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Weekly Devotional: Where God Dwells

“For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isaiah 57:15 RSV).

The dissonance of this verse is astounding! The God who dwells in the highest heaven, who inhabits eternity, also resides with the contrite and humble of spirit. Why does He dwell there? To revive them. To lift them up. It seems impossible to imagine that the King of the universe dwells with the contrite and humble. 

Within the ancient world, the gods were capricious, caring about their sacrifices and the mighty; human morality did not move the gods. Neither did human poverty. The God of the Bible is fundamentally different. People’s obedience and repentance moved Him. 

The suffering, the poor, those on the fringe of society—He identified with them. The mighty, He cast down; the proud, He resisted. The contrite, He revives their heart. The humble, He revives their spirit. 

The economy of God’s kingdom turns upside down the normal order of things. He often values what others overlook or despise, and He despises what we tend to value. 

The Hebrew word translated as “contrite” literally means “crushed.” Those who are crushed. The God who inhabits eternity dwells among those who feel crushed. 

The structure of the verse indicates that the crushed and contrite are also the humble in spirit. The “humble in spirit” doesn’t merely mean those who are humble; it carries with it the sense of those whose spirits are low, depressed. Have you been there? The God of the universe dwells with you.

Our weakness does not hinder or prevent God’s presence. His greatness does not distance Him from our brokenness. Rather, He dwells with us there. He does not leave us there; His presence comes to revive us. 

PRAYER

Father, You dwell in eternity, yet You reside with us in our brokenness to revive us. How great are You, O Lord! Amen.

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Torah Reading Commentary: Jethro’s Concern

By Mark Gerson

The parsha (Torah portion) we Jews read last week in synagogue was about the greatest moment in the history of humankind: when God gave the Ten Commandments (and, according to some scholars, the entire Torah) to Moses at Mount Sinai. It was such a dramatic moment that the people “saw the sounds.” They—we—were so overwhelmed, our senses were discombobulated to the point where sounds became objects of sight. Moreover, the sound of the trumpet became “continually louder”—when in reality, of course, sounds soften after reaching their peak.

What would we imagine, then, that this parsha be named? Perhaps for the Ten Commandments, perhaps for Moses, perhaps for Sinai. One would think the greatest moment in all of humankind would be worthy of a parsha title in the Bible.

But that is not what the Author of the Torah did. He named this parsha “Jethro,” after Moses’ father-in-law. The fact that the character of Jethro receives a distinction that the Torah does not, and that Moses does not, leads us to ask: What is so special about Jethro and what can we learn from him?

The first thing we are told about Jethro in this parsha is that he is a “priest of Midian.” He is a Gentile. We are soon informed that Jethro “heard everything that God had done for Moses and for his people Israel.” Jethro would have heard about the Exodus along with everyone else in the world. The news may have taken longer to travel then than it does now, but everyone would have known that God had freed the Jewish slaves from the grip of the most important empire in the world, Egypt.

Yet Jethro is the one person who genuinely heard. He was moved by what he learned, and as such did not treat it as an abstract news event, but rather as cause to do something. And he did something bold and courageous. He went to visit Moses in the desert.

One might ask: What is courageous about visiting one’s son-in-law? It becomes somewhat clearer when we read, in Exodus 18:2, that Zipporah ( Jethro’s daughter) “had been sent away.” This is, as the Hebrew scholar Nehemia Gordon notes, the ancient expression for divorce. And the rupture in the relationship between Moses and his family becomes even clearer when Jethro finds Moses in the camp.

“I, your father-in-law Jethro, have come to you with your wife and her two sons with her.” Her two sons—Gershon and Eliezer. Their father was Moses. Yet Jethro identifies the boys as “her” two sons. This is not a snarky insult, but a profound statement about the nature of Jewish parenthood. Judaism does not consider parenthood to be a biological phenomenon but a deeply moral and substantive set of obligations and responsibilities. That is why Judaism considers grandparenthood to be akin to parenthood, as grandparents assume the responsibility of transmission along with the parents. Moses has not earned the designation “father” and he does not even attempt a rebuttal.

What is Jethro thinking at this point? We are not told, which is not surprising. The Torah does not generally grant us entry into the inner lives or intimate feelings of its characters. We observe actions and try to intuit what must have driven and motivated them. But as usual in the Torah, we are given enough to come to a reasonable conclusion. Moses had abandoned his family. He, with God’s help, had led the world’s first slave rebellion and had defeated the most powerful empire in the world. All other conquerors had used their victory to augment their power.

Jethro, like all people on all journeys (whether to the supermarket or the Promised Land), must have been imagining something. What could that have been? Presumably something along the lines of the writer of the World War I classic, “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?”—but much more so. Jethro probably figured that Moses had abandoned his family for good to become like every other conqueror—and establish himself as a demigod with nearly absolute power accompanying divine pretensions.

And yet Jethro goes to visit anyway.

In Exodus 18:7, we are told Moses’ reaction. Moses “prostrated himself and kissed him [Jethro] and each inquired about the other’s well-being.” They made small talk! Then came the big talk: “Moses told his father-in-law everything that God had done to Pharaoh and Egypt for Israel’s sake—all the travail that had befallen them on the way—and that God had rescued them.”

