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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Just take 10 (9)?

Most people of the world living in developed nations are aware of the need to live with and under a system of Law that governs almost every area of our lives, national and personal. A lack of such Law and the ensuing corruption that inevitably surrounds such a situation is definitely seen as a negative, making day to day living difficult and unpredictable. Most people also will be able to tell you of 10 ‘laws’ that are enshrined into historical consciousness almost everywhere: the 10 Commandments. Leaving aside the question of terminology (commandments or word/ teachings/sayings) it is a fact that just about every law system in the world has its origin in the concept of a national Law code pioneered by Israel, or rather, by the G-d of Israel. The ‘Decalogue’ has inspired a sense of justice and righteousness wherever it has been allowed to flourish and be taken seriously. As a cultural and social heritage from Israel to the world it ranks very highly.

And this is the point. These ideas, concepts and ‘laws’ are not neutral. They had a time and a place in history, given to a people group in a specific location, designed to allow a functioning, real time, physical manifestation of the Kingdom of G-d on earth. The commandments form a living national signpost to reveal who the one true G-d is. And of course they represent just the beginnings of the revealed commandments given. Yet strangely the first 10 of the commandments have taken on a peculiarly universalistic role that is not reflected by the Torah itself. There is no ‘line break’ after them, the commandments and teachings of the Lord G-d continue throughout the rest of the Tanach. This artificial and abrupt¬† disconnect after the 10, driven by later theological developments alien to Judaism, downplays the actual strongly particularistic elements of the Sinai Covenant. Even the later rabbis, keen to provide some comfort to the nations vis-a-vis their relationship to the G-d of Israel, offered the so-called Noahide Commandments, not the Decalogue.

The first set of commandments begins with the particularistic statement that we should remember who it was who brought us out of Egypt. Conveniently forgotten by other faith groups as the first commandment, it nevertheless makes it clear that living under THIS system of Law is for those who ‘were brought out of Egypt’. Each Seder night we re-enact this departure to connect with our shared history; you have to be a part of the group, the nation, the people to actually understand and accept the teachings (commandments) that were given to US as a result of our redemption and deliverance. Salvation brings obligations.

The problem is that having universalised some of the Jewish faith, many are happy to leave the rest particular. This is not Judaism, and nowhere does Judaism foresee a time when aspects of it will be taken and some discarded as unworthy of application. What Judaism DOES foresee is a time when the wider universal outreach beyond the mere physical borders of the Land will gather in those from the nations who choose to align themselves with the G-d of Israel and the Jewish Mashiach Yeshua and then live accordingly. As Rav Shaul makes clear, G-d is the G-d of all, regardless of ethnic or national background, but He has chosen to make His message particularist to those who follow Him. Messianic Judaism is, if taken seriously, the developed universal form of Judaism that preaches inclusion and outreach, the particular with universal application. But it should be noted that it is Jews, living a form of Judaism that this happens, not by creating a different faith or religion. Nowhere do we see Judaism teaching or advocating the creation of a different faith expression to fulfil this inclusivist prophetic principle. A universalistic, disembodied set of principles may appeal to some who wish to distance themselves from Judaism, but it is not the Jewish way. The invitation to join us stands.

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.

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.

Things change.

If you are living in the UK you will not have failed to notice the recent highly acclaimed TV series penned and presented by Prof. Simon Schama as it dominated the documentary horizon. As excellent as the series was and is, it was his personal journey of discovery that was one of the most moving aspects of it. Not simply happy to reconnect and bask in the history of his people, he asked the difficult and challenging questions of a historian for whom platitudes are no more than a sanctimonious superficiality. And it was one question in particular that brought the whole series into focus. He asked ‘How could we be Jewish in a post-Temple Judaism?’ This stunningly lucid and provocative question eats away at the very fabric of historical Judaism in the last 2000 years of Diaspora and undermines the very foundation stones of a form of Judaism designed to SURVIVE the catastrophe of exile but not necessarily reflect the essence of Judaism.

Such an iconoclastic question needs to be asked in the current desire to see Judaism renewed and revived once more. The Prophets of old were not concerned to see Judaism morph into something ‘new’ but rather see the people drawn back to what Judaism had always taught and believed. Judaism, as defined by the Torah covenant given by G-d at Sinai, seems to be but an ancient memory in contrast to what Judaism has become today. The Judaism of the Torah is G-d focussed, determinedly pursuing His presence and passionately desiring to draw close to the G-d who brought us out of the house of bondage. It is Temple-centric, or in the early days, Tabernacle orientated. Even here we see the centrality of G-d’s living presence with us His people. The commandments were daily life-giving structures and a living reality from a G-d who loved us and whose love and care we knew.

