Favor

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My Jesus car, packed for the drive to Texas

If I were asked to give one word characterize my winter visit to the US, it would be the word favor—specifically favor with the Jews.  I started Hebrew classes at the beginning of December, and Mom was so proud that she told all our friends and neighbors that I’m studying Hebrew.  Our Jewish friends were pleased at that news.

(I want to make it clear that everyone in Mom’s retirement complex knows that I’m a Christian missionary.  My faith is something that I absolutely do not hide.  In fact, my car is covered with Jesus bumper stickers.  And most of my clothes are labeled with Jesus labels.  I am not, repeat, not a secret believer.)

Jesus label shoe

One friend, Norma, invited me to a “Souper” Bowl party at her synagogue.  It was a fundraiser and soup contest.  They had 15 chicken soups in 3 categories: traditional, international, and exotic.  We were given a voting sheet to vote for the soups, the table displays, and the costumes.  It was lots of fun, and lots of very different delicious variations of a theme.  My favorite was the traditional Jewish chicken soup, which they named Jewish Penicillin.  The table was set up like a Red Cross booth, manned by people in doctor scrubs and nurse outfits.  But there were some very creative and delicious soups, too.  I liked the miso matzo ball soup.  The whole thing was loads of fun.

Seeing how comfortable I was around the other Jews, Norma asked me if I would like to come with her to the Friday evening Shabbat service.  I leaped at the invitation.  Her son picked us up, and to my surprise, I found myself able to keep up with the Hebrew prayers (though my tongue is not able to quite get around the words yet), and I found myself picking out words that I recognized: Adonai (Lord), Elohim (God), yom (day), melek (king), and others.  A few things were written out in the Hebrew text, but most of it was transliterated (for example Elohim would be written םיהולא in Hebrew text).

The thing that really blew my mind was the respect shown to the Torah.  When it was time to read from the Torah, they opened the curtain behind the bema (like an altar/lectern), took the scroll out, took the silver scroll tips off, took the cover off, and then walked the Torah scroll around the whole congregation as joyful music played.  Meanwhile people in the congregation took their pew Torah (book, not a scroll) and when the Torah came by, they touched theirs to the scroll, then kissed their Torah.

When this was done, the Torah was opened on the bema and the reader took a yad (literally “hand”), a silver tool that looks like a long, ornate pencil, and read from the Torah.  The yad is used so that their fingers never touch the inside of the scroll, yet they don’t lose their place on the page.  This is to maintain the integrity of every letter in the handwritten scroll.  In Israel I learned that the copiers of Torah scrolls are constantly monitored to be sure that they are copying every line, every word, every letter correctly (to read the precise guidelines for copying Torah scrolls, see http://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/torahaccuracy/.

After the service there was a meeting in the fellowship hall, but instead of coffee, they offer dixie cups of wine (or grape juice, at Norma’s synagogue, it was wine), which is taken with a prayer, which goes: “Blessed are You, God, Ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.”  Then a hunk of challah bread is broken off by each person, and eaten with a prayer: “Blessed are You, God, Ruler of the universe, who creates bread from the earth.”  Then come the coffee and cakes and friendly conversation.  I don’t know about you, but this reminded me of the Lord’s Supper, and surely came to be as a foreshadowing of that night.

Norma’s rabbi is a beautiful (model gorgeous) woman who doesn’t look like she could possibly be old enough to be the mother of her twenty-something son.  The rabbi was cordial, but so busy that I didn’t ever get more than just a brief, cordial greeting.  I noticed that she (and some of the other women) wore a yarmulke, the skull cap.  And during the service, she (and some others) had a tallit (prayer shawl) over her shoulders.  I had always thought that the yarmulke and the tallit were a male-only thing.  Obviously, I was mistaken.  Either that or this is what modern Judaism does that their ancestors didn’t do.

The next day, Saturday, Norma wanted to know what I thought about the Shabbat service.  I told her that I loved it—and I did.  Another Jewish neighbor, Myra, heard that I had gone to Norma’s synagogue.  So she invited me to her synagogue.  I had no idea that Asheville had two synagogues.

Turns out that Norma’s synagogue is Reform, while Myra’s is Conservative.  Reform Judaism is liberal.  Orthodox is traditional to the point of being ultra-conservative (these are the Chasidim that you see with the traditional hat and curly forelocks, Jews who keep Kosher to the point of having two sets of dishes, not driving on Saturday, etc.).  Conservative Judaism came about as a middle expression between the two extremes.  Myra wanted me to see a more traditional synagogue.

So the following week I visited Myra’s synagogue.  Myra is 95 years old, and walks straight and tall without the help of a cane.  She still drives, but because of her age, she refuses to drive with anyone else in the car.  So she asked me if I would drive.  I said I would, but suggested that we take her car.  Evidently, she hadn’t seen my car.  So when she asked why we shouldn’t go in my car, I pointed it out to her.  She quickly agreed that it wouldn’t be good to park in front of the synagogue in a Jesus car.

The service at Myra’s synagogue had no music, and all the prayers were in Hebrew, written in the Hebrew text.  I had a lot of trouble keeping up with the prayers, and often had no idea what page we were supposed to be on.  At one point, I decided to stop worrying about it, and just enjoy the service.  When the Torah scroll came out, I was happy that I knew what to do.  I just wish that I had been able to know what scripture they were reading.

Then the rabbi, a nice looking young man with a big smile, gave a sermon that absolutely blew my mind.  He talked about Moses going up on Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, while the people waited below.  He said that most people read that and understand “the people waiting below” as being that they waited at the base of the mountain.  But he said that the Hebrew word for below there is actually the word underneath.  He said that likely this means that God actually picked up the mountain with Moses on it, while the people remained underneath the mountain, where it had been.  I thought about it: that would certainly explain the warnings God made that nobody, not even the livestock, touch the mountain (Exodus 19:12-13).  After all the plagues and wonders they had seen, this might not have struck them as being so unusual.  Interesting idea!  In fact, I love the idea because it’s another Rapture passage made even more Rapture-like.

After the service, the synagogue served lunch (being a Saturday morning service, rather than a Friday evening service).  They did not have the wine and challah, but served a gourmet vegetarian lunch buffet that was delicious.  Myra introduced me around.  The rabbi was very welcoming and friendly.  I was invited to come to the Wednesday noon Midrash class, where they study the Torah in Hebrew.  Although I’m sure this would help with my Hebrew studies, I simply didn’t have the time because this was just before my return to Italy.

I loved my time in Asheville, with my Jewish neighbors.  Our complex is called Bella Vista, but one of them renamed it Bubbie Vista (bubbie means grandmother in Yiddish).  Yes, indeed, I look forward to returning to my friends, the Belles of Bubbie Vista.  God is good!

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