Jethro, a man defined by his quality as a listener, surely heard a sound of silence. Moses does not mention himself. Moses spoke of what God did to Pharaoh and to Egypt for Israel’s sake.

These were not the words of an imperious conqueror. They were the words of, as the Torah later describes Moses, “the most humble man ever to live.”

Jethro’s reaction? He is—and this is what the Hebrew says—“pricked with joy.” He is so happy that this is the Moses he found, that he gets goose bumps. Jethro falls in love with Moses and with Moses’ Boss, who inspired His prophet to act this way. Jethro becomes the third person, and the third Gentile in the Bible, to say: “Blessed is God,” and he follows the blessing with a declaration: “Now I know that God is greater than all the gods.”

Jethro continues by making offerings to God and hosting a feast. Moses’ brother Aaron was at the feast, as were “all the elders of Israel.” But there was a conspicuous absence: Moses was not there.

The text does not make us wait for long to surmise where Moses was. “It was on the very next day,” we learn in Exodus 18:13, that Jethro observed Moses judging disputes “from the morning until the evening.” He missed the dinner, presumably, because he needed to be judging.

Jethro confronts Moses. “What is this thing that you do to the people?” He tells Moses to institute a judicial bureaucracy composed of “men of accomplishment, God fearing people, men of truth and people who despise money.”

Jethro’s primary concern is instructive. He is concerned about the effects of workaholism on Moses: “You will surely be worn out,” he explains to Moses in Exodus 18:18. But Jethro’s primary focus is on the Jewish people: “What is this,” he asks in Exodus 18:14, “that you do to the people?”

What could Moses have been doing to the people? He was the one hearing their disputes, and he must have had a good reason for doing so. Moses, a brilliant man (to put it mildly), surely had considered delegating, especially as he felt the pain of its absence; the Bible says that judging as he did “wore him out.” Moreover, he had already proven that he understood the benefits of relying on delegating, as when he relied upon Aaron, Hur and Joshua to win the battle against the Amalekites a short time before. 

Yet he decided against delegating when it came to judging. We are not told why. Perhaps he wanted all the people to benefit from his superior rulings. Perhaps, due to his stature or disposition, disputants came easier to compromise in his presence.

Whatever the case, Jethro was not having it. So long as Moses was the only person who could hear disputes, his original concern stood—that Moses would become, or even just be perceived as, a demigod. Instead, Jethro told Moses to empower lots of other people, despite the fact that their rulings would not be as good as his. This empowerment would lead to a widespread investment in the system, as people would draw conviction from the fact that they were able to make rulings that would reflect and define the Jewish future. 

And that, Jethro seemed to realize, would prepare the people for its most important reality. Someday, Moses would be gone. How would the Jewish people continue to survive and thrive in the absence of their great leader? By, perhaps paradoxically, seeking and accepting rulings that would not be as good as possible—just as if Moses had made them all. This concession would enable the construction of systems and processes—an institution—that was widely respected by the people. The people would then inculcate the virtues and practices of the institution in their children, who would be obligated and enthusiastic to pass it on to their children.

The result? The Jewish religion—which we owe to our great Gentile friend and observer, Jethro.

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 forthcoming book on the Haggadah: The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life.  

Website: therabbishusband.com
Twitter: @markgerson
Podcast: The Rabbi’s Husband

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Jerusalem’s Temple Mount: Arguably the Most Disputed Real Estate on Earth

By Arlene Bridges Samuels

Three thousand years of recorded history sit atop, around, and below the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital city. The 37-acre trapezium-shaped platform rises 2,400 feet above ground. Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall (Kotel in Hebrew), is on the southwest side. Built by King Herod during Roman occupation, it’s one of the outer retaining walls, with limestone block upon limestone block reaching a height of 60 feet. 

The Western Wall Heritage Foundation notes that this sacred site is visited by upwards of 12 million people annually. It is often the first place Christians want to visit. That held true for me in 1990 on my first trip to Israel and for many trips afterwards. 

One of my favorite hours to visit the Kotel is at night, when neither Jews nor Christians crowd the plaza. Reaching out to push my tiny prayer paper into an already-crowded crevice, I lean my forehead against the stones. I’m filled with awe as I picture our Lord Jesus walking the Pilgrim Road up to the Temple to teach and celebrate the Jewish feasts. Jerusalem holds His invisible footprints. The quiet of the evening adds to moments of peace, as I breathe in the Jerusalem air that is sown with thousands of years of prayers and history. 

Millions of Christians have joined with countless generations of Jews in drawing deep spiritual meaning from praying at the Kotel on one side of the Temple Mount. Yet why does it remain such a disputed area? Like all things in Israel, complexity and conflict are woven into an intricate yet holy history. 

Here’s a brief look into just a few points of that history. The three monotheistic religions—Judaism, Islam, and Christianity—fasten the 37-acre platform to their faiths for varying reasons and are protected by Israel’s religious freedom. Christians honor the Temple Mount because our Jewish Savior Jesus taught in and around the Second Temple during His earthly life. For Muslims, the mount (Arabic: al-Ḥaram al-Sharīf) is said to be the spot where their founder Mohammed arrived after journeying from Mecca to Jerusalem—and from which they believe he ascended to heaven.

