Freedom?

Pesach (Passover) was not that long ago that we have forgotten the major themes that dominated that time: Freedom and deliverance from those who would and did oppress us. Pesach and freedom are semantically intertwined, you can’t have one without the other. Yet the nature of freedom is a challenge to understand. Freedom today is defined largely by a personal response and rejection of anything that would attempt to restrain or cramp individual style. This form of freedom rejects authority, preferring to replace the Torah’s view of a hierarchical form of authority based on experience, calling and training with an experiential almost emotionally charged form of self-determination. ‘Man is the centre of the universe and I am at the centre of mine’. But is this freedom? Is this what the Scriptures teach? One might even connect such forms of self determination with the very first act of sin and rebellion in Gan Eden when Chava decided using her own faculties of reason and analysis to rebel against G-d. In Jewish thinking collective leadership drawing down the wisdom of the ages and applying Torah in a ‘human’ way is the chosen structure of order in Jewish communal life. To function within a Jewish community is to recognise these G-dly forms of order, to recognise that the Mitzvot themselves demand a form of submission to G-d that involves a surrender of yourself to Him who alone has the right and power to organise, dare we say control, your life.
We don’t like relinquishing that power to run our lives. Such has always been humanity’s problem, let alone our Jewish problem. Yet relinquish it we must. Rav Shaul in his letter to the Jewish community in Rome (ch 6) describes a situation where we are removed from being servants or slaves to sin because of the freedom brought in our redemption through Yeshua. This parallels our freedom from Egypt. But Rav does not stop there. He continues to say that our new position is that we are slaves to righteousness. We are not ‘free’ in the modern sense of that word. We belong to G-d because He bought us, the slave price, and now we are His. He does indeed have the legal right and authority to tell us what to do, and that includes a voluntary submission to the structures embodied in the community to express His global will.
Modern man despises such ideas and sees in them another form of oppression, yet this is not the case. Why? Elsewhere in the Messianic Writings Rav Shaul commands men to not ‘lord it over others’ as the pagans (gentiles) do. What we discover through this is that the G-dly, Jewish, righteous way to function as ‘slaves to righteousness’ is to offer submission. It is never demanded, insisted upon or forced. All community leaders can do is to point the way to the real righteousness of G-d, and trust, hope, that people will follow. Such voluntary surrender to HaShem opens the door to see real righteousness in action, and we then discover that as much as we are still ‘slaves’, we are in fact part of the family.

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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!

Passover/ Pesach and the Jewish Vision

‘This shall be the beginning of the year to you’. So comments the Torah on the month of Nissan which contains the festival almost universally known whether Jewish or not: Passover. This is the festival that truly sets the pattern of Israel’s leitmotif and message to the nations: deliverance, redemption, freedom and salvation. Passover teaches us that even in the depths of despair, when it seems like there is no way out, that there is a G-d who hears the cries of the human heart and is moved to act. Jewish history with all its ups and downs, times of rejoicing and times of deep grief, has nevertheless been formed and framed by this festival. When our cause seemed lost beyond all human ability, when we were tempted to think that Heaven had gone quiet, then the One and only G-d reached down and saved us.

And there is something at the heart of our Passover Seder that represents this message like  nothing else. The humble matzah, the bread of affliction in its double role is the star of the Haggadah. ‘Double role?’ It is curious that at the end of the Magid section we are informed, when we ask the question ‘why matzah?’ that this was because we had no time to let our dough rise and we were in a rush to leave Egypt. All well and good, and for most people this is the reason for matzah. Yet in the Yachatz section earlier in the Seder we are informed that this matzah is the ‘bread of affliction or poverty’. Same matzah, different names and themes. In fact in the Haggadah we all say ‘This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate IN the Land of Egypt’ (capitals mine). IN, not ‘as we were leaving Egypt’. It turns out in fact that matzah was eaten in Egypt too by our ancestors as were slaves and all we were given to eat was this rough, dry, tasteless bread: the bread of slaves. It had , it seems, a double function, both reminding us of our time as slaves under harsh repression and oppression, yet also reminding us of the freedom that came as a result of G-d’s power revealed through Moshe to Pharaoh. Something so simple, uncomplicated and basic, the bread of Life coming to symbolise the depths and realities of our salvation. It stands for both the pain and subjugation of slavery and the essence of freedom from it. As Yeshua Mashichaynu took the matzah in His final Seder and identified it with His body He knew what message He wanted to convey: like the matzah He too took this double role of feeling the oppression of sin and its judgement while also being the very vehicle and mode by which we were set free. His body reminds us OF sin and its destructive corrosive force as harsh as any slavery, and OF redemption supernaturally wrought and rapidly implemented. He IS the pain and the freedom.

