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.

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.

A ‘failed’ redeemer?

The prophet Jeremiah, like most if not all the prophets sent by G-d over time, calls us to not only repent, but to actively seek the path of Jewish, national renewal. His call was as relevant then as today: each person must turn back to the Lord again, repent of sin committed and demonstrate such repentance with mitzvot, good deeds. But the call is to the nation too, to rebuild the national structures be they Government or society, culture, politics or national expressions of our Jewish faith. For Jeremiah the place to look for such renewal was clear: ‘Seek the old paths’ he said, ‘so you can walk in them’. Yet if we are honest we seem to have focussed instead on other sources for renewal, either a slavish adherence to modernity revealed through the unquestioning adoption of the progressive liberal spirit of our times, or sources of spirituality that many it seems are questioning the validity of today (http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/113949/limmud-has-opened-door-cults%E2%80%99-say-rabbis).

Modern is not always good. Two thousand years ago the Jewish Mashiach, Yeshua called His own people to repentance, just like the prophets before Him. Standing in the great tradition of Jewish renewal His desire was to see real change, real revival and a restoration of both Land and nation based on a heart change towards G-d. At no time during His three short years of ministry and preaching/teaching did He declare that He was establishing a new religion. Why would He? He was and is Mashiach, the very term only makes sense within the Jewish paradigm, the Torah image we work within. Today the call to seek the old paths is just as strong, and many who reject Yeshua will argue ‘been there, done that’. Yet if real renewal is to come we must rediscover NOT reinvent. Judaism is the revelation of G-d to us His people, and through us to the world. We simply need to rediscover that prophetic, yes even evangelistic dynamic again that has always been ours.

Yet some will still claim that Yeshua failed in His renewal. Verses from Torah can and will be marshalled to support every nuance of opinion, Jewish or otherwise, to support such views. But the issue can be laid to rest if we examine such claims of ‘failure’ from a different angle. Apparently Yeshua ‘failed’ because He didn’t remove the oppression of the Roman occupation from our shoulders and bring ‘peace’. Such ‘failure’ didn’t bring us the freedom that Mashiach clearly does and did promise to bring. But to see and understand history in such a way fails to grasp the nub of the real issues: the Romans were not the real problem. In fact to claim such a view is to completely misunderstand the very nature of the spiritual/moral/righteous reality in which we live. As we Jews have tended to do, we blame everything outside, external for our woes. This thinking leads us to believe that if only we can create a perfect external reality, then we shall be blessed. This concept of course lies at the very heart of modern humanist thinking. But it is error. That we were occupied by a foreign power should have (in the grand tradition of the prophets) alarmed us to a higher reality, that we were under discipline from HaShem. THAT thought should have driven us to repentance.

As Mashiach taught, the real problem is not what is externally affecting your life, be it a foreign occupying power or poverty or other social ills (as repugnant as those things are), but sin. In other words, what lies WITHIN you not without. Putting it bluntly, Mashiach taught that no change is possible unless the heart of mankind changes first. Because so many fail to understand that THIS issue alone (atonement for and subsequent release from sin) is the determining one for us, for Israel and ultimately for the whole world, they fail to realise that what appeared at face value to be a signal failure (Yeshua’s death) was actually the greatest triumph.

Yeshua only ‘failed’ in His task as prophet and redeemer, re-newer of Israel and Judaism, if you examine His life and death through the wrong prism. He was born Jewish, lived as a Jew and died Jewish. Failure to go back to the old paths and re-examine His teachings will lead to a lack of Jewish renewal in our day. The failure is not His, but it may be ours.

The basis of Jewish Renewal

Life can seem so ‘normal’, what is, is, and things that ‘are’ shouldn’t be questioned or examined. After all, that is the way things are. Traditions, routines, habits whether personal, national, secular or spiritual, all the accretions of what we ‘do’ represent the way things ‘are’. Thousands of years ago in the north of Israel life seemed ‘normal’, no one questioned what the status quo was, worship was what it was and everyone assumed that that was the way things were and should be. In the north the worship of the golden calves was ubiquitous, and apparently embraced eagerly by the 10 tribes living there. Even in the south, in the Temple itself, the corruption had not been stopped entirely. To say that the nation had a serious spiritual/religious problem was an understatement, yet a statement that few would have verbalised. Why? It is easy to be critical and hindsight is a wonderful thing. Yet the records in 2 Kings and elsewhere highlight one of the issues: we read ‘so-and-so did evil in the sight of the Lord, as had his father so-and-so’. Each new generation repeated what the previous one had learnt, been taught was normal and right. That is the way things are, that is what we do, steady as she goes. One thing was clear: Judaism, our national faith and belief structure and system needed radical renewal and revival. Our very ongoing existence as a physical, geopolitical nation depended on it.

