May the Omnipresent One Comfort You from His Place

This coming Sabbath service at our synagogue, I’m doing one of the Torah readings, from the Gospels, the first part of John chapter 11.

You may notice two funny things in that sentence. Firstly, as part of our Torah service, we don’t only read the standard parshah from the Torah (the first five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) and the corresponding reading from the Haftarah (a selection of readings from the Prophets). We also read a passage from the Besorah, that is, the Gospels, following the Chayei Yeshua reading cycle (“Life of Yeshua” reading cycle).

The other funny thing is that I a Gentile am scheduled to read. As is typical, in our synagogue, it is deemed inappropriate for a Gentile to read from the Torah or Haftarah in Hebrew, and in particular to say the aliyah blessing: “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, master of the universe, who has chosen us from all peoples, and given us his Torah.” This is not something that one can rightly say who has not become part of Jewry.

On the other hand, we do allow Gentiles to read the English translation. (I have done so several times.) And most notably for this post, those Gentiles (like me) who know a little Hebrew, we can take a turn reading from the Gospels, translated into Hebrew. Why? Because the Gentile church for all its failings through history, it took a key part in preserving those documents. And so there is no reason why I personally should not also share in that work of God’s provenance.

As it turns out, if I could have chosen any of the upcoming passages to read, this week’s would have been my first choice, because this is a deeply meaningful story from the Gospel of John, with some twists that we often gloss over. In fact, I was thinking about approaching the rabbi in charge of scheduling the readings, to ask him whether it might be possible for me to read this week. But I never got a chance to, because he asked me first. (He had no idea what I was thinking.)

I want to focus on one part of the story, in John 11:17-37, and present a few thoughts.

Martha

Mary and Martha had a brother, Lazarus, who died from some disease. Yeshua knew he was sick, and yet he didn’t get there fast enough to heal him. In fact, he seems to have been moseying along, taking his time, intentionally, on purpose. By the time Yeshua got there, Lazarus had been in the grave for four days.

Mary and Martha were still sitting shiva in their house, and many others had come to comfort them. For a week after a close loved one dies, a Jew mourns. He does not bathe or shower; he does not wear nice clothes or jewelry; he does not shave; he may even cover up his mirrors so he doesn’t see how sad he looks. He does not take part in intimate pleasures with his spouse. He does not even study Torah.

However, he does usually open his home during certain times, for friends and family to visit. It is considered a great mitzvah, a “good deed,” to comfort a family who is sitting shiva. Mourners will often talk about the one who’s passed, share stories of his life. When it’s time to say goodbye, a common blessing is: “May the Omnipresent One comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” That blessing has deep meaning for me, which goes beyond mourning a loved one, and I’ll touch on that later on in this post.

When Martha hears that Yeshua is coming, she goes out to meet him. “Lord,” she says, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Then she adds, “But even now, I know that whatever you might ask of God, God will give it to you.”

A hope against the odds. A hope against hope. Might there still be a chance for her brother to live out the rest of his life?

Yeshua answers, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha is trying to process this.

Have you ever wanted something really bad, and then you actually got it? Usually, when that happens to me, I can hardly believe my eyes. There’s some part of me who still believes my senses are deceiving me. I check, and double-check, and triple-check. Did I make a mistake? What did I do wrong? Because things could certainly not have gone that well. Could they have?

I think Martha wants to believe that Yeshua is saying what she thinks he’s saying. But she’s checking and double-checking her reasoning. She is afraid of getting her hopes up, only to have them dashed by the reality that her brother… is dead.

“I know,” she says, “that he will rise again, in the resurrection in the last day.” Because, she thinks, we’ll all rise again.

That is, in the bodily resurrection in the World to Come.

Now comes the first line that sticks out at me:

Yeshua says, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who has faith in me, even though he dies, he will live. And anyone who lives and has faith in me, he will never die, forever.”

Yeshua starts with the phrase “I am” (ἐγώ εἰμι). This is the same name God gave himself, in Exodus 3:14. When Moses asked, “Who should I say is sending me?” God told him, “I am who I am” (אֶֽהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶֽהְיֶה).

