Tapping into their Hebraic roots

Tapping into their Hebra

feast of the tabernacles (photo credit: )
feast of the tabernacles
(photo credit: )
Because Jews celebrate their holy days by a lunar calendar while Christians live by a solar calendar, festivals of the two faiths that are in some way related seldom fall on the same date. The difference can run from days to weeks because a Jewish leap year incorporates not an extra day but an extra month. The only festival in which the days are always the same is the Feast of Tabernacles, which in Jewish parlance is Succot, since Christians who observe it do so according to the Hebrew calendar. The festival commemorates the time when the Israelites lived in the desert after coming out of Egypt and enjoyed temporary housing, or succot, and received the Torah. The Torah is often referred to as the bride of the Jewish people. At the end of Succot, the festival known as Simhat Torah takes the form of a wedding, with people dancing beneath a bridal canopy, carrying a scroll in their arms. In Jerusalem, some congregations dance into the streets, with at least four congregants holding a huppa over the scroll bearers, while the other congregants dance behind them. They proceed in this mood to the Western Wall, where the plaza is filled with many huppot, Torah bearers and dancers celebrating their commitment to God. "Tabernacles was never incorporated in the Christian calendar like Passover and Pentecost were," says David Parsons, media director for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ), which in its founding year three decades ago introduced the Feast of Tabernacles into modern Christian practice. On that first occasion, more than 1,000 pilgrims from different streams of Christianity were inspired to come to Jerusalem, and tens of thousands more have continued to do so ever since. "It's a wonderful example of how many Christians are returning to their Hebraic roots," observes Parsons. The ICEJ was established as an act of Christian solidarity with the Jews' 3,000-year-old connection to Jerusalem. Its inception came at a time when embassies were leaving Jerusalem and is housed in what used to be a diplomatic residence. In response to the diplomatic exodus, the ICEJ decided to embrace the text of Isaiah 40:1 - "Comfort, comfort my people..." - by showing a different face of Christianity to the Jewish world. Cognizant of how Jews have suffered over the centuries from anti-Semitism primarily fueled by the Church, the ICEJ supports the return of the Jews to the Promised Land, engages in various social aid programs throughout Israel, including care for Holocaust survivors, and educates and informs Christians around the world about how to combat anti-Semitism. TODAY, THE ICEJ is considered the world's largest Christian Zionist organization by virtue of its branches in some 80 nations and its reach into more than 125 countries. Its signal event, the annual celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, brings people from many of these countries to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. This brings to mind biblical prophecy as expressed in the second chapter of Isaiah: "And it shall come to pass at the end of days that the mountain of the Lord's House shall be established at the head of the mountains and exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow into it. And many people shall go and say, 'Come ye, let us go to the mountain of the Lord, to the House of the God of Jacob'; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths, for out of Zion shall go forth the Law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem." For participants in the Feast of Tabernacles, there is a sense of this as they gather in Ein Gedi along the shores of the Dead Sea for a spectacular worship concert and later make their way in a convoy of buses to Jerusalem and the rest of the week-long festivities. The ascent is fraught with spiritual excitement that increases as the convoy draws closer to the holy city. "We didn't really start this as a Hebrew-roots celebration but as a synergy between Christians and Jews," says Malcolm Hedding, executive director of the ICEJ. "It is remarkable that for 30 years this event has proceeded despite conflicts, terrorism and economic crises. It demonstrates the sincerity and grassroots support for Israel among our largely Evangelical constituency. That commitment has only deepened as the movement has matured. Our people are not tourists." Participants include newcomers and veterans, but few if any can beat the record of Betty Blades from Florida, who has come to every Feast from the very beginning in 1980. In recognition of such devotion, Hedding plans to give her a suitably inscribed silver Kiddush cup - a beautiful goblet specially crafted for the ICEJ's 25th anniversary five years ago. Because