Torah Reading Commentary: The Passover Seder

By Mark Gerson

Passover is the greatest Jewish holiday, and the Bible tells us exactly what it is: the authentic, biblically ordained Jewish new year, as well as our spring festival. These two concepts merge to remind us that the spring season of rejuvenation and newness is once again upon us.

This year’s Passover Seder will be celebrated on March 27, and we should take time to discover the opportunities that are open to us spiritually and the opportunities we have to improve the world. The Haggadah—the greatest hits of Jewish thought—exists to guide us through that divine journey.

The Haggadah brings together the most important ideas in the Torah, our holy Scripture, into one short book to be used by people at the Passover Seder. It’s the greatest guidebook—in how it is at once fascinating, practical, actionable, and profound—ever written. Derived from the Torah and subsequent Jewish learning experience, it contains the secret to enabling us to live happier, better, and more meaningful lives in the year to come.

Consequently, the great Jewish holiday of Passover and the Haggadah are ready to help everyone in the decisions, challenges, opportunities, and relationships that define our lives. Just some of the topics raised include miracles, mission, music, good and evil, the effect that actions have on character (and vice versa), humility (properly and improperly understood!), Zionism, our relationship with God, parenthood, education, and much more.

These questions are, of course, not only questions for and about Jews. We ask them each year at Seder—and have found that our Seders are always deeply enhanced, enlivened, and enriched when Gentiles are present. This is true for two main reasons, and it has a biblical provenance.

First, the Passover Seder is based on Exodus 12 and 13. We are reliving and retelling the story of the Exodus, using the last meal in Egypt (which takes place in Exodus 12 and 13) as its focal point. The last meal in Egypt was attended by Jews and by the “mixed multitudes”—Gentiles. When Jews and Christians celebrate the Seder together, we are reenacting the biblical experience more faithfully.

The second reason was exemplified by an event I did last night with a synagogue in Maryland for the book I just published about the Haggadah called The Telling. One of the attendees said that one of his most memorable Seder moments that really got him and the guests thinking was when another guest asked: Why isn’t Moses in the Haggadah? The guest who noticed Moses’ absence and asked that question—which is one of the most fundamental questions of the evening, leading to one of the great life lessons from the Seder—was a Gentile. Of course! I said. It is the Gentile who is likely to come to the Seder with a fresh perspective, new insights, great enthusiasm, and deep appreciation. These characteristics are likely to manifest in the observation or the insight that the Jewish host or attendee, who has attended Seders every year for his entire life, will be talking about years later.

There is another awesome benefit of Jews and Christians attending Seders together. The last meal in Egypt is the moment when we Jews transitioned from being a fractured family into a coherent people. And we do so in accordance with a law in the Exodus text outlining that there shall be no leftovers from the Seder meal.

The Bible tells us that if a household is too small to consume a lamb by itself, it must invite another household. And given that both modern science and ancient history confirm that 15 to 20 people were needed to consume a lamb, the proto-Seder effectively required that households join. Thus, the Jewish people were created in an act of giving and sharing, in the spirit of hospitality that was so magnificently defined in Genesis 18.

Today, we are all living through world-historic times in at least one way. There’s a beautiful Jewish-Christian friendship that has sprouted, grown, and blossomed in the past 40 years. In the book of Numbers, the Gentile seer Balaam issues a curse that the Jews will be a people who “dwells alone.” That curse has been lifted. We are no longer a people who dwells alone. 

There are now tens of millions of Christians—and growing, and quite possibly many more—who love the Jewish people, the Jewish religion, the Jewish state, and of course the shared sacred text which we call the Torah and Christians call the Old Testament. I am deeply gratified to have been able to experience this friendship firsthand, as I have spoken with many Christian groups about my book and the biblical texts upon which it is based—and, each time, have seen such interest and felt commensurate love, respect and interest in all things Jewish.

This blessed phenomenon is, in one sense, entirely new; people in any generation past would not have been able to even imagine the breadth, depth, and always-growing characteristic of this friendship. But it has biblical provenance. Abraham, Rebecca, Moses, and Joshua each had a beloved Gentile friend and guide—Melchizedek, Eliezer, Jethro, and Caleb—who enabled them to be better Jews and more effective servants of God.

This friendship is now, in our time, being renewed! The Seder provides the perfect opportunity to be the focal point for this great friendship. It can and should be the night when we come together to celebrate biblical freedom and to learn the ever-present life lessons from our great shared text of the Exodus—and to deepen and strengthen this great friendship that will have implications that perhaps only our descendants will more fully understand. 

Mark Gerson, a devoted Jew, is an entrepreneur and philanthropist who (along with his wife, Rabbi Erica Gerson) is perhaps the world’s largest individual supporter of Christian medical missions. He is the co-founder of African Mission Healthcare (AMH) and the author of a book on the Haggadah: The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life.  

Twitter: @markgerson
Podcast: The Rabbi’s Husband

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Think Iran Hasn’t Expanded Its Terror Toolbox? Think Again

By Arlene Bridges Samuels

Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Syria are members of an infamous club. The U.S. State Department identifies them as the world’s most dangerous terror nations. Their four leaders are a menace to the world as well as to their own citizens. And Iran—with its foothold in Syria and Cuba and a decades-long relationship with North Korea—has the world’s biggest terror imprint. 

Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons capability, both bombs and nuclear-tipped ICBMs, is well known. Yet Iran’s threats live deep in outer space, overland, and overhead, spreading their multi-faceted warfare worldwide seemingly without the world’s notice. Iran’s goals for global domination are powered by Shia Islam’s desire to welcome the Twelfth Imam, their messiah. 

American citizens who have no worries about Iran because it’s some 7,000 miles away should consider that there are 101 Iranian embassies worldwide. Many are scattered all over Central and South America, giving land-based access to the United States through our southern border. Indeed, 11 Iranians crossed our southern border recently. And this is not unusual. On March 16, 2021, in a congressional Homeland Security Committee meeting, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, a Democrat, unexpectedly acknowledged that “suspected terrorist migrants routinely travel to the southern border.” His assertion stunned lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Additional close encounters of the terror kind are based in Cuba. One of Iran’s embassies is in Havana. Hezbollah—Iran’s most dangerous proxy—is operational there, only 60 miles from Florida. Iran also uses Hezbollah to focus on Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, and Paraguay. Money laundering and drug trafficking—among other malign activities—are rampant, and are used to fund Hezbollah’s terrorist activities. 