In Jewish hearts and prayers, conquests by Babylonians, Romans, Turkish Ottomans, and others could never dim the holiness of this sacred place. The Temple Mount (Har HaBáyit) and Western Wall (Kotel) have been revered for three millennia in Jewish thought and emotion. 

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the final authority, transcribing His words through Jewish minds and hands in the Old and New Testaments. In a conversation between God and Abraham in Genesis 17:19, God codified His eternal real estate deed: “Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac; and I will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come.” In modern times, the historical facts have been proven repeatedly by archaeology’s considerable discoveries.

The Western Wall Foundation reports that “touring the length of it and praying next to its gates is an ancient tradition.” In the 10th century, a Jerusalem resident sent a letter to a Jewish community in the Diaspora showing the intensity of the Jewish dependence on the location, saying, “We have no comfort other than circling the gates and bowing and asking for mercy.” The Temples’ two physical structures have slipped into the background, the al-Aqsa Mosque still stands, yet God has never abandoned His eternal contract with the Jewish people. 

Fast forward several thousand years to May 14, 1948, where a biblical shift occurred—a magnificent, world-changing event. The questions asked in Isaiah 66:8 turned into a modern answer. “Who has ever heard of such things? Who has ever seen things like this? Can a country be born in a day or a nation be brought forth in a moment? Yet no sooner is Zion in labor than she gives birth to her children.” Israel became a restored and modern Jewish state after the United Nations vote on May 14, 1948. 

The first Prime Minister, Ben Gurion, announced the modern state’s name, Israel, inside a simple art gallery in Tel Aviv, now known as Independence Hall. Stepping to the microphone, he read the Declaration of Independence where a large portrait of Theodore Herzl hung on the wall behind him. The dream of the visionary Herzl—the father of modern political Zionism—had come true! 

The exuberant residents of the newly recognized nation danced in the streets! But all too soon—the next day, in fact—the dancing stopped, as hostilities began in the Arab-instigated War of Independence. Although ill equipped, Israel won that conflict, but the incident was the beginning of wars and conflicts that have produced almost unrelenting chaos for Israel in various forms ever since. The Temple Mount epitomizes one of the most contentious and unique battlefields in history, as conflict grew more consequential. 

The Six-Day war in 1967 literally changed the Israeli landscape, when the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan attacked Israel—and Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, West Bank (biblical Judea and Samaria), Jerusalem’s old city, and the Golan Heights. Israel’s victory between June 5-10 still stands as one of the most monumental events in Jewish history. In three hours on June 5, the Israel Air Force wiped out most of Egypt’s air power. 

One of my favorite stories occurred on June 7, the day that victorious Israeli paratroopers stood at the Western Wall in a united Jerusalem. Brigadier-General Shlomo Goren, one of the first to arrive at the Wall, was also a Rabbi. He brought his Torah scroll in one arm and his shofar in the other. He prayed the first Jewish prayer at the Wall since 1948. Then putting the shofar to his lips, he blew the sounds that resonate in the way only a shofar can. Its commanding notes sounded the victory at the sacred wall. Someone took his photograph surrounded by the soldiers, and the iconic photo went around the world. Rabbi Goren was the head of the military rabbinate of the Israel Defense Forces and later became the Chief Rabbi of Israel.

Under Jordan’s rule in Jerusalem from 1948 until 1967, the Temple Mount was managed by the Islamic Waqf, a Jordanian foundation. Jews were not allowed on the Temple Mount. Despite such restrictions, in the immediate aftermath of the Six-Day War, Israel’s leadership made decisions that they hoped would create mutual tolerance. 

Years ago, historian Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, eloquently summed up Israel’s high-minded response: “The great irony … is that when the Jews had the opportunity to take over al-Aqsa on June 7, 1967, when an Israeli flag flew over the Dome of the Rock mosque, when the rabbi of the [Israel Defense Forces] was advocating blowing up the mosque … along came the great warrior Moshe Dayan.” Oren says Dayan stated, ‘Not only are we not going to blow up the mosque—we’re going to take down the Israeli flag and give the mosque back to the Jordanians, who just tried to wage a war of annihilation against us.’ Understand the magnanimity of that gesture. We’ve been paying for it ever since.”

And pay they have. The Jordanian Waqf still manages the Temple Mount, and Israeli police still control security. Imams spew out inflammatory sermons, with baseless lies alleging that Israel is going to blow up the shrine and the mosque. Just one small incident or word can elicit such hysteria that Israeli police are sometimes forced to close the Temple Mount. In the hands of Muslims, the Temple Mount is a pawn used in a deadly game of hatred toward Israel, the rightful inheritors of the 37-acre platform. 

To date, the 2000-2005 Intifada (uprising) is the most horrific consequence of the Waqf and Israel, locked in disastrous tandem. One stirs up hatred; the other tries to keep the peace. The Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs lists the Intifada’s deadly results: “Over 1,000 Israelis were killed and thousands severely injured. Over 2,000 Palestinians were also killed during this period. The disproportionate number of Palestinian casualties was primarily a result of the number of Palestinians involved in violence. The unfortunate deaths of noncombatants were largely due to the practice of Palestinian terrorists using civilians as shields.” One of my Israeli friends said that every Israeli knew someone who had been murdered or seriously injured. 

