map convinces him that God is real. Can Faith and Reason coexist? What obstacles do you put between faith and reason to prevent you from growing in your walk with God?
  8. Liam declares, “Blessed are those who don't see and believe.” This beatitude, found in John 20:29 outside of the Sermon on the mount, is an important key to faith. Explain its significance to you as a beatitude and for all of us.
  9. How is Liam's relationship as a priest with Avi and Alana significant? How is your relationship with your priest? Is your priest an important figure in the moral development of your family, of you? Where does the priest fit within your family?
  10. Can you identify the seven deadly sins in the book by Character or Act? Can you identify the seven virtues in the book by Character or Act?
    Seven Deadly Sins Seven Virtues
    1. Lust
    1. Chastity
    2. Gluttony
    2. Temperance
    3. Greed/Avarice
    3. Charity
    4. Diligence
    4. Sloth/Discouragement
    5. Wrath/Rage
    5. Patience
    6. Envy
    6. Kindness
    7. Pride
    7. Humility
      Scriptural Readings:
    1. Genesis Chapter 1- 4
    2. Genesis Chapter 23
    3. Genesis Chapter 28: 10-22
    4. Song of Songs 2: 2
    5. Song of Songs 4: 12-16
    6. John 20:29
    7. Genesis 28: 10-22
    8. Proverbs 6:16-19
Suggested readings:
        Catholic Catechism nn. 59-61; 201; 1719; 1776-1782
Scholarly readings:
        Fides et Ratio, by Pope John Paul II,
        John Climacus. The Ladder of Divine Ascent