In 2021, Iran’s cyber warfare hackers have already stolen intelligence information from the U.S., U.K., Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and the Palestinian Authority. Their cyber espionage also heavily targets the growing alliances between Gulf State Arabs and Israel, trying to disrupt the historic Abraham Accords that were brokered by former President Trump in 2020. 

Iran’s terror-toolbox is well stocked. The world’s most prolific instigator of terror showed off its latest upgraded unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) on its annual Army Day in April 2020. The sophisticated Ababil 3 is now a combat-ready weapon. Ababil, meaning “swallow,” is no bird of paradise. It’s already dropping bombs on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil infrastructure, with no significant damage—yet. 

On our domestic front, United States security is currently tightening around Fort McNair on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., due to American intelligence that tracks terror chatter from Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps. The chatter describes bombing the army base and killing the U.S. Army’s vice chief of staff via small-boat suicide attacks; the same method was used in 2000 to kill American sailors aboard the USS Cole in Yemen.

Among Iran’s terror tactics, hostage taking is not unusual. In a recent article in The Atlantic, author Graeme Wood interviewed Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-American student who was released from Iran’s notorious Evin Prison on December 7, 2019. He endured 40 months of torturous imprisonment there. 

Xiyue, a brilliant student, had become an American citizen in 2009. His educational resume is gold standard, including graduate studies at Harvard and Princeton, as well as a humanitarian stint with the Red Cross in Afghanistan. He traveled to Iran in 2015 after being granted a visa to study Persian there, adding to several other languages he knew. Wood’s interview reveals that Wang is an unusual and particularly valuable source for learning about the true nature of the Iranian dictatorship. That’s because in Evin Prison he—unlike most hostages—was allowed to interact with the prison inmates. 

Before arriving to pursue his studies, Wang thought the United States was at fault for our friction with Iran. He had hoped that Iran’s “moderates” would win the day. Hearing firsthand the stories of inmates, however, Wang found his thinking shift dramatically. He called Iranian “moderation” a “mirage,” declaring, “They don’t want to be our friends. They don’t want to reconcile.” Writer Graeme Wood sums up: “To hope that Iran will stop behaving like an enemy is to hope that it will suddenly decide not to exist anymore.” 

Wang also noted that the Iranian regime “needs people outside Iran to press progressive politicians for lifting of sanctions. … They ruthlessly suppress people who do that in Iran.” Indeed, as Wood notes, “If you are in Iran and call for greater engagement, you are a threat to a regime based on its enmity with America, and you end up in a cell in Evin.”  

Wang was a beneficiary of President Trump’s decision to get as many U.S. hostages as possible freed from overseas jails. After the Trump administration secured his release, he first landed in Switzerland, where he asserted, “I did nothing wrong. I went to Iran to do research with the permission of the Foreign Ministry, but Iranian intelligence arrested me and forced me into confessing that I was a spy.” 

Now reunited with his wife and young son, Wang is back at Princeton and has resumed his doctoral studies. He is relentless in speaking out on the facts he learned during imprisonment. He supports keeping sanctions in place, remarking, “The Iranian regime is stalling for leverage.” Wood adds: “Once it is weakened and beggared, negotiation can begin.” Wang opposes the Biden administration’s proclivity to restart negotiations with Iran after the failed 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). 

About his interviewee, Graeme Wood emphasizes the importance of having Xiyue Wang’s perspective. “Because Iran and the United States have had no diplomatic relations for more than 40 years, virtually no Americans—including those working on Iran policy in the U.S. government—have significant experience in the country.”

It’s advisable to remain prayerful and informed about Iran, its apocalyptic Imams, and its beleaguered population, many of whom are persecuted Christians. Seventy percent of Iran’s population is made up of “under-thirty-fives” who have lived under nothing but a dictatorship since 1979. The Imams are still devoted to world domination at the cost of their own citizens’ well-being. 

Nevertheless, the good news in the middle of the bad news is that Iran’s young people are coming to know Jesus in record numbers. In fact, their encounters with Jesus are reportedly more numerous than any other nation in the world, although persecution is an ever-present reality. Among ministries reaching out to Iranians is, which is supported by The Christian Broadcasting Network. Satellite TV broadcasts day and night, pouring God’s saving grace into the atmosphere. It’s a steady stream of good news Gospel warfare opposing the occupation of evil cyber warfare, with plentiful social media response on the ground. 

New Iranian Christians surely need the hope of the Gospel message. Open Doors, described as “a community of Christians who come together to support persecuted believers in more than 60 countries,” lists Iran as one of the top 10 countries where Christians are “the most persecuted.”  

Outside Iran, governments and organizations are locked in their own brand of conflict: political warfare. The United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), not surprisingly is standing by the JCPOA. The Biden Administration has made it clear that they want to renegotiate the flawed 2015 Iran deal, but its complexities have overtaken any definitive measures thus far. Early on, the Gulf Arab states, fearful of Iran’s growing net of terror, asked President Biden to keep the sanctions in hopes that this step would make way for authentic diplomatic progress. 

In the meantime, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin recently visited Germany, France, and Austria to meet with their leaders. Rivlin traveled there to emphasize Iran’s escalating threats and ask European allies to stand with Israel to oppose lifting Iran sanctions. Iran continues to defy the 2015 JCPOA—defiance that is worsening under the Biden administration. 

Thankfully, the U.S. Congress is still in Israel’s corner with its bipartisan achievements. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) works with the U.S. Congress to strengthen and expand the U.S.-Israel relationship that helps both nations, especially in security. A recent example: 70 Democrats and 70 Republicans sent a letter to the U.S. State Department clearly summarizing the need to address the broad range of Iran’s threats. Some of these I mentioned earlier in my column. 