But our Jewish message doesn’t end there. Even after we have chanted ‘all who are hungry, let them come in and eat’ the final aspect of this message becomes clear. As the Egyptians that fateful night filled Jewish houses daubed with blood, they too came in to eat. As they joined with us it was their first step of acknowledging the One true G-d, the G-d of Israel. As He had revealed Himself through miracles and supernatural acts in Egypt during the previous year it had convinced many that the G-d of the Jews was indeed G-d. The symbolic act of crossing the threshold that final night in Egypt determined their future and identity. The Torah calls this the ‘mixed multitude’ that left Egypt, a multitude moulded into one nation, the Jewish nation at the foot of Sinai. Passover today reaches out with the same message: come and join us. If you are struggling with sin, dealing with situations caused by sin, then there IS  away out. The living G-d of Israel is tough not just on sin, but the causes of sin.

Where’s the blood?

To live in today’s Jewish world is to live a somewhat sanitised life; our modern thinking and attitudes shape our expectations and hopes. Yet it is a possibly brutal fact that Judaism is in reality, according to our original sources in Torah, a bloody and messy religion. We baulk nowadays at the thought of a Temple splashed daily with the blood of animals and their bodies going up in smoke before our eyes. No clean-fronted priests in clerical gear here, more like a schochet in full swing. The life is in the blood, and we are forbidden to ingest it. It belongs to G-d as the Giver and Taker of life.

And it is this core concept of Life that connects blood with not only the sacrifices but also the covenants given to us. As each successive covenant was literally ‘cut’, blood was present. Covenants designed to bring Life brought death as if Life was only possible by its very antithesis. From Noach through to Moshe, each covenant was hallmarked by the death of a living creature, as if the process of covenantally and incrementally bringing Life was so serious to G-d that any deviation from it would, could end up in death of one of the parties.

The Jewish foundation Rock from which we are hewn, Avraham, received a covenant that was unconditional, prompted by his faith it was offered, given to Avraham as a gift, a Promise, an eternally unchanging inheritance. As the blood of the animals cut in two soaked into the ground that night, Heaven and Earth bore witness to its irrevocable solemnity. In Moshe, we received a covenant that was conditional, we could now choose our national outcomes: blessings or cursings. Again the blood splashed across us as we agreed to be bound by its stipulations, a framework of nationhood and people-hood, a marriage contract signed in blood.

And through these covenants and the contents contained therein, we heard the voice of the Lord calling to us, to know Him, walk with Him and experience the blessings of having a living relationship with the G-d of our Fathers who was and is alive. And despite our unfaithfulness it was given to a Prophet, Jeremiah, to declare that once more a covenant would be cut, this time it would create the scenario whereby all of us, everyone, could and would know Him. In chapter 31 the remarkable scenario is painted that even teaching will no longer be necessary because each will so know the Lord that in every situation we will instinctively know what He wants us to do, say or think. That our hearts would be so changed that righteousness would flow out of them by design, rather than the evil that had dogged our weary footsteps down the ages.

This covenant, the renewed covenant, a mixture of both that of Avraham and Moshe, would take the faith demonstrated by Avraham and the commandments given through Moshe to create this reality on the ground. And this covenant, let it be known, was a Jewish covenant; To the Houses of Judah and Israel. A final covenant to enter and agree to, to take upon ourselves as the pinnacle of historical, spiritual development; the solution to all our problems. ‘They shall all know me from the least to the greatest, says the Lord’. What we have always wanted as Jews, but were maybe after Sinai too scared or fearful to realise, could become true. We would know our G-d.

