Rebellion

Occasionally Torah seems to throw a stumbling stone before us, a verse or a commandment that for many of us we would wish was not there; one such is the son who is acting rebelliously is to be stoned. This son won’t listen to his father or mother, insisting on doing what he wants to do, resisting teaching, encouragement and exhortation to follow the right path. His rebellion leads to his death. We could describe him as willful, high-handed and stiff-necked. Unyielding in the face of good advice from those he should love the most, whose correction and discipline he ignores or rejects, he deliberatly acts in defiance. Recognise anything in this picture? Any parent of a teenaged (or frankly any aged) child will readily see the similarities. Yet I doubt that many will welcome the supposed treatment for such offenses.

The Sages, confronting the same ‘problem’ of people’s responses to such a seemingly harsh judgement, declared that this commandment only applied between the ages of 13 years and 13 years plus 3 months, and that only after excessive drinking etc. By making such a stringent context for the actual carrying out of the execution, the rabbis effectively declared the commandment void. While surely connecting with the compassionate and human side of Torah and the heart of G-d, such a ruling, setting aside a commandment, undermines something we are meant to learn about our Lord and Master. Each commandment informs, teaches and reveals something about the divine nature. By highlighting one aspect (mercy) the ‘declaring void’ undermines other aspects.

How are we to understand this? By side-stepping the commandment our traditions have weakened a key element in Judaism. As King Shlomo said ‘there is no one who does not sin’, echoed by Rav Shaul ‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of G-d’. The Torah is clear: the soul that sins shall surely die. Rebellion against G-d is sin. Did the son deserve to die? Yes. But here’s the issue.. when we consider the son, do we not recognise ourselves in him too? Have WE not rebelled against G-d? In fact, as Israel we are known as stiff-necked… we have a loving Father who corrects and disciplines all the while. But our desire to mitigate the punishment of the son reveals in us an inability to acknowledge that we too deserve to die for our sins. If we can excuse the son, then maybe we too can be excused. But Judaism doesn’t teach that G-d makes excuses for our sins; Judaism teaches that He redeems, pays the price for sin, demands sacrifices because of sin and thus restores the relationship between G-d and man.

In this month of Elul as we prepare for the High Holy Days, let us be reminded that we are all like this son, deserving of death for our sins, and that if our G-d had not made a way to finally and decidedly cancel out those sins through the sacrifical death of Yeshua, then we would all be lost.

You will seek me and find me.

The prophets of Israel had a demanding and often challenging job. The ones who were willing to compromise and predict a glorious future alone, merely by dint of national election and promise, had a much easier life. For them no death threats or an angry mob. But for the ones truly sent by the Lord and who were unwilling to massage the aching consciences of the populace with delusional balm, life was ‘complicated’. Yet in the middle of often stern warnings against idolatry and the exilic consequences, the voice of the Lord was to be heard offering hope and redemption. Never willing to see us ruined, dashed on the rocks of history and empires, our G-d held out a Hand of love and an invitation that under pressure we should not recoil from Him but seek Him. His promise to be found stands as one of the great promises of Scripture, IF we seek Him with all our hearts.

Odd then, that so many of our commentators and theologians down the ages have chosen to focus on the element of the suffering of the Jewish people either bringing us to the point of deserving redemption, or even that suffering in and of itself purges us of sin, so allowing us to enter His presence and ‘find’ Him. One might, in the light of fairly recent history, ask the question of just how much suffering we need to endure. But is this true? Does the Torah teach that the suffering of Israel atones for sin (and whose sin)? The statements of our rabbis in reality stand in direct opposition to what seems on the surface an open and shut case of the function of sacrifices in Torah: Lev 17:11 makes it absolutely clear that it is blood alone that can atone for sin, not suffering. And even if Isaiah 53 is taken to mean (as so many rabbis insist) that Israel is the suffering servant, such vicarious suffering is FOR others, never for your own sin. Even in the sacrificial set-up in the Temple, the animals didn’t die or ‘suffer’ for their own sins, only as replacements for others’ judgement and punishment. So such suffering, if true, would only be to impart redemption and forgiveness for others, presumably the nations, although of course no such developed theology exists within Judaism.

To claim that our suffering pays the price for, atones for our own sins flies in the face of sacrificial reality. Vicarious, substitutionary sacrifice however is a basis of freedom from sin. And as we know, the Torah is absolutely clear that G-d alone is our salvation so He must be able, willing and powerful enough to take upon Himself that role as the real vicarious sacrifice for our sins, shedding blood in the process. The true Servant of Isaiah 53 is not Israel but must take us back to the One who did suffer because of our sins: Yeshua Mashichaynu. No one can ‘earn’ or merit salvation, no matter how much suffering they go through. Despite what has been taught in other forms of Judaism the offer of redemption, forgiveness and salvation is based on G-d’s mercy alone and His ability to provide the sacrifice sufficient for our iniquities. We don’t ‘earn’ our G-d or His presence; He chose us although we are as corrupted as any other nation, people or human being. We certainly don’t deserve to inherit His salvation, redemption and forgiveness, if so, show me the one person who ever did.