At this writing, the U.S. Congress has extended an invitation to Israel’s President Rivlin to come address a joint session. I hope the visit materializes. President Rivlin is popular in Israel. When elected by the Knesset in 2009, he received 90 out of 120 votes. He is a proud “Jerusalemite” whose family has lived there since 1809.

I’ve heard him speak twice at his official residence when I attended the Government Press Office’s Christian Media Summit in Israel. As he welcomed us, he spoke with kindness, authenticity, strength, and wisdom. It was easy to see why he is so popular. He is fulfilling his role with excellence, saying, “The president is the face of the State of Israel around the world: not a representative of a specific ideology but of the collective creativity and history of the Jewish people.”

Join CBN Israel this week in praying for Israel, Iran, and the Middle East:

  • Pray for the Biden Administration to make wise decisions about Iran. 
  • Pray with thanks for Israel’s intelligence sharing for U.S. security. 
  • Pray that the U.S. Congress keeps working together for the U.S. and Israel. 
  • Pray that God might strengthen the faith of Iranian Christians suffering persecution. 
  • Pray that the U.S. and Israel will continue to work toward peace in the Middle East. 

Finally, relying on
1 Timothy 2:1-2, please also pray for Israel’s election results from May 23 and ongoing decision-making: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”

Arlene Bridges Samuels pioneered Christian outreach for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). After she served nine years on AIPAC’s staff, International Christian Embassy Jerusalem USA engaged her as Outreach Director part-time for their project, American Christian Leaders for Israel. Arlene is now an author at The Blogs-Times of Israel and has traveled to Israel 25 times. She co-edited The Auschwitz Album Revisited by Artist Pat Mercer Hutchens and sits on the board of Violins of Hope South Carolina. Arlene has attended Israel’s Government Press Office Christian Media Summit three times and hosts her devotionals, The Eclectic Evangelical, on her website at

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Biblical Israel: Garden of Gethsemane

By Marc Turnage

Mark and Matthew identify Gethsemane as the place Jesus went with His disciples after eating the Passover within the city of Jerusalem, prior to His arrest (Matthew 26:36; Mark 14:32). These two Gospels provide the only mention of this place within ancient sources; thus, pinpointing its location proves difficult. 

The Gospel of Luke describes Jesus going to the Mount of Olives (22:39), which sits to the east, across the Kidron Valley (see John 18:1), from the city of Jerusalem. Passover pilgrims would consume their Passover meal, which was the lamb offered in the Temple, within the walled city of Jerusalem, but they stayed outside of the city on the surrounding hillsides. 

The name Gethsemane comes from the Hebrew, gat and shemen. A gat typically refers to a “wine press,” but it can refer, as a more generic term, to any pressing installation. Shemen refers to olive oil, which the olive groves on the mountain gave it the name, Mount of Olives. Thus, Gethsemane most likely refers to an olive oil pressing installation. 

Pilgrims to Jerusalem today can visit four different sites, which Christian traditions (Roman Catholic, Russian, Armenian, and Greek Orthodox) have identified as Gethsemane. All reside on the Mount of Olives. The traditions of these sites only date back at the earliest to the fourth century A.D. The most popular is the Roman Catholic site, maintained by the Franciscans. 

This site contains a church built by the Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi and a grove of olive trees. Some of these trees are several hundred years old, but they do not, as some claim, date back to the time of Jesus. The first century Jewish historian Josephus relates how the Roman army that laid siege to Jerusalem cut down all the trees in the vicinity to build their siege engines (War 6:1). 

While we do not know the precise location of Gethsemane, its location on the Mount of Olives offers an important geographic window into Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane. The Mount of Olives sits on the eastern watershed of the Jerusalem hill country. Beyond the mountain’s ridge, the land drastically falls away toward the Jordan River Valley and the area of Jericho and the Dead Sea. This wilderness served bandits and refugees for centuries as it provided natural concealment to those hiding from authorities. 

When Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, He physically stood at the door of escape. He could have walked less than an hour and disappeared from Caiaphas and Pilate. This heightens the tension of His prayer, “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). In that moment, He turned His back on the door of escape to face God’s will that lay in front of Him, the cross. 

This is something that can only be truly appreciated when one stands in this geography and realizes the choices that lay in front of Jesus: how easily He could have saved Himself, yet He submitted to His Father’s will.

Marc Turnage is President/CEO of Biblical Expeditions. He is an authority on ancient Judaism and Christian origins. He has published widely for both academic and popular audiences. His most recent book, Windows into the Bible, was named by Outreach Magazine as one of its top 100 Christian living resources. Marc is a widely sought-after speaker and a gifted teacher. He has been guiding groups to the lands of the Bible—Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy—for over twenty years.


Facebook: @witbuniversity
Podcast: Windows into the Bible Podcast


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Weekly Devotional: Not Our Will But Your Will Be Done

“Coming out, He went to the Mount of Olives, as He was accustomed, and His disciples also followed Him. When He came to the place, He said to them, ‘Pray that you may not enter into temptation.’ And He was withdrawn from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and prayed,  saying, ‘Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.’ Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him. And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:39-44 NKJV).

Have you ever thought about the daily life and habits of Jesus? The Gospels only record a small fraction of His life, so what habits would He have engaged in as a first-century Jew? Ancient Jewish sources record that Jews in the first century participated in daily prayer, offering prayers in the morning and evening. We also find the widespread practice of reciting the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) also in the morning and evening, which, outside of the Temple in Jerusalem, took place in homes.

The first-century Jewish historian Josephus indicates that people often attached prayers and blessings to the reciting of the Shema. Jesus’ contemporary sages viewed the reciting of the Shema as one accepting God’s kingdom, His rule and reign, upon themselves. It establishes the right order and relationship between God and His people. It acknowledges that He alone is God and that we should live our lives accordingly. Although we do not hear of this daily practice in Jesus’ life recorded in the Gospels, we can assume that He acted like His countrymen; moreover, this passage clearly played a significant role in His faith (see Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; and Luke 10:25-28).

