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.

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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.

Why Torah?

One of the key requests to Pharaoh that Moshe was commanded to utter was that not only were we to be permitted to leave Egypt, but that the main purpose behind it was so that we could travel out three days into the wilderness and worship HaShem there. Such a celebration of deliverance and redemption, real physical and emotional freedom, would have been in itself a wonderful occasion of praise and worship, yet it was not to be the complete story. We thought we were to be the active party this time, we would sacrifice, sing and praise. What we discovered was that in fact our G-d had a gift for us too, He would continue to be an active party in this new national coalition. His revelation to us, given through the hand of Moshe, set out a blueprint of commandments and ordinances (Torah) that would shape us and form us into a nation. Whether as a marriage covenant or social contract, this would frame our existence for all time. And in principle we could leave it there, if it were not for the questions that arise about what Torah IS and its role and function in our lives that sporadically break through. According to tradition, Torah was offered to every other nation first before us, with each one declining the offer! Such myths nevertheless vocalise what we somehow instinctively know to be true: Torah is good, yet we fail to live up to its demands and high righteous standards. Why did the other nations refuse if it is really such a wonderful thing? Is it just a list of ‘things to do’, a glorious tick list of do and don’t do? If so, why don’t we? Why haven’t we? Such was our national, corporate and personal falling short that we were exiled from our Land for nearly 2000 years until 1948. Maybe this provides a clue as to why the other nations supposedly rejected this wonderful gift… or at least a gift that should be wonderful but we’ve struggled to accept.

In an interesting ‘spin’ on the role, place and function of Torah in the Jewish nation and people, Rav Shaul writes to the Jewish community in Galatia that ‘it was added because of transgressions (sins).’ Noteworthy that ‘it was added’ as an extra component to the people rather than something that was present at the outset with Avraham. Despite the working assumption that Torah has always been with us, at the very least we have to acknowledge that it was only codified at Sinai (and later). So why add Torah ‘because of’ sins? Maybe an imperfect example may shed some light on this. If every driver at all times drove selflessly, safely and with full due regard for the welfare and best of every other driver, road user and pedestrian, then we wouldn’t need speed limits or the Highway Code. We would simply KNOW what the best is at all times and do it. But we don’t. So the speed limit for example shows us what the higher end of a basic benchmark of good, safe driving is at that moment on that stretch of road. When we drive quicker than that we transgress. We become aware of what transgression (sin) is by falling short of the standard expected. By its breach we learn that we rebel against its standards. And that awareness should be a catalyst to action, an awareness of self, our inner natures and personalities, of our own selfish motivations that reject G-d’s ways in preference to our own. Yes, we think that we surely CAN be the measure of all things, despite our appalling lack of judgement and deficit of omniscience. Such a pitiful human condition is summarised by the prophets and others as the ‘imagination of men’s hearts’, and it has caused us dire problems.

Just how should we react, what action should we take in the challenge that Torah lays on us all? ‘Because of sins’ it was added, precisely to show us THAT we have sinned. Righteousness on display, God’s nature and character revealed, and our response and ability to match it weak and shallow. If nothing else our reaction should be to call on His name and reach out for His mercy. Which, if we go back to where we started, makes sense of why we had to go out into the wilderness for three days and worship Him, the G-d who had shown us unmerited mercy and saved us from Egypt and the tyranny of slavery. True worship only really begins when we have a sense of our own shortcomings and our NEED for His redemption and salvation. And once we receive it the worship really takes off. So Torah not only guides us but brings us to HaShem, to acknowledge our needs and our sins, and thus enables genuine worship to take place.

The Real Reason.

Moshe once famously said ‘Would G-d that all His people were Prophets, and He would put His Spirit on them’. Such noble sentiments have in fact focussed our attention towards an ideal situation whereby all Jewish people everywhere should be filled with His Spirit and be able to speak out, declare Words full of divine authority, knowing His will that deeply. Rav Shaul in dealing with the Jewish community in Corinth 2000 years ago expressed very similar sentiments and wishes. Yet as much as we may hear the shuffling feet today of queue-forming modern narcissists  at such a desire, I am certain in fact that few in ancient times would have jumped at the beckoning career opportunity of Prophet. We read that the individuals were ‘called’ and set apart for service, and that for good reason. Maligned, attacked and even for some, being put to death, would follow on from such a calling. Only those who spoke what the people wanted to hear could afford the luxury of career planning and personal development.

