As the almond awakes

Dear coworkers,

We’re closely watching the almond tree in the courtyard of our Jerusalem guesthouse this week, as it’s right on the verge of bursting into glorious blossoms: 

almond tree

The Hebrew name for this tree could be translated as “watcher” or “waker,” for it is the first to awaken out of winter’s sleep. Remember how Jeremiah was first set apart as a prophet?

And the word of the LORD came to me, asking, “What do you see, Jeremiah?”

“I see a branch of an almond tree (shaqed),” I replied.
“You have observed correctly,” said the LORD,
“for I am watching (shoqed) over my word to accomplish it.”

Just so we too are watching to see how and when he may awaken our community in this new year. There’s been steady progress in putting to rest our 2019 hospital obligations; as of tonight we’re almost two-thirds of the way there, with about $186,000 still outstanding.

And in faith we’ve gone forward with the first few life-saving surgeries of 2020. Today Georgia shares that she and other women of our community drove newborn Ahmed back to the Gaza Strip, after no fewer than three consecutive heart surgeries at the Sheba Medical Center in Israel: 

ahmed going home

As soon as she saw me, Ahmed’s auntie told me happily that they are going home to Gaza today. It has been quite a long time for them both in the hospital, and Ahmed is two months old now.  Still, the main thing which the auntie is excited to show us is how small he is. It’s true that in comparison to one of the other babies from Gaza who recently arrived, who is just 5 days old, Ahmed looks so small. Perhaps partially also due to the fact that he is bundled into many blankets!

And then there’s 14-year-old Khonav. So blue, unable to walk more than a few steps. When we met her in the mountains of northern Iraq in September she looked so wistfully hopeful that the Lord had finally remembered her and sent help:

khonav at home

She went to surgery on Thursday in Israel, and Georgia and Claudia were with Khonav and her mother today:

Khonav’s mother was so eager to point out many parts of her daughter and ask us to confirm her excited suspicions: that she has had a complete transformation in the colour of her hands, feet and face. Yes, we had to agree with her, she is looking a beautiful colour, no longer blue.

khonav postop

The mother also has had a transformation. She was so so happy, it is hard to put into words. Thank God for the joy that she has. It was a very big blessing to see her beautiful face lit up with delight seeing Khonav.

Neither Khonav nor Ahmed have yet received any contributions toward their surgeries; we’re praying that 2020 will be the year the Lord awakens local leaders to advocate for children like these in their own communities.

Finally this week, I’d like to share with you a few thoughts occasioned by the death here in Israel of a 40-year-old mother of five, apparently caused by the common flu (NOT coronavirus). Deganit Glick was a blogger for the Times of Israel, our go-to site for news of the Jewish world. When I looked back at her blogs, I noticed one which described the multitude of kashrut (kosher food) rules as “hardly the stuff of community.” 

A friend of mine once told me about a very religious community in Israel, where they created THEIR OWN RULE that no family could ever invite anyone else for meals, on the grounds of dubious kashrut. Everyone eats with their own families. Good God. How hideous. And think of divorcees, singles, or people otherwise alone with children for a shabbat…. how did we ever reach this stage?

One of the (many) explanations/rationales for the strange and intricate laws of kashrut is that perhaps it is supposed to prevent us from assimilating. After all, if you can’t share something as basic with food with someone, you have to work a little harder to find a common interest. I have always wondered how marriages of 2 people who don’t like the same food survive???!

If this rationale is along the lines of what God intended, than it’s truly unbelievable that Jews have once again, managed to extend this concept to divisiveness among themselves. I am sure it weakens us as a people. A community must have some level of trust, otherwise it cannot function as a real community.

What struck me in reading this was how similar it is to the Shabbat and other ritual conflicts we see in the gospels between Jesus and the super-religious of his day. Those of us from a Gentile background may read those accounts and think they were arguing about whether to keep the Torah commandments. But the more time I spend with the people of Israel, and carefully study these accounts, the more likely I think it is that they argued over how to keep the Torah commandments. 

New Testament scholar James Dunn makes this case well in his essay “The Incident at Antioch,” which explores the conflict described in Galatians 2 between Paul and Peter over table fellowship with Gentiles: 

One of the most striking features about the Pharisees in Palestine prior to the Jewish revolt was their preoccupation with defining the limits of table-fellowship more scrupulously. J. Neusner has concluded from his meticulously detailed study of rabbinical traditions about the Pharisees that of the 341 individual rulings from our period ’no fewer than 229 directly or indirectly pertain to table-fellowship, approximately 67% of the whole’ …

As to ritual purity, the Pharisees quite simply sought to apply the purity laws governing the temple ritual to their everyday lives. Others might quite properly conclude that these laws referred only to the priests when performing their temple service and to themselves only when they went to the temple; outside the temple the laws of ritual purity need not be observed.

‘But the Pharisees held that even outside the temple, in one’s own home, the laws of ritual purity were to be followed in the only circumstances in which they might apply, namely, at the table. Therefore, one must eat secular food (ordinary, everyday meals) in a state of ritual purity as if one were a temple priest.’

The detail with which the schools’ debates were already concerned, as to the precise circumstances in which foods and food containers would be rendered unclean, indicates clearly the importance of such matters for the Pharisees and their conscientiousness in trying to maintain their purity (cf. Matt. 23:25-26). Particularly important here was the cleansing of the hands which were always liable to uncleanness through an unintentional touching. A complete tractate of the Mishna was to be devoted to the purity of hands (Yadayim), and the ramifications must already have been the subject of debate at our time, as our own Gospel traditions also testify (Mark 7:2-5/Matt. 15:2; Luke 11:38).

Dunn concludes that Paul was not arguing, as many of us assume, that Jews should abandon the Torah’s instruction about clean and unclean foods (or that this was the intention of Peter’s vision at Jaffa). Rather Paul was standing against these exaggerated extra-biblical traditions which were making any fellowship between believing Jews and Gentiles impossible.

Why does all this matter? Because so many of our Jewish friends and neighbors live and die with the perception that Jesus of Nazareth sought to draw Jews away from the Torah and establish a new religion. That rather than fulfilling the Torah, he sought to do away with the Torah. 

Friends, those of us who love Jesus may sense that we haven’t done him justice before his Jewish brethren. Here too is a wonderful opportunity for us here and now as we navigate the frontier between Jews and Christians. I’m praying that this year as the almond awakes that we too will awake to every good work the Father has prepared for us.

Jonathan for Shevet Achim

“Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133).