of the significance of the Kiddush cup as a vessel used for the blessing of God, it is appropriate, says Hedding, to present it as a symbol of recognition and appreciation of faithful Feast pilgrims over the years. THE FEAST traditionally starts with a meal and an evening celebration in Ein Gedi to give the pilgrims the wilderness experience of the Israelites without depriving them of the comforts of home. "You see the full moon rising over the Dead Sea and shining over the barren Judean Hills," says Hedding. The focus of this year's Feast is "United Jerusalem." A giant Jerusalem flag created by Filipino entrepreneur and evangelical Christian Grace Galindez-Gupana will be on display at Ein Gedi before the convoy leaves for Jerusalem. Two years ago Galindez-Gupana achieved an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for having created a flag of Israel that was believed to be the world's largest flag. She created it out of love for the Jewish people and to celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations between the Philippines and Israel. To add impetus to the emphasis on Jerusalem, participants will be issued T-shirts bearing a logo resembling that of the British soccer team Manchester United. But on closer inspection, the logo is that of "Jerusalem United." Needless to say, Israeli dignitaries attending the Feast will also receive a T-shirt to reinforce the message of Christian solidarity with a reunited Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty. "Jerusalem is not a settlement. It's the holy city and capital of Israel," says Hedding, who bristles at any suggestion that the city should be divided. "Thirty years ago we opened in defense of Jerusalem as the undivided capital. We have never moved away from that mandate," he says. Participants in the Feast of Tabernacles will spend the major part of their time in Jerusalem at Binyenei Ha'uma, where they will engage in worship and listen to uplifting sermons. They will also hear lectures from Israelis about political, economic and security issues. On Tuesday, they will participate along with a number of Israeli groups, organizations and businesses in the annual Jerusalem March, interacting with thousands of Jerusalemites lining the streets. For the marchers and onlookers, this is a truly exciting experience, and many of the pilgrims come in the national costumes of their countries, adding a delightful international folklore flavor to the event. Performers, as well as pilgrims from many cultures, bring a rich variety to the Feast. Last year there was a Chinese Christian drummer troupe performing that had played at the opening of the Beijing Olympics. Sometimes the pilgrims and performers come at great personal sacrifice. In 2001 a group of Fijian breakdancers wanted to be a part of the Feast dance team. They set off flying halfway around the world to Israel via Los Angeles to arrive in time for rehearsals. They were supposed to depart from LA for Israel on September 11. But planes were grounded all over the world for three days, and because the Fijians had no surplus funds they were stuck in the airport and decided to fast and pray for the full three days - such was their determination to complete their journey to Jerusalem. Several years ago, a group of Bushmen from the Kalahari Desert who had become Christians decided to walk all the way from southern Africa to Jerusalem. But they were turned back by Egyptian authorities at the Taba border crossing into Israel because they had no country stamps in their passports. "We knew they were coming but did not know the exact time," says Parsons. "Otherwise, we could have asked the Ministry of Tourism to intervene." Explaining why some people go to such lengths to join the ICEJ's celebrations at this time of the year, Parsons says: "Jerusalem has a powerful draw and a spiritual dimension that is uplifting. Many Christians still see it as a 'heavenly' Jerusalem. And it never seems to disappoint. There's such a sense of joy at Succot and such a rich, dynamic worship experience for our pilgrims." Hedding makes the point that although the millions of believers under the ICEJ umbrella are biblical Zionists, "we put their feet on the ground. An institution like this would not exist after 30 years if it were flaky. We're engaged in academic, diplomatic, humanitarian and other activities all year round, but the Feast is one of our high-profile events." Commenting on the ICEJ's ongoing emphasis on Jerusalem, Parsons says, "We realize that on one level Jerusalem has to be shared as a 'house of prayer for all peoples' as Isaiah said. But we believe that the Jewish people are the proper custodians of that role, since your Scriptures instruct you to keep the city open to the nations. Based on our 30 years here, we can honestly say you have a good record on this account."