It is especially true when you consider what the Prophets had to say. Jeremiah lived at a time shortly before, and into the first exile, and he was charged with explaining ahead of time the reasons why this was about to happen. Such explanations are in fact warnings, even here the Lord was willing to see repentance and change to avert the almost inevitable. His words that the holy city would be a pile of ruins were bad enough to ears that were untrained in hearing anything other than the unalienable right to blessings as G-d’s own people and nation. But the reasons for this coming reality were truly shocking: ‘They have forsaken my Torah… not obeyed my voice nor walked according to it, but have walked in the imaginations of their own heart… (so) I will scatter them amongst the Gentiles (nations)’ (Jer 9). Jeremiah to be fair is only saying what Torah had always declared to us, if we sin the Land will vomit us out. Our perplexity however is  clear, what generation of Israel has ever self-declared disobedience? We don’t like admitting to it, it disturbs our bubble-wrap of self-delusion. Yet our expulsion proved Jeremiah to be right. As unpopular a message as it surely was, it was communicated from Heaven.

But after our 70 years in exile, in due season, G-d brought us back to the Land once more in His mercy. The times were filled with feverish activity of reconstruction both physical and spiritual. Ezra and Nehemiah devoted themselves to see a revived Judaism established, a form that would enable obedience and thus permanent residence in the Land. Yet only a few centuries would pass before once more we were wandering the earth. What went wrong? How could we have not learned our lessons from history? And it is these questions that should challenge us today as words of warning and encouragement to seek G-d while He may yet be found. For after 2000 years of exile we are once more back in the Land, and the questions have lost none of their prophetic impact. Once more we stand before the soul-searching question of how we are to walk before the Lord in a worthy, righteous way.

To Jeremiah once more we shall yield. It was he that stated in a response to the then yet future event ‘.. all the House of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart’ (Jer 9). It is this single line of testimony that convicts and provokes. The key to successfully walking with the Lord is to receive the heart circumcision spoken of by Moshe, to have an internal change of heart away from self to selflessness, away from ego to a G-d centred life, our very motivational human drives changed to be in line with His will. We need a Judaism today that is not powered by text whereby the definitions of holiness and righteousness are governed by dictionaries and thesauri, a hothouse of semantic niceties, but a Judaism that is filled with His Spirit, with Jewish people alive with circumcised hearts to obedience. The living G-d of Israel is seeking today those who will show by their quality of response, in Spirit and in truth, that obedience is possible. Only then will our Land not vomit us out once more.

O that ALL of His people would be filled with His Spirit.

Comfort my people – Shabbat Nachamu

Having now come out the other side of Tisha b’av we are on the count down to Rosh Hashanah, which this year is early (at least feels early in accordance with the Gregorian calendar!). After mourning for the loss of our Temple and focal point of worship and sacrifice Isaiah picks up on the fact that we need to be comforted by G-d, that despite all our sins and transgressions and the punishments meted out to us down the ages, we are never to forget that God loves us, nurtures us and chastises to bring positive change in us, not merely to show Himself as just.

Yet maybe that is not the whole story. I like Rabbi Shlomo Riskin; I don’t always agree with his theology but his heart for Jewish study and integrity are clear. In his incisive piece this week in the Jerusalem Post (www.jpost.com) on the weekly Shabbat portion he concludes with an incident where a young Yeshiva student repeatedly has his milk stolen or ‘appropriated’ by other Yeshiva students until he labels the milk as halav akum, questionable gentile milk. The milk then remains untouched. Such ‘box ticking’ of apparent righteousness that undermines not just the spirit of Torah and Judaism but actual greater commandments should not (and Rabbi Riskin and I both agree on this one) be seen in Judaism as anything like normative practice. So how do we connect this to ‘Comfort my people’?

If the form of Judaism that creates such behaviour in the Yeshivot has misunderstood the very essence of Judaism and Jewish life (and I would argue that it has), then what other models are available that give us righteousness from HaShem and point to His comfort? I believe that we have missed something critical in our Jewish thinking: G-d understands how difficult it is to ACTUALLY live a righteous life in Him. Although we are to draw down HIS righteousness, we still are obliged to live out that in every day life. G-d understands the struggles and despair, while also rejoicing in the victories too! His comfort seen in this light is not so much aimed at consoling us after being told off and disciplined, but rather a Father sitting us on His lap (I speak with the words of men) showing us compassion in our weakness (in comparison to HIS strength).

Two men from our historical past illustrate this so well: Caleb who according to the Torah ‘had another spirit in him’ and consequently ‘truly followed G-d’, and King David, who despite his gross sin was ‘a man after my own (G-d’s) heart’. Neither man was perfect, both sinned and ‘got it wrong’, yet with the compassion of G-d seeing that each one had a spirit to truly understand what the essence of Torah, righteousness actually is, they pleased G-d and moved Him to understand them. Neither man was a ‘box ticker’. Neither man believed that life could be constrained by human conceptual constructs, even if drawn down from Torah. Both knew that G-d and His Torah righteousness had to be understood, its essence lived and breathed as something alive, as relational and real.

If we as Israel could live out that righteousness before this world, just imagine the impact we would have! Be comforted, our G-d knows us and understands us; He is compassionate.

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.