In another example, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of “desecrating Muslim holy sites with their filthy feet” in autumn of 2015. His lies spread in a social media frenzy. The result: 34 Israelis were killed in terror attacks. Since then, stabbings, car ramming, suicide attacks, and kidnappings have occurred. Thankfully, Israeli military and police have prevented hundreds more attacks than have taken place. Paradoxically, Israel is safe for tourists, safer than many America cities. If I were in Israel now, I’d feel safe walking alone again to the Western Wall at night. 

As if physical violence were not enough, one final shameful attack on the Temple Mount took place following the 2015 terror. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) says it “promotes world peace and security through international cooperation.” Yet in 2016 they passed a resolution deleting the Jewish Temple Mount history—by renaming Israel’s holiest landmark with an Arabic name: the alAqsa Mosque. In erasing the Temple Mount, they also erased all blame on the Palestinians. UNESCO, which is charge of designating World Heritage Sites, un-designated the Temple Mount’s 3,000-year Jewish connection. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated in response, “UNESCO is rewriting a basic part of human history.” 

The golden dome atop the Dome of the Rock—the oldest Muslim religious building outside Saudi Arabia—shines under a blue Jerusalem sky. Yet its beauty belies the ugly anger and violence always lurking beneath, threatening the precarious balance of politics and religion on the 37-acre site and beyond. 

In your prayers this week, you may want to log in to the Western Wall camera where you can send your prayers to the Wall (https://thekotel.org/en/western-wall/western-wall-cameras):

  • Pray for the al-Aqsa mosque Imams to stop their hateful sermons that incite violence.  
  • Pray for social media outlets to prevent hatred from flowing into the already volatile conflict. 
  • Pray for UNESCO and other U.N. organizations to focus on truths proven by history.
  • Pray that Christians will educate themselves about history through CBN Israel and other credible media and then spread the facts. 

The peace Israel has longed for before and since 1948 remains elusive. May we pray that someday the golden dome will shine as a symbol of peace. 

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 ArleneBridgesSamuels.com.

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Blessing Arab Communities in Israel

Lost employment, closed businesses, lockdowns…The current pandemic has brought hardship across the Holy Land. And CBN Israel has delivered aid to many during this time. But how do you reach those who are desperate—yet have a hard time asking for help?

That describes many of Israel’s 1.8 million Israeli Arab citizens. Since their culture fosters discretion, pride, and shame, it is hard for them to admit their need. CBN Israel looked for a way to reach these suffering families. And then we partnered with Sam, a local Israeli Arab.

Working with vulnerable Arab populations, Sam understands their culture. He prayed that God would guide him to those in greatest need. One day at work, he was talking with the Arab office cleaning staff. They were from a poor Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem, where residents live in terrible conditions. Some even lack running water, or a proper roof over their heads. Many have struggled during COVID-19 to provide for their large families.

Sam shared with them that God had spoken to him of their plight—and that CBN Israel wanted to bless them with food vouchers to buy groceries. They were so moved—some also gave vouchers to hurting neighbors. And as doors have opened, we have been there with more food vouchers, medicine, and essentials to Arab families there, and in the West Bank.

CBN Israel is also reaching others in crisis, including single mothers, refugees, Holocaust survivors, terror victims, and lone soldiers. Your support is crucial in offering relief aid across Israel, now and beyond the pandemic.

You can provide food, housing, financial assistance, and more. Please join us in bringing help and encouragement to others!

GIVE TODAY

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Biblical Israel: Mount Carmel

By Marc Turnage

Mount Carmel is a limestone ridge that bisects the coastal plain of the land of Israel branching off from the mountains of Samaria west towards the Mediterranean coast. It is most famous as the location for the confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al (1 Kings 18:19).

Today, the Carmelite monastery of Mukhraka (Arabic meaning “burned place”) remembers that event. The mountain’s geographic location along the Mediterranean coast makes it fertile for agriculture (600mm average rainfall a year), which also led biblical writers and prophets to herald Carmel as a place of agricultural abundance (Song of Solomon 7:6; Isaiah 33:9; 35:2; Amos 1:2). Its fertility, rainfall, and proximity to the Phoenician coast, just to its north, made Carmel an appropriate location for the worship of Ba’al, the Phoenician god of storms and fertility. Even after Elijah, people continued to worship Ba’al of Carmel. 

The fertility, precipitation, and location of Mount Carmel play a key role in the story of Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al. Agriculture in the land of Israel proved difficult in the ancient world. The people depended solely upon God for rain to water their fields and crops due to the topography of the land (see Deuteronomy 8; 11:10-20). 

For this reason, God promised that as long as Israel obeyed Him and His commandments, He would send rain in its season; if Israel disobeyed, He would shut the heavens, so it wouldn’t rain. The concern for rain in its season (at the appropriate time) lead the Israelites to often look also to other local deities, like Ba’al, to provide rain, just in case.