Let us abandon the merit-driven theology that would seek to change the formula from the prophets to ”if you are righteous enough I will find you’ says the Lord”. We are told to seek HIM and we will find Him, if we seek with an undivided heart. What we will find is His mercy, His sacrifice waiting to be applied.

Facing reality.

In 1878 Naftali Herz Imber penned the now famous words to the Israeli National Anthem, Hatikvah. Called ‘The Hope’ it embodies the yearning for our Land and our return to it:

As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,

With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion,

Then our hope – the two-thousand-year-old hope – will not be lost:

To be a free people in our land,

The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

This Hope is not ‘merely’ about a return to the Land, but also to see a rebuilt and functioning Temple in the heart of Jerusalem, the Place where G-d has alone placed His Name. Such deep longing has driven the Jewish soul for 2000 years, but we weren’t alone in our yearnings. During the first Diaspora when for 70 years we lived and dreamt of a revived Land and Temple in Babylon, a certain young man called Daniel penned a similar prayer of hope and longing. His prayer is both revealing and instructive if we have eyes to see it, and should lead us to seek the real path of repentance in our days, as it was in Daniel’s time.

He begins with a deep confession to our national and corporate sins. There is no plea to the earlier merits of the Fathers to cover up our sins, or even balance them out in some form; No plea to a status based on the election and choice of G-d of Israel as if we could never become unclean, just a dawning realisation that we had fallen gravely short of His glory and standards of righteousness. Daniel faced reality, stared it in the eye and didn’t blink from the consequences. Again and again Daniel quotes from the Torah the cause and effect relationship between Israel and the Torah, our sins and the consequences of them. This was no fleeing from the reality of Diaspora, nor an angst-driven re-assessment of Israel as ‘merely’ the apparent victim of other states’ aggression.  Verses 10 and 11 of chapter 9 frame the reality perfectly:

<We have not obeyed the voice of Adonai our G-d, to walk in His Commandments which He set before us by His servants the prophets.

Yea, all Israel has transgressed Your Torah, and turned aside, that they might not obey Your voice. Therefore the curse has been poured out on us, and the oath that is written in the Torah of Moshe the servant of G-d, because we have sinned against Him.>

Facing the reality however means not just acknowledging guilt and seeking forgiveness. Daniel enshrines for us some deeper truths too about who our G-d is and why seeking His Face is never an empty act. He prays : O Lord, righteousness belongs to you. The understanding that any righteousness MUST come from HIM alone, and not from any fake self-delusional ideas that we can ever be that righteous in ourselves, sits at the heart of true repentance and ultimate forgiveness. Daniel reiterates a similar concept at the end of the prayer: Do not delay for your own sake my G-d. This has always been about who G-d is, how He deals with us and how He demonstrates His presence and redeeming power in the world. If we truly want to see a revival in our people unto the Lord and a spiritual transformation of our Land and nation, then we too must begin to pray this prayer.

Rosh Hashanah

Have you noticed that we Jews do festivals very differently from those around us? We are barely a couple of days away from Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year and the mood is sombre and reflective. No fairly lights, no big parties planned other than gatherings for apple and honey. Our festivals are not hallmarked by wild celebrations or ribald revelry. For most of us in the community right now our thoughts are focussed on one thing alone: what will the final judgement of G-d be for me at Yom Kippur, for that is the inevitable conclusion of what begins at Rosh Hashanah. The scroll of Life will be opened, but will my name be in it? Hoping surely is not enough. Even given that for 10 days beginning on Thursday this week we will repent and seek forgiveness from those we have wronged, there remains a fear and unvoiced niggle in our minds and hearts that maybe we have overlooked something, maybe we have still not met G-d’s righteous standards. And we would be wise to listen to such inner whispers. As King Shlomo said, and reiterated by Rav Shaul, there is not one who has met His standards, all have fallen short of the glory of G-d.

The prophet Amos provides for us an answer in our dilemma (Amos 5): ‘Seek Me and live’ and ‘seek the Lord and live’. It is at such times as these of our High Holy Days that break into our daily routines and disturb them to the utmost that we NEED and should seek G-d. No ritual will be enough, no sacrifice we could ever bring would be sufficient to atone for what we have done. And in this regard it is interesting to connect our Haftorah portion (the binding of Isaac) with the start of the Days of Awe. Avraham avinu approached the impending and commanded sacrifice of his son with faith and confidence, the text making it clear that he expected to return from this event with his son alive. His faith was not unmerited, he did. He knew that G-d would provide the sacrifice, and at the last moment as his faith was tested to the limits, G-d DID provide one.

In our helpless and hopeless situation as Jews needing atonement, and the nations needing the same atonement for their sins too, we must seek God for His solution. Especially today where we do not have a functioning sacrificial system in Jerusalem any more, we need HIS solution that will and can be applied for all time more than ever. In Mashiach Yeshua we have one such answer, in His sacrifice we can have a boldness to approach G-d and know, not just hope, that our names are written in the scroll (book) of Life. Seek G-d, and the atonement He alone can provide, and you too will walk away alive. Seek G-d and live!