What impact do you think it had on Jesus to make it a daily habit of submitting His will to the rule and reign of His heavenly Father? The answer appears in His response on the Mount of Olives, this most critical of moments, when Jesus wrestled with God’s will.

As modern readers of the Gospels, we do not feel the tension of this moment created by the geographic location of Jesus’ prayer. The drama of the moment can be felt when one understands the exact location.

The Mount of Olives forms a north-south ridgeline on the eastern boundary of Jerusalem. The Kidron valley separated it from the walled city of Jerusalem. It forms the eastern watershed of the hill country. From the top of its ridge, you can see the steppeland of Judah, which slopes down into the Jordan Rift Valley toward Jericho and the Dead Sea. The land east of the Mount of Olives sits in the rain shadow of the Judean hill country characterized by deeply eroded chalky slopes and infertile soil with a lack of water. This difficult region historically served as a refuge for political figures and spiritual ascetics.

The traditional location of the “Garden of Gethsemane” sits on the lower slope of the western side of the Mount of Olives. The tradition identifying this as the location of Gethsemane dates to the Byzantine era (4th–6th century A.D.) and cannot be considered definite. Nevertheless, according to the Gospels, Jesus prayed somewhere on the Mount of Olives that night. From the bottom of the western side of the Mount of Olives, one can leisurely walk to the top of the ridge in 20 minutes. Another 20 minutes and you are in the eastern wilderness, a place of refuge for those seeking asylum from the authorities. When Jesus prayed that night, “not My will, but Yours, be done,” He physically sat in a location that presented Him with a doorway of escape. An hour’s walk would have taken Him to freedom! He could have avoided Caiaphas, Pilate, and the cross.

But He turned His back on the doorway of escape and went to the cross in complete submission to the will of His Father. Have you ever wondered how Jesus was able to make the decision He made in that pivotal moment? While many would answer, “because He was the Son of God,” which is true, it is vitally important that we not minimize or diminish the real humanity of Jesus. As a human being, is it possible that Jesus was able to submit Himself to His Father’s will on that crucial night because He had made it a daily habit to do so every day of His life?

We often equate true spirituality with how we live in the big moments of life. But we fail to realize that we condition our performance and our obedience in the big moments by how we choose to live every day. Our daily habit of pursuing a trusting relationship with God and forming disciplines that are vital to our living in obedience to Him will ultimately impact the choices we make when it counts most. 

Jesus chose the will of the Father in Gethsemane, even while standing at the door of escape, because He had made it a daily habit to trust His Father and submit to His will. In a moment when He could have run, His habit of daily submission to His Father’s will took precedent. And because of that relationship and discipline—a central part of the ancient Jewish faith—the world has never been the same.

We need to be careful not to define spirituality by only the big moments. We should not despise the daily and mundane moments of life that provide us the opportunity to build trust in God and learn to submit to His will. If we want to truly follow Jesus, what might we learn from how He lived His everyday life according to the Gospels and what we know about ancient Judaism?


Father, in all things in our life, not our will but Your will be done. Amen.

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Torah Reading Commentary: The Bible and Us

By Mark Gerson

The prerequisite to understanding any story is answering the question: What is its genre? This might seem like an easy task, but it’s really not. Let’s say that someone gets offended by a joke. The jokester says that he was just trying to be funny. The listener says that the jokester was really making social commentary. The result is, quite possibly, the rupture of a relationship with manifold ramifications. The cause: a mix-up in the genre.

Another example came up during a book tour event last week for my book, The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life. One remarkable young lady—I know this because she is the highly talented and curious daughter of friends of ours—asked: “Do you think that the Torah leads to liberal or conservative positions today?”

My answer: The Torah is not in that genre; it is not a policy book or a political platform. In fact, it is a misuse when adherents ask it to support a law or a candidate. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Bible can cite examples in the text to support either side of most political questions.

If the Torah is not a political platform—or a lawbook or a cookbook or a history book, for that matter—then what is it? It is a guidebook that helps us to better understand and participate in the world, en route to living happier and more meaningful lives.

One of the many friends I have made in the process of writing and releasing this book (as ever, at the introduction of the remarkable Bishop Robert Stearns) is Bishop Matthew Brown of the Church of God in Christ. In a discussion of the Exodus with primarily religious leaders from Western New York, Bishop Brown said that the genius of the Exodus is that everyone can experience and comprehend their freedom stories and ambitions through the light that it provides.

And in preparing to teach the Torah portion that we read in synagogue this morning, Vayakhel-Pekudei, I saw just how right Bishop Brown is—and not only about the core Exodus story. Exodus 35:30 is a seemingly pedestrian passage until we recall that every verse (and sometimes every word) in the Torah is full of the most practical and actionable wisdom. It says: “Moses said to the Children of Israel, ‘See, God has proclaimed by name, Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah.’”

The predicate to understanding this passage is to know who the participants are. Bezalel is the great artisan and teacher of artists in the Torah. His grandfather, Hur, was Moses’ nephew who died protesting the sinners who were worshipping the Golden Calf immediately before.

As recounted by Rabbi Michael Hattin of Pardes, it was this story that helped Rabbi Joseph ben Hayyim Jabez understand his terrible time—one full of tragic choices for the Jews. Rabbi Jabez, who died in 1507, lived during the time of the Spanish Expulsion, when the Spanish authorities gave Jews the choice: convert or leave. He said that the “sophisticated” Jews came up with ways that they could outwardly present themselves as Christians while internally maintaining their Judaism.

Rabbi Jabez, in trying to understand the dilemma of his time, turned to Exodus 35:30. Hur, he said, was the simple Jew. Hur was unwilling to engage in theological gymnastics to justify the Golden Calf. He had nowhere to go, and so he objected and died. Yet, this 15th-century sage reasoned, who was the most sophisticated? Well, Hur’s grandson Bezalel was the most sophisticated man of the desert generation, an artist kissed by God with exquisite talents, or, as we are told in Exodus 35:31-33, “Godly spirit, with wisdom, insight and knowledge of every craft—to weave designs, to work with gold, silver and copper, stone-cutting for setting, and wood-carving—to perform every craft of design.”

