There was a time in my life when things were at their worst for me. My marriage was a shambles, I felt like I was a failure as a father, educationally I was struggling, and I felt so far and distant from God. I remember praying and crying out to God to just put His hands around me, to just let me know that He was there, but instead of any response, I felt nothing in return. Even though I had seriously given my life to Messiah [Christ] at the age of fourteen, I had wandered away from God, was living in a way that was displeasing to Him, and was under a curse, as God promised in His Word when we live in disobedience to Him: “I will also make your sky like iron and your earth like bronze” (Leviticus 26:19).
There are those who say that believers in Messiah [Christ] cannot be put under the curse of the Law. They are wrong; I have been there. It is a miserable place to be. No matter how much I cried out to God, it was like my words went no higher than the ceiling. My loving wife would encourage me to pray, and I would in anger yell back, “Why? What’s the point? God’s not paying any attention to me, He doesn’t care.” She would tell me I was wrong, but that is how I felt. My depression became so bad, I asked God to just let me die. I was taught that suicide would send me automatically to Hell, but I thought if God ended my life, it would be okay (Yes, I was that emotionally messed up then).
It was during this dark time in my life when God began to direct me to the synagogue. I remember the first synagogue I attended; it was Temple Beth Shalom in Mesa, Arizona. The rabbi’s name there was (and still is) Bonnie Koppell. I learned that she was the first female rabbi in Desert Storm. She would fly out to Iraq to minister to the troops and then fly back to the States to minister to her congregation on the weekends. She was a very caring and loving person; I was amazed at how dedicated she was to ministering to others. Even within the synagogue, when I would visit there, I could see it. I remember that each Shabbat service that I attended, she found ways of including the children up on the stage with her. She’s extremely family oriented, and I was always amazed when I heard her teach, because I would sit there wishing I had that kind of knowledge about the Torah and the Tanakh (the Hebrew Scriptures) as a whole, and I heard and saw her passion for the Commandments of God in all that she said and did. I really didn’t understand what motivated me to be there, or why I was drawn back there several more times. I wasn’t Jewish, and the synagogue was not part of my experience growing up. But whenever I was really feeling down or depressed, I would go and listen to her teach.
I had never been to a synagogue before, nor had I ever spoken to a rabbi. I had been brought up in a small wooden Pentecostal church on the south side of Lansing, Michigan, and being in a synagogue was all new ground for me. I did not know how she or the people there would respond to me. I had learned about all the cruel things that were done to the Jewish people in Christ’s name through history in one of my university classes, but I only felt gratitude that they were there when I needed somewhere to go. And as I sat there sitting in the congregation, I could see what a caring and learned rabbi she was. The rabbi probably doesn’t remember me since I never had the courage to walk up and speak to her. I wondered if she thought who is this strange, shy goy (gentile; non-Jew) doing coming to the synagogue but not speaking to her. But she never gave me any indication of disapproval or rejection from her, the feelings of insecurity and uncertainty were entirely mine. But I will say that the warmth and welcoming atmosphere of the synagogue ministered to me in ways that still reverberate throughout my day-to-day life.
I smile when I think about the first time my wife and I attended there at Temple Beth Shalom. It was during Purim, and we didn’t know anything about it since we had both grown up in the church. I remember when Rabbi Koppell walked into the sanctuary, and she was dressed in a purple Middle Eastern dancing girl outfit. I whispered to my wife, “This definitely wouldn’t happen in the churches we came from.” Even though my wife and I didn’t know Hebrew, we both enjoyed the sound of the language as it was being read. And as they were reading, two guys walked into the sanctuary with four bottles of wine, and started passing them around. I later discovered that this only happens on Purim. When we saw this, I whispered to my wife, “We are not in Kansas anymore.” I smile now at the memory, and it’s a story I still share with my college students, my introductory experience to the synagogue. Since then, I have sat under other rabbis and have been mightily blessed by their teachings and ministry.
Although Rabbi Koppell and others I have sat under do not share my belief in Yeshua (Joshua/Jesus) as Israel’s Promised Messiah, there is something we do share – a love for God and for His Word. There are many Christians who do not understand why I love the Tanakh (or Old Testament) and the Chumash (or Pentateuch) as much as I do, but they’ve not walked in my steps. There is no doubt in my heart that it was God who wrote His Word on my heart and on my mind. I love reading it, studying it, and practicing what I can. Many years ago at the Jewish bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona, I bought a tallith (a prayer shawl), which I still use to this day. When I put it on for the first time, it was like I could literally feel the arms of God embracing me, holding me, and telling me He was there. I never wanted to take it off. It was so refreshing. I felt like a man who was dying of thirst and then finally coming to a large oasis. I drunk in His Presence every chance I could and I still do to this day. I’ve also recently purchased tefillin (phylacteries) from Israel, and I am learning how to use them. I will admit they do offer their own challenges to me since they are something I did not grow up using, but they are a part of who I am now, and they are part of living the Kingdom lifestyle that God has placed on my heart to do.
My wife and I have also placed mezuzahs on our front and back door. Not to mention, we are looking forward to celebrating Hanukkah next month. Some Christians have wrongly accused me of trying to work my way to heaven or of leaving “the true faith.” In my heart, I embrace all of God’s Word because of my love for God and because it was an intricate part of the Messiah Yeshua’s (Joshua’s/Jesus’s) life and because it was part of what He studied, learned, and lived, I also want to study, learn, and live it as well. For me, it is not about salvation, or about what happens to me after I die. I no longer ask myself the question, “Do I need this to be saved?” To me now, that is no longer the question on my heart. I know that my salvation is secure in Yeshua (Joshua/Jesus), so that it’s no longer an issue. But the question that I now ask is, “Will it make God happy? Will it put a smile on His face?” To me, that is the important question now. I love God, and making Him happy is the only important thought to me. So obedience to God’s Word is what I do because God says if we love Him, we will keep His commandments. There is one verse in the Bible where I really hear the heart of God:
Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me, and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever. (Deuteronomy 5:29)
God’s heart is not to use His commandments to beat us up with them or to condemn us with them, but His heart’s desire is to bless all His people, Jews and non-Jews alike. But to walk in His blessings, whether we are a Jew or a non-Jew, we must walk in trust and obedience to His Word, including His commandments. If we want intimacy with God, we cannot live in disobedience. I know this experience (Big time!) Intimacy comes only when we begin to walk in obedience to all His Word, not just our favorite parts. It was a lesson I began to learn from Rabbi Koppell at Temple Beth Shalom.