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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His hands alone.

At times it seems like the problems and issues facing us as Jews, our nation of Israel are so overwhelming that we might despair of ever seeing a way forward. The tragedy and sadness of the deaths of the three this last week have underlined our continued existential threat, not only in Diaspora but right inside our precious Land. As the debates rage about responses and solutions to this, the Jewish Chronicle (http://www.thejc.com/news/world-news/120090/whose-hands-hold-future 27.6.14) headlined two contrasting futures: one of continued hatred and the other of a possible hope. Or was it?

The hope outlined in the JC was the apparent good news of a new building in Berlin called the ‘House of One’, a building that contained a mosque, church and synagogue, combined in an architectural unity as if the bricks themselves were, are the message. The future? Have we not historically been the people of G-d, ‘living alone’? Indeed, it has been this very attribute that has allegedly caused some of the worst outbreaks of anti-Semitism in the past; We don’t fit in, have different customs and traditions. So is the future an ecumenical sunrise where all three monotheistic faiths merge into one? Or maybe all religions blending together into a homogeneous whole?  After all, according to some people all ‘ways’ lead to ‘god’. Judaism reborn as a hybrid universalism where the only rule is ‘be nice’?

Judaism needs renewal, our reborn nation demands it and our people expect it. The way ahead for this is to remind ourselves that we do not believe in god. We believe in the G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov, the G-d of Israel. His commandments are specific, clear and are, if taken in faith and trust through the salvation HE alone offers, transformational of the heart, mind and lifestyle. Our G-d is unlike any other deities, and we are forbidden to worship them. Our G-d is the One true G-d, He does not share His glory with any other, His teachings are unique for lifestyle, values, righteousness and the fruit thereof.

Surely the way ahead is to challenge the errors of the past, to return to paths forgotten, cleanse out the accumulated ‘clutter’ that has clouded vision and purpose, re-examine who and what we are and why we exist again. Embedding the differences in a pretend synonymity will only bring yet more confusion and disasters only paralleled by those brought on by the idolatrous syncretism of our ancient past. The journey from Balaam to Pinchas is tragically short.

Renewal and the future of Judaism is surely about rediscovering the command ‘to write these words on your heart’. Only by an internalising of Torah, a radical restructuring of our hearts and intents, can we ever hope to see the glorious Judaism outlined in the Torah itself. Avraham is our key: For by loving kindness are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of G-d (Bereshit -Genesis- 15:6 and letter to Jewish community in Ephesus ch 2).

 

 

 

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.

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.

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.