Where did Bezalel cultivate such talents? He was two months out of being a slave in Egypt, where the work was like rudimentary, arduous brickwork. It was pure manual labor, unrelated to artistry or craftsmanship. Bezalel must have had these talents within him—and they were recognized, inspired, and developed by his father and grandfather.

It is hard to think of someone more sophisticated than that. According to Rabbi Jabez’s reasoning, that is the point. It is the simple person—he who is wholehearted and all-in—that just might be the most genuinely sophisticated.

We know now, from genetic tests, just how the result of the tragic choice imposed upon the Spanish Jews turned out. As for the Jews who stayed? Modern genetic tests suggest that 20 percent of Spaniards have Jewish DNA. As for the Jews who left? The rulers of the countries to which the latter Jews fled could not believe their luck in being on the receiving end of what we would now call a “brain drain.”

We also can see one of the magnificent functions and purposes of Torah. Rabbi Jabez was able to understand the challenge of his day on the basis of a Torah passage that had, seemingly, nothing to do with his struggle. Yet, this is what the Torah does. And of course, the Torah is as present and able to guide each of us through any of our struggles as it was Rabbi Jabez. Indeed, every question, challenge, dilemma, and opportunity in life can be best understood and acted upon by reference to a biblical story, directive, or teaching. We just have to open ourselves to it.

Mark Gerson, a devoted Jew, is an entrepreneur and philanthropist who (along with his wife, Rabbi Erica Gerson) is perhaps the world’s largest individual supporter of Christian medical missions. He is the co-founder of African Mission Healthcare (AMH) and the author of a book on the Haggadah: The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life.  

Twitter: @markgerson
Podcast: The Rabbi’s Husband

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Israel: An Environmental Wonder Making Its Deserts Like Eden

By Arlene Bridges Samuels 

In Israel, the Holy Land, the earth itself is indeed Holy! The earth where Jesus walked overflows with flowers and vineyards that depict nature as a visual symbol of rebirth. With the profusion of emerging plants and vast flocks of migrating birds, the renewal of spring is draping itself not only over the land but in the sky. God’s promises are abundant, too. 

Isaiah, who could be considered a biblical prize-winning prophet of Nobel-like stature, transmitted our Creator’s words in chapter 35:1-2: “The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.” The prophet goes on to write, “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground” (Isaiah 44:3). 

Israel is an arid land, upwards of 60 percent desert. How did God bring/transform His ancient land to the modern environmental miracle it is today? First, Israel’s environmental beauty flows through the Jews, originating with God’s biblical covenants about their Promised Land. In Genesis 17:19, God tells Abraham that Sarah will miraculously birth Isaac: “I will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come.” The Bible includes more than a thousand verses bolstering the fact that God connected the Jews with the land, the earth. 

Fast forward from God’s almost 4,000-year-old promises to the year 1910, when the land was called “Palestine” under the British Mandate—nomenclature that continued until 1948. The first communal settlement (kibbutz in Hebrew) was established south of the Sea of Galilee. Young Jewish men and women—mostly from Eastern Europe—responded with hopeful hearts to a movement that officially began in 1897 at the First Zionist Congress. Theodore Herzl, the visionary Hungarian-Austrian writer, had famously authored Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) in 1896. The following year, he convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. He is considered the Father of Zionism.  

From about 1908 to 1910, several significant milestones materialized. Degania (Hebrew for grain and flowers) holds the distinction as the first kibbutz set up by young Jewish pioneers. Greeted by scenes of unhospitable sand, deserts, and swamps, they faced a formidable task. Not schooled in agricultural skills and beset by mosquitoes in malaria-ridden swamps, these pioneers determined to forge ahead anyway, learning how to farm and survive. 

Using shovels, plows, and rakes, the sacrifices of the early “kibbutzniks” (members) of the kibbutzim (plural) laid the foundation for the Jewish state’s modern rebirth in 1948. They developed close-knit communities where they highly valued work, ate together, shared resources, and gave freely to one another. They relied on the principle, “to each according to his/her need.” In the early kibbutzim, they ran a direct democracy where each decision was made by all members. 

As the kibbutz movement grew in pre-state Israel, it experienced the trials and tribulations of any pioneering effort. The movement was founded on socialist and Zionist principles that the pioneers brought from their previous countries. Prominent author and biblical translator Martin Buber at Hebrew University wrote in Paths in Utopia that the kibbutz was an experiment that didn’t fail. 

In 1920, 12 kibbutzim existed with 805 members. By 2020 the kibbutzim numbered 270, with a population of around 170,000. Many are now privatized. They grow 34 percent of Israel’s crops and account for 9.2 percent of the nation’s industrial output. 

The pioneers of Tel Aviv likewise grew from nothing—to nothing short of amazing! Around 1908–1909, a group of 60 Jewish families founded Tel Aviv on the coastline. They bought 12 acres of dunes and began building houses. They officially adopted the name Tel Aviv (Hebrew for spring mound) in 1910.  

On one of my trips to Israel, I bought a simple black-and-white framed photo. It shows Jewish families standing on the beach looking, not at the Mediterranean, but up at the sand dunes. The 1908 photo shows their backs, not their faces. It’s an interesting photographic perspective. I’m guessing the families were imagining what they planned to build. The ladies in their long dresses and the men in their suits were forerunners of the many visitors to today’s top Israeli tourist destination! In their wildest imaginations, they could not have envisioned the beaches of today visited by millions of visitors and citizens each year. Tel Aviv is Israel’s financial center and the richest city in Israel. Some call it the “Mediterranean metropolis that never sleeps.” 

Israel’s early pioneers knew that turning the desert into farmland and cities was a national priority. Their sacrificial hard labor, matched with organizational competence and vision, paved the way for Israel’s bounty. Despite their homeland’s distressing lack of natural resources, the Jewish people themselves were—and are—the true natural resources. Their water-related innovations have stopped desertification not only in the Holy Land but in nations worldwide to help grow crops and make use of smart water management. 