The people had turned from God by worshipping Ba’al during the reign of King Ahab, and therefore, God sent drought on the land. Elijah called the children of Israel, together with the prophets of Ba’al, to gather on Mount Carmel. Mount Carmel receives some form of precipitation 250 days a year; it sits on the southern edge of Phoenicia where Ba’al worship originated. It also provided a high place. 

Ba’al is often depicted walking on the mountains, a god of high places. The drought that God sent offered a direct challenge to the god of rain. Elijah’s challenge, the god who answered with fire was God; Ba’al’s symbol was a lightening bolt. The heart of the story lies within the geographic setting of Mount Carmel. 

Of course, after God sends the fire upon Elijah’s sacrifice, and the people turn to the Lord as God, then He sends the rain. The setting and background of this story underline the challenges of daily life faced by the ancient Israelites; these challenges that raised the fundamental question that Elijah posed to the people, “If the Lord is God, then serve Him.”

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.

Website: WITBUniversity.com
Facebook: @witbuniversity
Podcast: Windows into the Bible Podcast

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Weekly Devotional: What Are You Saying?

“The mouths of the righteous utter wisdom, and their tongues speak what is just. The law of their God is in their hearts; their feet do not slip” (Psalm 37:30-31 NIV).

Our modern world has provided each of us with a variety of platforms to communicate and let ourselves be heard. Our age of social media offers an opportunity for us to comment, share, and express our opinions, thoughts, and feelings. That’s not necessarily a good thing. 

Our ease of communication, having a platform to share our thoughts, has not made us better communicators. It certainly hasn’t made us better listeners. Rather, our words often deepen divides between us; they do not often display wisdom or justice.

The psalmist identified a righteous person based upon what comes out of their mouth: wisdom and justice. You can tell a lot about a person by what they say. The psalmist continues that the righteous have God’s law in their hearts. Our words give evidence to what is in our hearts. If God’s law resides in us, then our words will reflect wisdom and justice. If they do not, then people can rightly question what lies in our hearts.

If, however, we hold the law of God in our hearts, we can have the confidence that our steps will not slip. How do we place God’s law in our hearts? By studying it. Thinking about it. Implementing what we have learned. Controlling our words and behaviors.

It doesn’t just happen. It requires conscious effort and discipline. Spiritual growth, like growth in any area of our lives, requires discipline, effort, and choices to obey and follow through, even when we don’t feel like it.  

The Bible connects our relationship with God to our behaviors and our words. They testify to what’s in our hearts; they exhibit whether or not we have internalized His law in our hearts. Living for God means that we choose to bring every word and deed under His rule to reflect wisdom and justice. 

PRAYER

Father, keep our tongue from evil and our lips from speaking guile, and let the words of our mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight. Amen.

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Torah Reading Commentary: Reversion to the Mean

By Mark Gerson

One of the most important concepts in finance is “reversion to the mean.” Core to everything from options pricing to stock valuation, this concept incorporates the belief that prices will revert to the place where they have mostly been. If a stock is trading at significantly below its historic price-to-earnings ratio for no specific reason (the emergence of a strong competitor, a scandal in the management), a trader might reasonably buy on the assumption that the P/E ratio will revert to its mean.

The Torah, in the Exodus story, shows us reversion to the mean is not just a finance concept. It describes one of the biggest problems in life, and the Torah—being God’s guidebook for living—prescribes the solution.

We have all (hopefully!) experienced religious, spiritual, or emotional highs. These might come at one’s wedding, upon being told you’re pregnant, at the birth of a child, at a Bar Mitzvah or christening, upon hitting the winning shot in the big game, upon falling in love at first sight.

The term “high” is appropriate here, as it is the feeling of being lifted above the normal range of emotions. This high is a wonderful, and perhaps the best, part of life. The reality, though, is that it has a very short life. The player hits the shot to win the state championship, but the math test is still on Tuesday. The wedding is full of prayers and toasts, dancing and reuniting. The honeymoon extends the high—but soon there is garbage to be taken out, a bothersome relative to deal with, and clients who need their project done on time. The baby is born and everyone celebrates—and then the sleepless nights begin.

Hence, one of the ironies of life: So much joy consists of anticipating, striving for, and living these highs in a life that will inevitably, and quickly, revert to the mean. This reversion will bring emotional volatility that can be destabilizing and even depressing.

Judaism offers us two ways to cope with this reversion—neither of which, importantly, involves denying ourselves these highs. First, we prepare ourselves for the reversion in the midst of our highs. For instance, the first act of a married man, while he is still under the chuppah (the Jewish marital canopy), is to step on and break a glass. We do this to remind ourselves, in this moment of our greatest joy and hope, that the Temple was destroyed. By acknowledging one of our greatest national sorrows in the midst of joy, we are reminded of the complexity of life—and that we can destroy this marriage as easily as we can break the glass.

The second way is immortalized in the famous song of the sea that opens Exodus 15. The Jewish people had just experienced the greatest high in the history of the world. God had just liberated us from Egyptian slavery, with the final act being the parting of the Red Sea—an act so awesome that its modern rendition constituted two of the most popular movies of the 20th century. 

