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024  B'rakhas

Today I want to teach you about a form of prayer that Jewish people would call "b'rakhas." It's relevant to understanding the Beatitudes.

That's pronounced "BRAH khahss." The "s" at the end is an English distortion making the word plural for English-speakers. The Hebrew plural would be "b'rakhIM." 

"B'rakhas" comes from the Hebrew word "barukh," which means "blessed." It's the first word, or sometimes the beginning of the closing sentence, of virtually every prayer in the pre-written Jewish liturgy, which is why they call these prayers "b'rakhas." Jewish liturgy, whether it's prayers of thanksgiving, adoration, or petition, consists primarily of blessing God.

For a simple example, consider what observant Jewish families will do at home every Friday night, all year long, to celebrate the arrival of the Sabbath, which begins at sundown on Friday and continues until sundown on Saturday. After they've sat down at the table for dinner, Mom will cover her head with a small cloth, light two candles, wave her hands over them in circles ("Wax on, wax off, Daniel-san"), cover her eyes with her hands, and pray:

Barukh atah Adonai elohaynu melekh ha-olam ashayr kiddishanu b'mitzvohsav v'tzivanu lehadlik nehr shel Shabbas.

(Translation: Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, king of the universe, who has made us holy with His commandments and told us to light the lights of the Sabbath.)

And then, Dad or one of the kids will pick up a cup of sweet wine and pray:

Barukh atah Adonai elohaynu melekh ha-olam boray p'ree hagoffen.

(Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, king of the universe, who has given us fruit from the vine.)

And then they'll break pieces off a braided loaf of bread (called khallah) that's on the table and give everyone a piece, and somebody will pray:

Barukh atah Adonai elohaynu melekh ha-olam hamotzee lekhem minh ha-aretz.

(Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, king of the universe, who has given us bread from the earth.)

Notice how they all start the same? Jewish prayers always include these declarations of blessing toward God, either at the beginning or at the end.

Rabbinic tradition says that these prayers were first introduced by the Men of the Great Assembly, a hundred-year-long gathering of the Sanhedrin that was convened after the Jews returned to their homeland from Babylon, around 450 BC. They were standard practice by the time Jesus was born.

Back in 2012, I was one of a group of lay preachers who were each assigned one of the Beatitudes for a series of sermons at the Vineyard Community Church in Kingston, MA. When I sat down to prepare my sermon about Matthew 5:5, "Blessed are the meek..." my first question in prayer was "Why Beatitudes? What are those about anyway?"

And God answered me (which does not always happen the same way.) He said two words to me: "They're b'rakhas."

My eyes went wide, and suddenly I understood the Beatitudes for the first time. I knew what b'rakhas were (and now, so do you.)

Here's why b'rakhas:

The Sermon on the Mount was Jesus' Discipleship Training Seminar, and as far as anybody knew, Jesus was a Rabbi teaching Judaism to Jews (though, as we all learned in my last memo, it's just as relevant to us today). It was no surprise, therefore, that He began His seminar with a series of b'rakhas; it's what observant Jews do.

Only, Jesus' b'rakhas were a little different from the ordinary b'rakha. B'rakhas are the language with which the Jews address DEITY: "Blessed are you, OH LORD." Jesus wasn't blessing deity, he was blessing His disciples: "Blessed are you, my disciples."

It would be like us, standing in church singing hymns to honor those individuals who volunteered to teach Sunday school to the kids. That's how they would have heard it. They'd probably be scratching their heads and wondering, "Can you do that? Is that blasphemy?"

But no, it's not blasphemy. There's a point.

Jesus' ministry in everything He did--in life, in death, in resurrection--was aimed at reconciling man to God. Sometimes He did that by bringing God down to our level, like when He referred to God as "Father," making Him seem like something familiar. In this case, He was going the other direction: He was elevating His disciples to show them that they were holy, like God. He was using language they were used to hearing about the Almighty, but talking about ordinary people devoted to God's service. "Are you hungry for righteousness? Merciful? Teachable? Persecuted for God's sake? You're holy, like the holy angels that serve God."

That's why He ended Matthew 5 with the command, "Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). The point of the entire chapter was to explain that they were responsible for demonstrating what God is like to the people around them.

It's our job, as His disciples, to illustrate the character of God in all our conduct. We are the light of the world, a city set on a hill, the salt to preserve and purify the earth.

And if we fail to illustrate Him properly, who's going to do it for Him? "If the salt has lost it's flavor..." It's all directly on us. There's no Plan B.

Remember when Jesus chided Philip, "He who has seen me has seen the Father?" (John 14:9) Guess what? We're supposed to be able to say the same. When Jesus has trained us, he who has seen us will have seen the Father, too, just as the disciples could say about Jesus. That's the goal. (See Acts 4:13.)

High enough for you? 

You're allowed to laugh. Yeah, it's high enough to crush us. Criminy.

Don't worry. Rest in God and devote yourself to Him, and He will bring it to pass (see Psalm 37:3-6). It's not impossible; but it is supernatural. Only, never sell God short. His goal is to make you resemble Him in character and conduct, and He's up to the job. Your job is simply to stay connected.

And don't sell yourself short, either. God chose you to represent Him, and He knew what He was doing. We've got a job to do.

Have a merry Christmas, and I'll see after the New Year.

Phil Weingart


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