Since 1901, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) has planted 250 million trees. Their successes are described on their website: “Covering over 250,000 acres, Jewish National Fund forests provide an invaluable green canopy for both the people of Israel and the roughly 2,241 different species of land animals and birds who call it home. From the mighty oak and the almond, to the cypress and the exotic Atlantic cedar, every tree makes a difference, every tree connects to the future, and every tree calls out, ‘Am Yisrael Chai.’” Long live Israel! 

All the trees are planted by hand. For visitors, planting a tree in the Land is a special activity. On several of my trips, picking up a shovel and digging a small hole for my tree was so fulfilling. In a tiny way, I could follow the example of the Jewish pioneers. And a donation to JNF and other organizations means an Israeli will plant it for you to honor a loved one. This commitment to tree planting has really paid off: Israel is one of only a few nations that welcomed the 21st century with more trees than it had 100 years ago. 

Arising from the pioneering kibbutzim enterprise, Israel today is teeming with bountiful examples of nature’s glory. In addition to the nation’s innovations in irrigation, water generation, and planting trees, its animals, vegetables, fruits, and birds are at once fascinating, beautiful, and enjoyable. Land animals like foxes and ibex constitute 116 species. With so many domesticated animals, such as Holstein cows, Israel leads the world in milk production. The Israel Dairy Board reports that kibbutz herds produce 64 percent of what Israel needs. In Exodus 3:8, God described Israel as “flowing with milk and honey.” For such a small country, Israel’s huge dairy cow production is remarkable.

Since the 1930s, Israelis have grown bananas by using special netting to protect them from high heat. In the 1970s Israel developed cherry tomatoes. And since 2008, Israelis have worked on cultivating ancient date seeds. They have found more seeds in the Judean desert at archaeological sites. Naming six of them—Adam, Jonah, Uriel, Boaz, Judith, and Hannah—scientists hope for date palms from these ancient seeds sometime in the future. 

In Deuteronomy 8:8, God calls Israel “a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey.” The olive tree, not surprisingly, is Israel’s national tree. With 2,600 native species of plants, Israel blooms profusely—with dramatic roses, lilies, tulips, carnations, iris, and gladiolas. And the small beautiful national flower, the anemone—also called the windflower—waves and dances on hillsides and in gardens. 

Gardens are found throughout Israel, beginning in the north at Haifa’s Baha’i Gardens, which draw half-a-million visitors every year. The gardens are so spectacular that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated it as a World Heritage site. The 30-acre Jerusalem Botanical Gardens and the Wohl Rose Garden are major attractions in the capital city. Further south, the Eilat Botanical Garden features 1,000 species of fruit trees, offering a green oasis in the middle of the desert.

Annually, 500 million birds fly round-trip over Israel as they migrate between Europe, Asia, and Africa. Israel itself has 70 native birds. In 2008, Reuters reported an interesting bird story. Israelis voted for the Hoopoe (Duchifat in Hebrew) as their national bird. The Hoopoe is mentioned in the Old Testament, but it’s forbidden as food, as are the eagle and pelican. The colorful bird is extraordinary with its long bill, crested head, and pink, black and white colors. The Hoopoe is unique, like Israel itself.  

One of the proofs that Israel is the Jewish homeland cannot be ignored. Since they have returned from exile, Israelis have created a brilliant canvas of Israeli nature that has thrived under its rightful owners. The Jewish Agency reports that between 2009 and 2019, the largest numbers of immigrants—out of a total of 255,000—were from Russia, Ukraine, France, the United States, and Ethiopia. Jews from 150 nations have come home to their Holy Land, fulfilling Scripture.  

Join CBN Israel in praying for Israel and her people this week:

  • Pray that Israel’s innovations, in nature and beyond, will continue blessing our world. 
  • Pray for Israel’s economy to boom as the nation emerges from COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions.
  • Pray for the people who have been broken by this pandemic to be restored in every way.
  • Pray for tourism to return to Israel not only for the sake of the Israeli economy but also so that people around the world can experience the Holy Land again. 
  • Pray for Israel’s fourth election in two years on March 23, 2021 and that the government will be able to work together for the good of the country.

May we praise God for all the promises He has fulfilled for His chosen people: “For the LORD will comfort Zion, He will comfort all her waste places; He will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in it, thanksgiving and the voice of melody” (Isaiah 51:3). 

Arlene Bridges Samuels pioneered Christian outreach for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). After she served nine years on AIPAC’s staff, International Christian Embassy Jerusalem USA engaged her as Outreach Director part-time for their project, American Christian Leaders for Israel. Arlene is now an author at The Blogs-Times of Israel and has traveled to Israel 25 times. She co-edited The Auschwitz Album Revisited by Artist Pat Mercer Hutchens and sits on the board of Violins of Hope South Carolina. Arlene has attended Israel’s Government Press Office Christian Media Summit three times and hosts her devotionals, The Eclectic Evangelical, on her website at

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Single Mother: Sonya’s Story 

Ten years ago, Sonya* had just immigrated to Israel, when she met the man she would marry. He was charming, had a great job, and since he was from Israel, he made her feel secure in her new country. They had two children. And for seven years, life seemed good. 

However, unbeknownst to Sonya, her husband had a compulsive gambling addiction. Keeping his dark secret hidden, he ran up huge debts—until his wife finally found out. Sonya was stunned, yet willing to forgive him and work together on a solution. Sadly, he didn’t want that choice. Instead, he deserted her and their children, with no support or contact. 

As a result, she could barely manage to pay her rent. Then the COVID-19 lockdown began. Out of work and losing her home, she found a tiny apartment. It was old, dirty, and mold-infested—but it was all she could afford. Surviving on odd jobs, she had nowhere to turn. 

And then, CBN Israel learned of her plight. Friends like you replaced her apartment’s dangerous moldy walls, repairing the leaks, and repainting while also providing her with food and other essentials. Sonya exclaimed, “I started crying and thanking God for His grace. Thank you so much for your help and support during this difficult time.” Now, her kids sleep safely and are well fed!