This moment inspired the Jews to do something no one in the Bible had done before: sing. This is understandable; the emotions of such a moment could not be expressed in words alone. They needed song and dance.

The opening lyrics to the song, though, reveal how Moses wanted the people to handle the moment. It would solve the problem of reversion to the mean. “I will build a shrine to God,” the song says (according to the ancient commentator Onkelos). In other words, per Boca Raton Synagogue Rabbi Efrem Goldberg’s interpretation of Onkelos, the Jews would not only celebrate the moment. They would dedicate it to God, and in so doing allow it to last forever.

How did Moses and the Jews “build a shrine to God”? Most commentators link this lyric to the building of the Temple, which occurs shortly after. The gift of the verse, though, is what it arouses us to realize and what it inspires us to ask. If the Jews in the desert can enshrine the greatest feeling of all time, we can enshrine how we feel when we get married. How, though, can we do so?

We do not have to build a Temple. However, let’s say someone wins the lottery and suddenly becomes a millionaire. She could take a significant part of that windfall and establish a perpetual scholarship for needy children. Let’s say a soccer player, in overtime, dribbles through a defense and scores the winning goal as time elapses. The player becomes regionally famous. He could build on the respect of the local kids to coach them and to instill in them the habits that will lead them to succeed on and off the field.

The lottery winner would experience her high whenever one of those children graduates from the school she enabled them to attend. The center forward would experience his high with the success of each child he coached.

But imagining each of these two hypothetical winners leads us to another realization. They will not only experience the high over and over; they will also create the potential for the furthering of the original experience. We realize the Torah’s formulation—“build a shrine”—is perfect. When we build something, it becomes greater. The winner will not just experience the high again and again. The winner will experience the original high, plus the ever-increasing pleasure that comes with building and growing one’s most treasured creation.

And this can last forever—and in so doing create a new mean to which we will never revert.

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 forthcoming book on the Haggadah: The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life.  

Website: therabbishusband.com
Twitter: @markgerson
Podcast: The Rabbi’s Husband

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The Israel Law Center: Fighting for Justice on Court Battlegrounds 

By Arlene Bridges Samuels

“Money drives terrorism,” declares prominent American attorney Alan Dershowitz. “If funding is cut, terrorism is reduced.” So says Dershowitz in his review of Nitsana Darshan-Leitner’s 2017 book Harpoon: Inside the Covert War Against Terrorism’s Money Masters. The book addresses Israel’s tactics of starving terrorist organizations of the funds they need to launch their attacks—by destroying the numerous money pipelines that feed them.

Author Darshan-Leitner is an Israeli attorney who in 2002 founded Shurat HaDin, the Israel Law Center (ILC), a non-governmental civil-rights organization. She is an expert litigator in cases involving a wide range of unprovoked terror acts against Jews. Nitsana uses a posture of offense, not defense, to prosecute Israel’s enemies in court battlegrounds around the world—in Israel, the United States, the International Criminal Court (ICC), and beyond. Shurat HaDin also networks with Western intelligence agencies, law enforcement, and volunteer lawyers internationally to file legal actions. 

The organization is fully aware that, in a world infected with escalating anti-Semitism, terrorism can take many forms. While Israel’s military protects its citizens in the air, on land, on (and under) the sea, and on the internet, justice for victims of terrorism and their families is more vital than ever. That’s why the ILC is working to resolve such issues in a lesser-known battlefield: the courts.

Dershowitz commends Nitsana and her efforts: “I have followed the work of Nitsana and her Israel Law Center in Tel-Aviv since its inception … noting her continuous successes both in and out of the courtroom, while admiring her innovation and determination. … She truly reflects the best of the next generation of advocates for Israel and young leadership dedicating their extraordinary creativity and talents for the benefit of the world Jewish community.”   

Indeed, Darshan-Leitner’s  expertise was on display during her briefing at the Israel Government Press Office (GPO) Christian Media Summit that I attended in 2018. I sat riveted as she opened our eyes to the multi-layered nature of terrorism and anti-Semitism. It was at once frightening and hopeful. Shurat HaDin not only takes on cases for Israeli terror victims but also against enablers of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (B.D.S.) movement—economic warfare targeting Israel. Some of the litigation has taken years to move through the courts but persistence, strategies, and skill win the day, at the very least sending a strong warning to terrorists. 

Shurat HaDin has won billions of dollars in judgments for its plaintiffs and millions in recompense to individuals and families. But collecting the monies can be a convoluted path. Some successes yield a fraction of what the courts awarded, as nations like Iran, North Korea, and Syria ignore the court decisions. 

Despite setbacks and challenges that seem unsolvable, Shurat HaDin and similar organizations are vitally important in their pursuit of justice. It is the right thing to do. As renowned author and Holocaust survivor, Eli Wiesel, famously declared, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” 

The Israel Law Center’s work for justice continues to expose many examples of terrorism. In October 2014, a Palestinian rammed his car into a group of Israelis exiting a light-rail train in Jerusalem, killing a 3-month-old baby and injuring others. The lawsuit accused Iran and Syria of “material support” for the terrorist’s attack. Israel Law Center won a stunning $178,500,000 judgment for the family against Iran and Syria in January 2017, which was later reversed and is pending appeal in the courts. 