And Yeshua emphasizes this point. None of this “resurrection in the last day” stuff. “I—the one you’re talking to right now—I am the resurrection.” He holds life itself in his hands. Can anyone besides God do that? From what I understand, Martha would not have thought of it any other way.

“Do you believe this?” he asks.

I imagine Martha thinking for a moment, letting that sink in. Then she says, “Yes, Lord. I do believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God coming into the world.”

That word “believe” there: “I believe” (πεπίστευκα). She’s not just saying she believes him. She’s emphasizing it, cause and effect. “What I have believed, I still believe. I keep on believing. And that belief continues to fuel my hope for the future.”

She’s kind of like the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz. “I do believe in ghosts. I do believe in ghosts.” Except that she has a positive belief, and she’s looking to Yeshua to confirm her hope.

Another interesting tidbit is the tag, “the Messiah, the Son of God coming into the world.” We usually think of the phrase “Son of God” as expressing Yeshua’s divinity, and the phrase “Son of Man” as expressing his humanity. But as Daniel Boyarin points out in his book The Jewish Gospels, “Son of Man” more likely expresses his divinity, referring to the “one like a son of man” in Daniel’s vision. Meanwhile, that would make the phrase “Son of God” another name for God’s Anointed One, his Mashiach (“Messiah”), as in Psalm 2:

The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed (meshicho מְשִׁיחֹֽו)…

He said to me, “You are my son; today I have become your father.” Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.

Mary

Meanwhile, Mary has been back at the house. Martha returns, takes Mary aside, and quietly tells her, “The teacher is here, and he’s asking for you.”

She gets up immediately, and all the friends and relatives who’ve gathered in her house to comfort her–though probably not doing so good a job at that, because they’re all pretty sad, too—they think she’s going out to the tomb, to mourn there. So they follow her.

But when she gets to where Yeshua is waiting, she collapses on the ground. She’s in tears. She’s falling apart. And she manages between sobs to eek out, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother—my brother… would not have died.”

We usually translate Mary and Martha’s messages using the same words. But the way John wrote it, in Greek, he rearranges the words. You can do that in Biblical Greek. He rearranges Mary’s words to put the word brother last in the sentence, in the power position.

Mary is not saying the same thing as Martha, and she’s not saying it in the same way. Whereas the appropriate response to Martha was to enter into a deep theological dialogue, there ain’t no way Mary’s gonna understand any of that.

Instead, when Yeshua sees Mary crying, and all the friends and relatives gathered with her crying as well, his spirit is moved, and he becomes agitated. Delitzsch’s Hebrew translation (which we usually read from) says, “He began trembling” (וַיְהִי מַרְעִיד), which takes some liberties with the original, but it’s not a horrible translation. I imagine him eeking out the question: “Where have you laid him?” And then he breaks down himself.

Yeshua cried.

Then they all said, “See how he loved him!” Again Delitzsch comes up with a wonderful paraphrase: “Behold, what great love with which he loved him!” (×”Ö´× ÖµÖ¼×” מָה רַבָּה הָאַהֲבָה אֲשֶׁר אֲהֵבוֹ).

Comfort

One of the central Jewish prayers, the Kedushah, it has three sections.

In the first, the cantor quotes Isaiah 6:3, “One called to another, saying…” And then we all respond, “Holy, holy, holy—kadosh, kadosh, kadosh—is the Lord of Hosts! The whole earth is full of his glory!” And on those first three words, “kadosh, kadosh, kadosh,” we lift ourselves up on our tippy-toes, in an attempt to reach into God’s presence. Sometimes, I just like to linger there. “Kadosh… Kadosh… Kadosh…

Then in the second section, we recite Ezekiel 3:12: “Blessed be the glory of the Lord from his place.”

That word “place” is the same Hebrew word, makom, translated “Omnipresent One” in the blessing said to a mourner above: “May the Omnipresent One (haMakom) comfort you.” When you’re in the midst of sorrow, sometimes it seems God is a million miles away.

There’s a beautiful symmetry to the Kedushah. Sometimes we feel God; sometimes not. But he’s still always there.

And sometimes the right kind of comfort comes when we engage God.

And sometimes when we weep at his feet.

In both cases, from the third section of the Kedushah, quoting Psalm 146:10: “The Lord shall reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations.”