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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Why Pesach/ Passover is our national narrative.

If we have eyes to see it and ears to hear it, Passover is core to our vision of seeing Judaism renewed and revived, the Life brought back to it again. To see this we need to ask the question ‘what was the point of Egypt?’ For our ‘mere’ survival as a nation? If so, we would not have needed the slavery element at all. The Sages have pondered this and the answers are illustrative of a core truth of the Exodus. These answers point to the heart of who our G-d is and what He does, namely: our G-d is the G-d of salvation. He IS redemption, deliverance, salvation and release, setting free IS what He does and everything can be seen in that light. If G-d is salvation, then all the rest is commentary. In fact we can even go so far as to say, as the commentator’s do, that Egypt was set up for us to become slaves SO THAT G-d could demonstrate His mighty power and ability to set us free and redeem us. As possibly controversial as that thought is, restoration IS nevertheless His nature and redemption His character. History has been the physical stage upon which He has been able to intervene with salvation, redemption in ways we can see and experience. Salvation is, at its true spiritual and physical heart, the resumption of (eternal) life, a life uninterrupted by sin as in the original Garden state where we would have lived forever in the presence of G-d. In fact we can say in Torah terms G-d IS salvation. So intrinsic are the two terms/words that they are in practical and theological terms the same. You can’t talk about G-d without talking about His salvation because He fundamentally saves people, from sin, from situations, from slavery. If we learnt one thing from the Pesach experience it was this: our G-d saves. Salvation is what and who He is.

Pesach and releasing from slavery dominates the thematic concepts of Torah, as we would expect. In the first of the commandments given at Sinai, right at the top spot, we read that ‘I am the Lord your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt’. This first commandment identifies G-d as the freer of slaves, it is almost as if all the other commandments that follow are predicated on this one idea: G-d sets free; we are not free to serve Him alone if we are still in bondage to this world, sin or the evil one. And we need to be free! In HIS deliverance and salvation we are set free to serve Him, redemption for a purpose, and salvation for a reason. And the larger theme of salvation and freedom continues through the commandments too: For instance Shabbat is the deliverance and freedom from the tyranny of time, the demands of this world. The 7 day week as a time slot and concept was given by G-d to frame work and rest, a concept unknown anywhere in the world at that time: it was revolutionary and a hallmark of salvation and redemption; time itself could be used by G-d to teach us what His nature and character is like: we are set free from the toil and curse of the ground we have battled with from the start due to our rebellion. On Shabbat our routine is suspended because G-d is our salvation.

Our task then is to start to see every command in this light. Salvation as a lifestyle and deliverance as a national testimony is not about ticking boxes or collecting mitzvah credit. The commands become a pathway TO freedom for those who see them as such. The Mitzvot should be recast in this salvic, freedom paradigm, just like Shabbat above. To obey the commands is to not just do but to release freedom into our lives. This is the context of the commandments in the first place, they were given with deliverance still fresh in our minds. These revelatory truths now given to us as a nation would frame our message of freedom from tyranny whether physical or spiritual (sin) to a lost and spiritually needy world. Renewing Judaism, each commandment, in the light of freedom and salvation will create a fresh impetus to Israel to BE the nation of freedom, free to be righteous, free to serve G-d. If you want to be free, then come to the G-d of the Jews!

I don’t desire sacrifice…

For 2000 years we have survived outside the Land; if our Father Avraham was a wandering Aramean then we have been a wandering people too. I say ‘survived’ because outside is not our home; at home we live, outside we survive. And our survival has been orchestrated in no small manner by our instinctive clinging to Torah and our traditions, wherever we have been driven we took our scrolls and books with us. Easy to conclude then that it is Torah that is the focus of our people, Torah that forms us and gives us community cohesion and vision; Torah IS Judaism. Yet the obvious may still deceive.

Just as a child being given an ‘airfix’ construction kit would be chided for venerating the instructions instead of using them to actually build what the directions command, have we missed the point with our Gift of Torah? Have we reached a position where we are exalting the Gift, the revelation rather than what the ‘instructions’ are all about? For it is the Torah itself that commands us to build a Mishkan, a moveable tent of sacrifice. We are commanded to construct something that takes a central position not just in the camp of the Israelites but in Jerusalem and in Jewish thinking and theology. Torah forces us to divert our gaze away from itself to the purpose of the commandments at all: sacrifice.

Why should the Mishkan and later Temple with all the sacrifices at its heart be so central to Judaism? Because fundamentally Judaism recognises that sin has corrupted the relationship between G-d and man. Sin cannot be just removed, a G-d of justice as our G-d is will always demand a price for rebellious and wilful disobedience. Just as punishment fits the crime, so sacrifice fits the sin.

Yet we read in 1 Samuel 15 ‘to obey is better than sacrifice’ and from Hosea 6 ‘for I desire faithfulness and not sacrifice’. We are commanded to bring sacrifice for our sins, yet what HaShem truly seeks is a people who will actually be obedient. A people who will not need sacrifice.

We build something that should not exist and should not be needed because there is not one who has not sinned. And a powerful circular display of our dire spiritual condition and penchant or inclination to sin is revealed in the internal logic of Torah itself: we are commanded to bring sacrifices for sin, so a sinless person would not need to do this. However, to not sacrifice would be to sin because it breaks a command to sacrifice! The conclusion is clear: no one is free of sin. Even the most observant amongst us will conclude that despite doing everything ‘by the book’ they are still sinners. Having ticked the ‘list of Mitzvot’ to the end, we are still found wanting.

G-d does not desire sacrifice, but we need it. His mercy and love continues forever, and ultimately He provides a sacrifice equal to our sins. Mercy and justice demand sacrifice; Judaism is about restoring the relationship with HaShem from which we have all fallen.

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.