In 2011, two Palestinian terrorists slithered under a fence at night into the Jewish town of Itamar in Samaria. They entered the home of a sleeping family and slit the throats of the parents and three of their six children. In 2018, family members filed a lawsuit against the Palestinian Authority (PA), Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and the terrorists themselves. An extended family member said on behalf of the family, “From our point of view, the claim is meant to send a message: anyone with blood on his hands who carried out the massacre of our beloved family will not get away and will pay a heavy price.”

Of special interest right now, with Facebook, Google, and Twitter shutting down conservative free speech, the Israel Law Center has been engaged in cases against the social media giants since 2015. Darshan-Leitner is prosecuting a lawsuit for five families whose loved ones were murdered by Hamas and Islamic Jihad between 2014-2016. The suit charges that social media companies have allowed the Gaza-based terrorists, Hamas, to use their platforms for hate and violence against Jews.  

Although Facebook finally placed a new ban on Holocaust denial in 2020, Darshan-Leitner notes that it’s only a first step. In an interview with The Allgemeiner—which purports to be the fastest-growing Jewish newspaper in America—she says, “The courts have been wrongly ruling that the social media giants such as Facebook cannot be considered, under the Communications Decency Act’s Section 230, to be the publisher of the messages posted by third parties. Accordingly, the courts have been providing Facebook a blanket immunity on permitting the extremist messages.” She also observes that “almost all of the cases in recent years involving attacks on the Jewish community can be traced back to social media.”

Churches are not immune either when they get involved in requesting corporations to divest from business interests in Israel. When the Presbyterian Church USA passed its 2014 resolution on divestment from Israel, it voted to sell stock worth $21 million from Hewlett Packard, Caterpillar, and Motorola. In response, Shurat HaDin filed a complaint asking the IRS to revoke PCUSA’s tax-exempt status. 

Shurat HaDin acted on behalf of a Palestinian couple in one fascinating case. In 2016, terrorists shot and killed a rabbi driving his car near Hebron, and seriously injured his wife and children who were passengers. The Palestinian couple stopped, heroically risking their own lives from a terror attack. They rescued the children and called an ambulance. To protect their future safety, Shurat HaDin intervened legally to help them obtain Israel residency so that they could relocate.

An imposing court battleground is the International Criminal Court (ICC), an arm of the United Nations, at The Hague, Netherlands. Shurat HaDin has been closely documenting the Palestinian Authority’s allegations against individuals in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) at the ICC for war crimes. In three Hamas-instigated wars from Gaza, the IDF have been forced to defend southern Israel’s civilian population. Following the example of the United Nations’ uncalled-for lies and resolutions against Israel, the ICC barely considers the role of terrorist instigators. Therefore, it is ill-advised for any Israeli, military or civilian, to undergo a potentially biased ICC investigation, especially since Israel itself conducts its own inquiries when necessary. The U.S. and Israel have refused ICC membership, questioning the fairness and objectivity of the court.  

In August 2020, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) sent a press release about their virtual seminar on connections between terror and money. One thousand people participated from 134 Member States, 88 civil society organizations, 47 international organizations, and 40 United Nations entities. Their list of recommendations sounds impressive and includes halting money laundering and strengthening border security. The ICC has jurisdiction over four major concerns—genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression. Indeed, if these nations and organizations would fairly enact their recommendations, maybe, just maybe, a better world would emerge. 

Despite what the U.N. does or does not enact, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner’s comment below is a strong appeal to Jews and Christians to help “repair the world” (in Hebrew, tikkun olam). 

“We believe that the slogan ‘never again’ means first and foremost that no one can murder Jews and simply walk away. There has to be a heavy price, and simply forgiving … or shrugging our shoulders means that Jewish blood will be deemed cheap in the eyes of the nations.”

Join CBN Israel this week to pray for Nitsana and others like her as well as the many Jewish victims they help:  

  • Pray for the Jewish people in Israel and around the world who continue to endure hatred and hostility or even find themselves victims of terrorism: The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18 NIV).
  • Pray for Nitsana Darshan-Leitner and Shurat HaDin that they would be given great success, protection, security, and wisdom in their work. But it will go well with those who convict the guilty, and rich blessing will come on them (Proverbs 24:25 NIV).
  • Pray for the United Nations and the International Criminal Court that they help to put a stop to undeserved terror attacks against Israel. Whoever says to the guilty, “You are innocent,” will be cursed by peoples and denounced by nations (Proverbs 24:24 NIV).
  • Pray with thankfulness that a day will come when God will bring true justice: But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:24 NIV).

May the examples of Nitsana Darshan-Leitner and Shurat HaDin inspire us not only to pray but also to act and do all we can to stand with Israel and the Jewish people by opposing the toxic poison of anti-Semitism and all forms of terrorism against Israel and her people. 

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 ArleneBridgesSamuels.com.