But… as much as we search for the mention of the blood to cut this covenant, the indication of death giving Life, the Prophet’s silence was and is deafening. Left hanging in an apparently blood-less anomaly, we are left to ponder just HOW this covenant can be ours. In due season our questions were to be answered. At the Seder meal of a small group of followers, Yeshua Mashichaynu declared the memorable words that forever satisfied the hungry and thirsty spirits of our people: ‘This is the blood of the Renewed Covenant’. Yes, His own blood, the giving of His own life for Life. Now we His people can know Him, walk with Him, know instinctively through circumcised hearts formed without human hand, what His will for us, the nation, our people is. No more recitation of Talmud or learning Torah by heart, because His Life will BE in our hearts.

What IS Judaism?

We ALL know what Judaism is don’t we? After all, if we didn’t we wouldn’t be in the middle of keeping Pesach right now, we wouldn’t have cleaned all our homes out, removed the chametz, and be still enjoying the cosy glow of our Seder. Everyone knows what Judaism is, right? Judaism is what Jewish people do! But that only throws up yet further questions of who IS a Jew, questions of identity and community markers and borders, ethnicity and conversion. How can such a simple question be so contentious? And would you know a Jewish person if you met one? How? By what they wear, what they say, how they pray, what synagogue they go to (or would never go to!)? Is Judaism only to be understood and recognised in its Rabbinic form (and its later extensions)? Is this what Judaism IS? Certainly those in the more modern forms of Rabbinic Judaism would strongly wish to self-identify with this core concept of singular validity and authenticity. But Is this what the Torah tells us that Judaism is? Maybe Judaism is wider, maybe we should include other forms: Reform, Liberal, Masorti, Reconstructionist or Modern Orthodox. Each one of these forms has its own value base, interpretational paradigms and intellectual structures that it functions within, but then so does Rabbinic Judaism too… It is precisely at times of national, cultural and spiritual renewal that it is vital to examine exactly what makes us tick, what drives us, motivates us, what makes us actually Jewish, and whether what we are actually doing IS Judaism.

It would of course be a challenge to define Judaism in even one sentence let alone a paragraph, but the Prophet Jeremiah (7:22-23) creates a tension in one of his many words to us that should help us to begin that formulation. Adonai, through Jeremiah, says ‘I did not speak to your fathers or command them in the day I brought them out of the land of Egypt concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them saying ‘Obey my voice and I will be your G-d, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the ways I have commanded you.’ ‘. The obvious tension and deliberate contradiction is to highlight something we are meant to think about, to be challenged about. Clearly G-d DID command us concerning sacrifice and offerings, yet we seemed to have missed something: the command to obey His voice. As a nation we set about doing things, fulfilling the commandments and yet we are reminded by the Prophet that listening to G-d’s voice in all this was/is missing. The contradiction points to a sad condition of spiritual deafness that even today should cause us concern. Doing is not the same as listening and obeying. If Jewish renewal is going to mean anything then it has to be a return to a focus on listening to G-d, hearing His voice through Torah and tradition, knowing how through the application of His righteousness alone we are to live out the mitzvot. We can, and should take this analogy even further: to listen implies two parties who are alive and understand each other, in fact, to have a living relationship where communication is not impeded. Judaism surely stands on the reality of the G-d of Israel’s existence and His ability to communicate to us even today as He has in the past through our Fathers, the Prophets and Mashiach. It stands on relationship.

Ask most people outside the borders of Judaism what Jewish people are defined by and you will get the comment ‘they do X, or Y’. It is highly unlikely that we would ever hear the comment ‘Jewish people are people who listen to G-d, have a relationship with Him and obey Him.’ In whatever form of Judaism we are, and however we may self-define that Judaism, surely we should allow G-d to speak to us through Torah once more and challenge us to submit to its teachings alone.