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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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.

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.

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.

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.

What is at stake?

There is a very good reason why architects have to study to a high level before they begin to actually design houses and buildings for people to live in and for life to function in. Surely we all may have a dream house in our minds eye of what and how this ideal dwelling should look like etc. Few though would be so foolish as to grab a spade and start to dig, lay the walls and so on, knowing that without the right foundation being laid, mathematically worked out, and without load bearing walls correctly located, any final ‘dream’ construct will collapse and possibly cause loss of life too in the process. So too the process of renovation and building renewal; a thorough understanding of the pattern of construction and design envisaged by the original Architect is required before such a process can begin. The point? If Judaism (in the general sense of that word as the ‘religion’ outlined by the Torah and Tanach) is to be renewed then we MUST reconstruct along the lines originally envisaged by the One who first called the ‘building’ into existence.

What is at stake? Everything. If we get this basic understanding wrong then the whole edifice will collapse and cause untold harm to Israel, the global Jewish community and to the nations too who look to us for inspiration and spiritual guidance. Messianic Judaism is a renewal Judaism, seeking to renew and rejuvenate Judaism in line with original Torah precept. Many it seems in our day are trying to re-decorate the house, some even revamping the first floor with ‘Messianic’ wallpaper and shifting the load bearing walls at will. But the foundation hasn’t been touched. If the modern foundation of what has become known as ‘Judaism’ is out of true, then no amount of tinkering in the loft will save the building, in fact it could be disastrous for all concerned.. This renewal has to go right back to below ground level, back to the original plans written by the Creator and Designer Himself. And if that means re-digging the foundations, then so be it.

Mashiach Yeshua told a story about new wine in old wine-skins, that an external form needs to be appropriate and fit for service for the contents therein. Tinkering on the edges will cause the skin to burst, the building to collapse. Judaism is a ‘faith’ that is predicated on salvation, the acts of deliverance of our G-d down the ages, His desire and call to us to return to Him from our sins and wayward lives. This ‘sub-text’ is the motif (foundation) that connects Judaism and Jewish thinking, and all these threads lead to One man, One act in history that brought the possibility of salvation to all who would call on His Name: Yeshua. This ‘sub-text’ creates the right foundations for the whole building, and so we can build, reinvigorate the construction according to ancient precept and design, confident that with the core idea in place, all redesign work will function correctly.

Messianic Judaism is NOT a renewed form of Rabbinic or better Talmudic Judaism. That form exists to serve its own purposes. Messianic Judaism seeks the old paths and desires to walk in them. Nothing short of a radical redefinition of Judaism orientated around the halacha Yeshua taught will suffice. Anything else will crumble before our eyes. What is at stake? Everything. During these days of awe running up to Yom Kippur we should not just consider a redecoration plan but a thorough inspection of everything in our Jewish lives that may be out of kilter.