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School Supplies for Children in Sderot

It’s one of Israel’s poorest cities, and the top target for terrorism. For over 15 years, Sderot has endured constant rocket attacks, day and night—and its children and teens suffer from PTSD. Families who could afford to move away have gone to safer areas—while the rest have been left with a ghost town. Few businesses, shops, or factories have survived the onslaught.

Added to the horrors of terror attacks, COVID-19 has made the lives of these poor residents a nightmare. Many have lost their jobs, and can barely make ends meet. And families find it hard to provide basics for their children, including new clothes, school supplies, or toys. Surrounded by so much poverty, where could they find help?

Because of friends like you, CBN Israel has been able to reach out to this community under siege. In addition to giving them groceries and essentials, we have hand-delivered special gift bags for the children—containing coloring books, crayons, school supplies, and more.

“Families in Sderot, especially the children, live in constant fear,” a CBN Israel volunteer and local partner shared. “This is why, in addition to providing food and basic necessities, we are always looking for additional ways to be a blessing to families in need within our city.”

CBN Israel is a blessing to so many precious families—as well as Holocaust victims, single mothers, widows, and refugees.

Your support is crucial in bringing humanitarian aid to those struggling to survive in the Holy Land. Please join us in making a difference today!

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Biblical Israel: First Century Tombs and Burial

By Marc Turnage

Bible readers find the issue of Jewish burial customs and tombs interesting due to the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. While the Gospels do not provide an exact location for the tomb of Jesus, although tradition and archaeology does support the traditional location of the Holy Sepulchre, they do offer several interesting details about Jewish burial practices and the style of tombs used in the first century. And, since he was placed in a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid (Luke 23:53), the style of his tomb must have been one of two known from the first century.

Jewish tombs in the first century consisted of two types: kokhim and arcosolia. The most common being the kokhim. A kokh (singular) was a long, narrow recess cut into a rock tomb in which a body, coffin, or ossuary (bone box) could be laid. The typical kokhim tomb was hewn into the hillside and consisted of a square chamber. The entrance to an ordinary kokhim tomb was a small square opening that required a person entering to stoop. The height of the chamber was usually less than that of a person, so they often cut a square pit into the floor of the chamber. This pit created a bench on three sides of the chamber where the bodies of the deceased could be prepared. 

After the chamber and the pit were cut, the kokhim were cut level with the top of the benches and perpendicular to the wall of the tomb in a counter clockwise direction, from right to left, in every wall except the entrance wall. One to three kokhim were usually cut per wall. The kokh had roughly vaulted ceilings and were the length of the deceased or a coffin. After the deceased was placed into the kokh, a blocking stone sealed the square entrance of the tomb. Small stones and plaster helped to further seal the blocking stone. The tomb was sealed in a manner that it blended into the surrounding hillside. 

After a year, when the flesh had decayed, the bones were collected and buried into the ossuary. Once the bones were placed into the ossuary, the ossuary could be placed in a loculus (kokh) within the tomb or upon the bench or floor of the main tomb chamber. Ossuaries were made of the soft, chalky limestone (a few ossuaries were made out of clay or wood) and consisted of a box where the bones were placed and a lid. The limestone was placed into water to soften the stone, which allowed the stone to be easily carved into the ossuary. 

Originally ossuaries served one individual, so the dimensions of the ossuary were the length of the femur and the width and height of the pelvis and skull. Many ossuaries, however, contain the bones of more than one person (and not complete persons at that). Most of the ossuaries discovered bear decorations, although they can be plain. Professional craftsmen decorated the ossuaries using a compass, ruler, straightedge, carving knife, gouge, mallet, and chisel. 

Many ossuaries bear inscriptions in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. These inscriptions were not done by professional scribes, but in the semi-dark of the cave by family members, to identify the deceased. Archaeologists excavating south of the Old City of Jerusalem in 1990 discovered an ornately decorated ossuary bearing the inscription “Joseph, son of Caiaphas,” the high priest who turned Jesus over to Pilate. It held the bones of a sixty-year-old male, and in the eye sockets of the skull were two coins. The practice of secondary burial in ossuaries date from the period of the first century B.C. to the first century A.D. Jews could also bury in coffins during this period as well. 

In addition to the kokhim tomb, arcosolia tombs began to appear sporadically during the first century. The arcosolia is a bench-like aperture with an arched ceiling hewn into the length of the wall. This style of burial was more expensive since only three burial places existed within a tomb chamber instead of six or nine, as typically found within kokhim tombs. Approximately 130 arcosolia tombs have been discovered in Jerusalem and over half of them also contain kokhim. Ossuaries (bone boxes) could be placed on the arcosolia benches.

The tomb identified within the Holy Sepulchre as the tomb of Jesus was originally an arcosolium (singular) with an antechamber; however, the centuries of pilgrims and the various destructions of the church have deformed and obliterated the tomb. What visitors see today is a later structure; nevertheless, the tomb originally contained a first century arcosolium tomb. 

Burial practices reflect the values, philosophy, and religion of people. The style of tombs used by Jews in the first century differ significantly from those used in the period of the Old Testament, which reflects the development of views of death and the afterlife from the period of the Old Testament to the New Testament.

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.

Website: WITBUniversity.com
Facebook: @witbuniversity
Podcast: Windows into the Bible Podcast

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