Into the historical arena came a young king, Josiah. Enthroned at only 8 years old he was more reliant than many others upon the wiser heads around him. Yet he was stirred and moved by the condition of the Temple, the centre of Jewish worship and faith expression. It was as if he almost instinctively knew that if the heart was rotten the body would not function. And so with the zeal of G-d Josiah carried out the cleansing and repair of the Temple. That would in itself have been a huge achievement, and would almost certainly have had a large impact on the nation, but what actually determined the renewal and revival of faith in the Land was what happened next: The High Priest Hilkiah discovered, laying cast aside and unread, a copy of the Torah in the Temple precincts. As this was read to the king, he tore his clothes in a sign of mourning and deep spiritual pain; the conviction of G-d and awareness of personal and national sin lay upon his shoulders.

It was this one event that unlocked the restoration of our people under king Josiah. Because he drove through the changes needed to national religious practice and structure, tore down the offending places of worship and removed idolatry and pagan influences, effectively consecrating again the country to HaShem, it was possible for the judgement of G-d to be withheld. This was a return to Torah, a rediscovery of the covenant that established Israel in the first place, and this encounter with the revelation at Sinai profoundly impacted the nation. The people had had their heads turned by spiritual flights of fancy, superstition and dubious if not evil spiritual practices, all of which had led them away from the Lord and true worship. But now, the truth of G-d’s own words shone a light into everyone’s lives. The writer to our nation (Heb 4:12) informs us of the intrinsic power of the words spoken by G-d in this way: ‘the word of G-d is living and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword (…) discerning the thoughts and intents of the heart’. The rediscovery of the Torah was the revelatory, external impetus needed to break the cycle of generational error.

Revival and renewal is not possible if we only ever continue to do what has been handed down to us. What was innovative in one generation is tradition in the next and stultifying to new life in the one after. Judaism needs reviving to our nation and our people. The forms we have been taught that have kept us and defined us for 2000 years of diaspora will not work for us back in the Land again. For that we must return to Torah afresh, rediscover who and what we are, weep and repent as Josiah did and seek G-d’s face. If we are to see HIS renewal and revival, His salvation and restoration, then we must dig deep, bravely slaughter the ‘sacred cows’ and ask the difficult questions. The future of Judaism rests upon a return to HIS word and the worship commanded of us, worship in Spirit and truth, for such our Father in Heaven seeks to worship Him.

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.

Tisha b’av

All around the world, and up and down the Land of Israel this week on Tuesday we marked Tisha b’av, a serious and painful memorial of all the evil events that have befallen us over the millennia. We as Jews have had our fair share (some would say more than our fair share) of persecutions, attacks and dire existential moments. Difficult too to not fall into the trap of the ‘victim mentality’, it’s our lot in life, we are the lightening rod of abuse from a world openly in rebellion against G-d etc etc. The pain has shaped us and patterned our thinking, and yet… dare we even now have the courage to face reality?

In the first century one particular historical event fundamentally changed the course of Jewish history: the destruction of the Temple in 70CE. As this transformational moment is memorialised on Tisha b’av we are encouraged to consider why this happened. The Talmud teaches that the Temple was destroyed due to sinat chinam or ‘unfounded hatred’. There may be some truth to that as amongst the many ‘Judaisms’ of the first century it is known that rivalry and mistrust was huge. Different visions of what Judaism was, is and how to live as a Jew competed with each other in the faith market place for supremacy.

However, the focus on the physical destruction of the Temple hides a reality that we must actually turn our attention to. The Temple, as beautiful as it was, was only stone and superbly crafted and expensively decorated masonry. It was what the Temple stood for that was more important. The Temple was the ‘home’ of the visible and manifest presence of our G-d in our midst. With the Temple gone, that focus went too. We have to therefore ask, what is it that drives G-d’s presence away? The answer according to Torah is sin. King David amongst his own repentances cried out to G-d to ‘not take His Holy Spirit from him’, Rav Shaul talks about ‘not quenching the Spirit’, again in the general context of our sinfulness. Sin drives G-d away. Without His presence the Temple would not survive. The irony of the situation and (by extrapolation to today) its modern counterpart is brought out by Rav Naphtali Yehudah Tzvi Berlin in his commentary on Bereshit. He describes the Jewish community in the first century as a ‘generation of superior Torah knowledge and observance’. Today we too live in a day when Jewish study is deep and widespread, ranging across many different denominations. Yet study didn’t prevent the sin of the first century and consequent destruction of the Temple, and sadly despite our knowledge of Torah today that too cannot and will not save us. What we need now is a renewal and revival of Judaism that will reach out to all Jews, and subsequently the nations too, that will bring our G-d back to His rightful place in our faith and Land. G-d’s presence MUST be returned to the heart of Judaism, to the core of our faith. Once our sin has been dealt with and we are cleaned/washed again as Ezekiel determines WILL happen, then we can expect our nation to light up this world and so bring an end to the attacks that seem to be our constant travelling companion.