Through your support of CBN Israel, you can be a godsend to many single moms in Israel who have nowhere else to turn—as well as elderly Holocaust survivors, terror victims, immigrant families, and many more.

*Name and photo changed for privacy. 

In the midst of this global pandemic, your gifts can provide groceries, financial help, and vital necessities to those in desperate need. 


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Biblical Israel: Mount of Olives

By Marc Turnage

The Mount of Olives is a north-south ridge that sits on the eastern watershed of the hills around Jerusalem. To its east, the land slopes drastically down towards the Jordan River Valley and the area around Jericho, towards the Dead Sea. 

The steep fall-off of the topography east of the Mount of Olives, together with the weather patterns coming from the west off the Mediterranean Sea, which causes the rain to fall along the heights of the hill country, means that the land to the east of the Mount of Olives sits in the rain shadow, with little vegetation. This wilderness provided refuge for those seeking concealment from the authorities. When David fled Jerusalem from Absalom (2 Samuel 15:13-23), he went over the Mount of Olives into this wilderness seeking refuge.

The Mount of Olives in antiquity never belonged inside the city of Jerusalem. It always sat as its eastern boundary separated from the city of Jerusalem by the Kidron Valley. The Mount of Olives also served as Jerusalem’s cemetery beginning in the Chalcolithic period (Stone Age). Tombs from the time of the Judean monarchy (Old Testament), as well as the first century (New Testament) have been discovered on the Mount of Olives. At the foot of the mountain sit three monumentally decorated tombs from the first centuries B.C. and A.D., one of which is the misnamed Tomb of Absalom. 

When Jesus entered Jerusalem on His “Triumphal Entry” (Luke 19:28-29), He approached the city from the Mount of Olives. Pilgrims to Jerusalem today can walk down the Mount of Olives on the “Palm Sunday” processional route, but this would not have been the path Jesus took, as it led through a first century cemetery, which would have rendered Him ritually impure prohibiting Him from entering the Temple. Most likely His route would have taken Him over one the saddles of the ridge on either its northern or southern part. 

The prophet Zechariah proclaimed that at the end of the age, when God’s kingdom is revealed in all the world, that He will stand on the Mount of Olives, which will split east to west, opening a chasm that will cause the mountain to move to the north and south (Zechariah 14:4). The Mount of Olives is not only connected to Jerusalem’s history in both the Old and New Testaments; it is also directly linked to its future. 

Marc Turnage is President/CEO of Biblical Expeditions. He is an authority on ancient Judaism and Christian origins. He has published widely for both academic and popular audiences. His most recent book, Windows into the Bible, was named by Outreach Magazine as one of its top 100 Christian living resources. Marc is a widely sought-after speaker and a gifted teacher. He has been guiding groups to the lands of the Bible—Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy—for over twenty years.

Facebook: @witbuniversity
Podcast: Windows into the Bible Podcast


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Weekly Devotional: Remember All That God Has Done

“And He said to them, ‘Behold, when you have entered the city, a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him into the house which he enters. Then you shall say to the master of the house, “The Teacher says to you, ‘Where is the guest room where I may eat the Passover with My disciples?’” Then he will show you a large, furnished upper room; there make ready.’ So they went and found it just as He had said to them, and they prepared the Passover” (Luke 22:10-13 NKJV).

Jesus came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Pilgrims came to Jerusalem in obedience to the Law of Moses that commanded Jewish males to appear before the Lord at Passover (Exodus 23:14-15; Deuteronomy 16:16). If they came to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival, they did so to participate in the sacrificial system of the Jerusalem Temple, which culminated in the eating of the Passover lamb—inside the walled city of Jerusalem on the eve of Passover.

On the day of the eve of Passover, the Passover lambs were brought to the Temple. The person bringing the lamb slaughtered it. This was the only sacrifice where the one who brought the sacrifice slaughtered it instead of the priests in the Temple doing so. When Jesus instructed Peter and John to prepare the Passover, He spoke specifically about slaughtering the lamb and roasting it for the meal.

According to the Old Testament, participants must eat the Passover in the presence of the Lord. Due to the enormous size of the pilgrim crowds who traveled to Jerusalem for Passover in the first century, not everyone could fit into the Temple courts; thus, the Jewish sages extended the sanctity of the Temple to the walled city of Jerusalem on the eve of Passover.

In the first century, while the Temple stood, the eating of the Passover lamb constituted the primary event on the eve of Passover. Today Jewish families and communities all over the world participate in a Seder meal in which the Passover liturgy, the Haggadah, is recited. This liturgy developed centuries after Jesus and does not reflect the Passover meal of the first century. In the first century in Jerusalem, the meal consisted of eating the Passover lamb, drinking two cups of wine—one before the meal and one after—a retelling of the Exodus story in some form, and the singing of a few hymns.

Jesus, knowing what lay before Him over the next few hours, took the opportunity of the meal to provide His disciples a pointed object lesson: He called upon His disciples to remember His action and suffering. This remembrance formed the heart of their gatherings for centuries after, even to this day in some traditions.

The Passover meal was, in itself, a form of memory—remembering what God did for the children of Israel in delivering them from Egyptian bondage. Remember. Remember God’s saving acts. Why do we need to remember what God has done? Especially with the death of Jesus and the Exodus—those are pretty big events. But Jesus called upon His followers, as God did the children of Israel, to remember and celebrate. How often do we do that? 

God uses sacred moments within the Bible, on holidays and the Sabbath, and during Communion to give us the opportunity to stop long enough so that He can be present with us in a special way and cause us to remember. Why? Because we tend to forget. We forget what He’s done for us. We forget to celebrate His redemptive acts. This is why Jesus instructed His disciples to “do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19 NKJV).

Remember. Don’t forget. Be sure to create space for God’s presence, to remember, and celebrate His wondrous redemption in your life.


Father, we remember Your mighty acts of redemption. We celebrate Your deliverance. Amen.