Things change. Judaism (in the generic sense of that word) today is not what it was 4000 years ago, nor even 2000 years ago as we transitioned between Jewish religious forms necessitated by external factors. But the question remains, just how could/can Judaism survive in a post-Temple world? Its central place as a sacrificial icon and resting place of the Shekinah highlighted not only its importance practically but theologically too. Yet change Judaism did. As the Sages of Yavneh refashioned Judaism into a form where text and our interaction with it became the cut and thrust of daily Jewish life, a Judaism that needed no Temple, no immediate sense of the presence of G-d or core acceptance of the requirement for sacrifices was created. This form of Judaism, Talmudic or Rabbinic Judaism, was designed to exist in a post-Temple and post-Land world, a form structured to hold our identity even while the Sages bemoaned the fact that the ‘Shekinah had departed’. Text and tradition took the seat of authority and the rule of the rabbi began. In what was meant to be a religion, a faith, of immanence and the experience of the living G-d of Israel as our Fathers knew it to be, changed gradually into what we know it to be today.

Monolithic as (Rabbinic) Judaism appears today, there is no reason why history must define the future. It is time to face the reality that a Judaism created to function in exile away from the core tenets of Jewish faith and practice needs to be renewed and revived in line with our return to the Inheritance, the Land once more. And where should we look for guidance on what this renewal should look like? As surprising as it is to many, there were in fact two forms of Judaism that survived the first century. Rabbinic, Talmudic Judaism everyone has heard of, but the other form has lain hidden for 2000 years and only recently has appeared again: Messianic Judaism. Like Yosef hidden from his brothers, this form was whisked away into a foreign environment only to be revealed like Yosef at the right time. Messianic Judaism is the renewing and revived form of the Judaism of the Torah and answers the burning question of how we can survive in a post-Temple world.

Where is sin?

Sin. The word that has become so unpopular and out of fashion in today’s world. In a post-modern world where absolutes have become absolutely rejected and Liberalism has eroded the validity of holding and (dare we say) expressing personal views, sin as a concept and reality¬† is ready it seems to be put in a display cabinet at the Museum of Religion. Yet sin, and more importantly, knowing its location, actually sits at the heart of Judaism. And if Judaism has a message for the nations today (and it does), then that message must include the notion of sin, both its causes and effects.

So why am I asking where it is? The ‘locational’ aspect of sin is vital if we are to understand the core fundamental meaning structure of Judaism. At the very beginning as Chava was tested by the fruit of the tree it would have been very easy for her, and us today, to conclude that the seat of sin, of evil in our world, is external to mankind. It is ‘out there’, in the tree. Sin is something to be defeated in the world, outside of ourselves. Whole political philosophies and the collection of the world’s ‘isms’ are based upon such concepts: change the world and you’ll change mankind. This thinking has infiltrated our own thoughts today and and can be regularly heard as we blame anything, anyone and everything for our actions: I did X because of my family background, because of what I ate, because my bad school experience, because I was/am poor etc. If only we could change the world, the external forces arrayed against us we could improve everything! But right now we are all victims and everyone, everything else is to blame but me.

But that conclusion is one the Torah, and Judaism, rejects. When the judgement of G-d fell on the original situation with Chava and Adam, it was the humans who were condemned, not the fruit, the tree or anything else G-d had created. In fact, it was precisely because mankind did NOT take responsibility for the sin that judgement fell. We were judged because of our reactions to the ‘test’ placed before us; would we obey or rebel? Because we have free choice and a free will as part of the creational Image of G-d in all of us, it is our choices and decisions that are critical in any situation, not what is ‘out there’. Nothing can ‘force’ you to sin: we choose. That this is true is further substantiated in the next generations that follow, as G-d sadly regrets making mankind because ‘the intentions of his heart are evil all the time’. The wording is accurate ‘intentions of his HEART’. That is the seat of sin, of evil, it comes OUT OF man, not flows into him/her. It is how we react, choose and decide in each situation that determines sin and its effects in our lives and those of others. That we are predisposed to choose to rebel and sin is clear from human history.

If external things were the real problem and root of sin, then the only solution would be to destroy creation. But G-d made it good. Even at the time of Noach when this solution seemed to be the only one available, Noach nevertheless impressed G-d with his faith and ability to take a righteous stand amongst evil and sin. His faith; the faith of one man, stopped the destruction of the entire creation! It demonstrated once and for all that sin is not ‘out there’ but is in the heart, and if in the heart and nature of man, then it can be overcome too by faith (choosing what G-d wants) and the power of G-d. If we understand WHERE sin is, then we have a powerful redeeming message to preach and teach: change IS possible; salvation IS real.

In other forms of Judaism one can often hear about the innate ‘goodness’ of man. This flies in the face of the theoretical and real human situation as presented in the Torah. In fact, to take such a position undermines sacrifice itself which is a core component of Judaism. Sacrifice is for PEOPLE not for objects because that is where sin resides. The core idea of sacrifice proves this basic premise once and for all: sin is in the human heart, it is internal and not external, and that is where the changes need to happen, not on the outside.

Being in the world but not of the world is a foundational component of Judaism as outlined by Mashiach. We cannot flee this world, nor are we called to. Our mission as Jews is to redeem it with a message of hope that change IS possible and righteousness CAN stand through faith.

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!