Survival

Everyone is talking about: demography. Barely a day goes by when the long term predictions about the number of Jewish people living in Israel discourages and the number of those marrying out disappoints. Facing the onslaught of the world, its values and beliefs, the sheer difficulty at times of living in Israel against all odds , being a part of the Jewish community can feel like being a people under siege, fighting to exist and even argue our case to exist!

In recent articles by the Jerusalem Post (12th July 2013) this was highlighted and once more the debate turned on the issue of Jewish survival. We must survive! We must do whatever it takes to survive! Now, no one will disagree with this, of course, and we must survive and will survive because the living G-d of Israel has decreed it to be so. JA Chairman Nathan Sharansky went on the record saying that the solution to this survival was to strengthen Jewish identity. We must endure that our children identify with Jewish life, nationhood and culture. Agreed. Again, Harry Triguboff argued that we could lose a whole generation of Jews unless we educate as, and teach our children to be Jews. Agreed. But the whole purpose of these proposed good acts is to… survive. It seems that to preserve the Jewish people is the highest goal; the aim of our existence is to exist; we survive so we can survive.

Is this what G-d has called us to? Were we brought up out of Egypt so we can survive? Given our own homeland so we can be preserved like some museum piece for the nations to look at? Is ‘mere’ survival the national aim of the Jewish people? We are a particular people but we have a universal message. We have Jewish roots but Jewish branches too for those of the nations to come and sit in. You can’t keep a good thing to yourself! Through us was given the oracles of G-d, states Rav Shaul; the very concepts of redemption, salvation, forgiveness, repentance, restoration, the idea of Mashiach and the truth of the One true G-d of all mankind were given through the calling and election of the nation, the people of Israel.

‘Merely’ educating in who and what we are will not set the next generation on fire with a passion to be Jewish. Bringing our young people to the feet of the One who called us in the first place, to serve Him and the national mission entrusted to us will however bring a passion with it. We shall survive because G-d is not liar and His word is faithful and true. Let us not worry about survival but serving the One to whom we owe our lives and to whom we give our allegiance. Let us concern ourselves with the calling to bring a message of hope and salvation to a world that so desperately needs it.

All who call on the Name of HaShem will be saved.

All is not well. Of course we all know that, from the inside of the Jewish community at least. Publicly we may not want to admit it, but even a brief glance through the pages of the Jewish Chronicle (the UK’s Jewish newspaper) or any other Jewish newspaper will reveal that there are tensions, insecurity and a sense of malaise that Judaism shouldn’t be as it is, or at least as it seems to be. Anecdotally we have all spoken with men and women departing from the traditional Jewish fold who are quick to say ‘I do believe in G-d, but not like ‘that” (the ‘that’ being whatever form of Judaism they have departed or are just departing from).

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, speaking from within the Orthodox community has been highlighting the challenges and problems facing us in her own writings. In one place she writes this:

‘Hashem is hiding’

The current low spiritual state of the Jewish People has caused G-d to hide His face from them, says Rebbetzin Jungreis, who says this concealment is meant to provoke the Jewish People to search for Him.

“In parshas Vayelech… Hashem tells Moshe Rabbeinu that in the future, there will come a generation who will forget Hashem, and terrible sufferings will come upon them. And finally they will say ‘you know why this is happening? Ein Eloka, G-d is not with us. G-d is not in our midst.’ And then it says … ” I will continue to hide My face.” Dichotomous. If we admit that G-d is not with us, then why is G-d hiding? … That puts the onus of responsibility upon G-d – it’s Your fault. You are not with us. We have to say ‘We are not with Hashem! We are not with our Torah! We are not with our Mitzvot! We are responsible.”‘Taken from: http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/128101

She is right. Yet some will continue to deceive themselves that everything is fine and ignore both her appeals for change and the voices of many others (including this blogger); this is how Judaism has been for centuries and we do not need change, nor do we need renewal. Some in the face of such calls will try ever harder to conform to our traditions and ways of the Fathers, work ever harder to reach out to our Jewish communities and individuals seeking to draw them closer to the Mitzvot. To be fair, Rebbetzin Jungreis is surely aiming her in-house criticism towards those of us who are not observant in the way she thinks we should be, yet I believe that this call deserves a much deeper analysis. Even within the ranks of the ‘observant’, are we really meeting HaShem’s righteous requirements? Even King Shlomo had to admit that ‘there is not one who has not sinned’ (1 Kings 8:46). Rav Shaul so many years later would have to admit the same thing when he said ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of G-d’. That these comments should come from the mouths of the ‘observant’ of their day (and they were), illustrates actually the depths of the call to return to HaShem that Rebbetzin is hinting at, and what we so clearly need. Let no man claim to be righteous before G-d, but seek His face for mercy and forgiveness, as the Prophet said ‘all who call on the Name of the Lord will be saved’. Judaism does not need a return to tradition or Mitzvot to have any future, it needs a return to HaShem, then all the rest will follow on from that.