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Torah Reading Commentary: Mercy

By Mark Gerson

If there were a contest for the least Jewish expression in popular parlance, a leading contender might be: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words shall never hurt me.”

God could have created the world using any technique and done so instantaneously. Instead, He chose to do so with a succession of expressions, each beginning with “God said.” We are all familiar with the Ten Commandments, but the correct translation is: Ten Words. God’s words are demonstrably powerful and intentional.

The Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, one of the giants of the faith of the 20th century and of all time, was particularly attuned to the importance of words. The conventional name for “hospital” in Hebrew is Beit Holim—“House of the Sick.” He always used another term, Beit Refua—“House of Healing.” Similarly, he would never use the term “deadline,” but instead “due date.”

In that spirit, let’s consider “Mercy”—which is, according to Wikipedia, “a game of strength, skill, endurance, and pain tolerance popular in Britain, Canada, Pakistan, India, the United States, and elsewhere. The game is played by two players who grasp each other’s hands (with interlocked fingers). The aim is to twist the opponent’s hands or bend the fingers until the opponent surrenders.”

This is an unfortunate game, and not only because of the tissue damage it can cause in the hands of contestants. It is unfortunate because mercy is one of the most important Judeo-Christian ideas, and the game gives children a completely distorted introduction to it.

The importance of mercy is to be found in the answer to a fundamental question of faith: What is God? Many will answer that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and invisible—yet everywhere. All of that, and more, might be right. But the Bible, our ever-present companion and guide, provides us the answer—in the words of God himself. In Exodus 34:6, God describes Himself. Judaism rarely has a name for a biblical passage. But it does in this case. We refer to God’s self-description as the “Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.”

The number 13 has, as do other numbers (particularly 4, 7 and 15), great significance in Judaism. As Rabbi Zalman Gordon points out, the world is structured around the number 12. The year is structured around 12 months, and the Jewish people are structured around 12 tribes. Thirteen then, is the structure of the world plus one—reinforcing the notion that these attributes are God’s sacred self-description that go beyond the human realm.

Each of the 13 attributes is appropriate for its subject and is both fascinating and worthy of deep contemplation. They do not all describe what we would even broadly refer to as mercy. Yet, many translate them using the same word: “mercy.” The God of the Torah is, of course, quintessentially multifaceted. Yet when we want one word to describe God, we choose “merciful.”

That should lead all who love God to ask: What, then, is mercy? It is, in the Jewish imagination, a combination of two other qualities. Much as the combination of red and blue yields purple, the combination of justice and kindness yields mercy.


Justice is effectively actualized truth—it is, in an absolute sense, what one deserves. Isaac Newton’s third law of motion states that every action produces an equal and opposite reaction. Gravity is one example. That every crime should be prosecuted with a legally ordained punishment is another.

Kindness, on the other hand, is characterized by giving freely, regardless of whether the recipient deserves what he is being provided.

It is a staple of Jewish culture that the answer is often provided before the question. This is certainly the case with mercy. God may have announced Himself as merciful in Exodus 34, but He already demonstrated it in Exodus 22, in the unlikely context of commercial law. He allows one Jew to take collateral from another but requires that said collateral be returned before sunset. This is not because the deal is expected to be completed within a day. Rather, God explains: “The cloak [collateral] is the only covering your neighbor has. What else can they sleep in? Therefore, if he cries out to Me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.”

In other words: “How could you be thinking about strict justice when your neighbor has nothing to sleep in? What is wrong with you?”

The quality of mercy is best described in modern times through New York’s Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. In the recounting of this story provided by Rabbi Yoseph Y. Geisinsky, Mayor LaGuardia stopped by night court on a freezing night in January of 1935. He told the judge that he would take over that night.

An elderly woman came before Mayor (now Judge) LaGuardia, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She explained, in the depths of the Great Depression, that she stole the bread to feed her grandchildren who would otherwise be without any food.

Mayor LaGuardia asked the shopkeeper if he still wanted to press charges. The shopkeeper said that he felt for the woman but that no one could stay in business if robbery was tolerated.

The penalty for that kind of robbery was $10 and 10 days in jail.

Mayor LaGuardia announced, “Justice is justice.” He fined the woman, took $10 out of his wallet, gave it to the woman, and told her to pay the fine. He then looked around the courtroom and fined everyone $.50 for the crime of living in a city where a grandmother had to rob a store in order to feed her grandchildren. Everyone, including the shopkeeper, paid—and Mayor LaGuardia handed the woman $47.50.

He received a standing ovation, making the shopkeeper surely the only robbery victim to ever pay the thief—and be happy and uplifted by it.

Where did Mayor LaGuardia acquire such wisdom? One cannot know for sure. He was Jewish in the same way that Elvis Presley and Cecile DeMille were—straight through the maternal line, making him (by the standards of Jewish law) fully Jewish. So perhaps he learned, directly or some other way, through Jewish memory.

The Talmud, as Rabbi Gordon relates, tells the story of the great scholar Rava. A fellow sage brought a case before him in which he was demanding compensation for barrels that had been broken by hired porters. This sage had taken the cloaks of the clumsy porters as collateral, assuming that Rava would rule in his favor and at which point he was prepared to return the cloaks. To his surprise and likely dismay, Rava ruled that not only must the sage return the cloaks immediately and without compensation, but that he must pay the porters for their labor (Bava Metzia 83a).

In both cases—the Talmudic original and Mayor LaGuardia’s application to contemporary times—we learn about mercy and, by extension, about God. Mercy is about acknowledging that strict notions of justice are right and relevant, but that they often must be tempered by kindness. A disputant can take comfort that he is absolutely right yet also agree to stand down.

After all, isn’t that what we—failed, broken, and disappointing people—want God to do with us?

Mark Gerson, a devoted Jew, is an entrepreneur and philanthropist who (along with his wife, Rabbi Erica Gerson) is perhaps the world’s largest individual supporter of Christian medical missions. He is the co-founder of African Mission Healthcare (AMH) and the author of a book on the Haggadah: The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life.

Twitter: @markgerson
Podcast: The Rabbi’s Husband

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