Serving God

The Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenberg, shlit”a, gave a very inspiring talk based on a statement on today’s daf. “The Rokeach writes that one should prepare himself with cheshbon hanefesh and teshuvah before fulfilling a mitzvah; he should beg God that he merit to do the mitzvah as is fitting, without feelings of self-aggrandizement. Some would even fast before fulfilling certain mitzvos. The reason for these extra exertions is that a mitzvah done with genuine feeling as it should be makes huge rectifications in the upper worlds. Obviously there are many barriers that block the way of the person who wishes to reach this pinnacle. The least we can do before performing a mitzvah is to beg God for help.

“Now we can understand why, although it was a printer’s decision, every tractate in the Talmud begins with a shaar blatt, a page with a gateway, and then starts on a page marked as number two. Tzaddikim always petition God for help to learn and do mitzvos. They plead with God: ‘I know in my heart that I am not as I should be. I have done much wrong. Nevertheless, You God are gracious and merciful. I therefore plead with You to help me serve You in truth.’ The first page is the gateway: we enter into the gates of learning Torah lishmah by begging God for His aid. Only after entering this gateway can we begin the actual tractate on page two.

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Seeking the Laws of Pesach”
Bechoros 58

According to Rabbi Daniel Gordis in his book God Was Not in the Fire (pg 132), most people understand the word “mitzvah” to mean “good deed” when the better translation is “commandment”. He states that, “Doing a mitzvah might well be nice, but – perhaps surprisingly -Judaism values it not only for its “kindness” but for its “commandedness” as well.” This might go some of the distance in explaining how we can understand the Jewish value of asking; in fact, all but begging for God’s help in performing a mitzvah, even to the point to fasting and praying beforehand. For a Christian, this may seem way over the top and far too formal a process. If you feel moved to donate canned food to the local food bank, volunteer at the homeless shelter, or visit a sick friend in the hospital, can’t you just do that without all the preliminary activity suggested by the Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenberg?

Rabbi Gordis says that many Jews feel this way, too and resist “what they see as Judaism’s tendency to regulate too many elements of life.” I think that’s one of the reasons Christians and many “Messianics” are critical of the “man-made rules” contained in Talmud and the principle of halacha. After all, does this vast collection of minute details really matter to God? Isn’t He pleased if we just do His will without all the ceremony involved? Rabbi Gordis offers one possible answer.

Yet as much as it sounds reasonable to wonder whether God really cares about the details, these specific elements of Jewish life are often important not necessarily because God cares about them, but because we need them. It is through our attention to detail, tradition claims, that we express what Judaism called a sense of “commandedness,” a sense that we behave in a certain way in order to construct a relationship with God. Mitzvah is designed not to make unnecessary limitations on our privacy and autonomy, but to express the idea that if we wish to feel God’s presence, we need to evoke that feeling in action.

This is what Christians would probably call “works-based religion”. A Christian “believes” and “feels” God through faith while a Jew “obeys” and “acts” on their faith. I suppose this is as good a place as any to (again) invoke James 2:14-26 including the very famous verse 17: “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. “ The specific formalities of Judaism in preparing to perform a mitzvah and then the specific manner in which the mitzvah is accomplished may not actually matter to God, but that ritual and ceremony provides meaning and structure in the life of a religious Jew (and this isn’t the first time I’ve talked about how important ritual and tradition is in a life of faith).

I suspect that one of the primary reasons why many “Gentile Messianics” resist Talmud and halacha when attempting to emulate a Jewish lifestyle, is not that the traditions were constructed by human beings, but that the traditions were constructed by Jews for Jews for the specific purpose of Jewish performance of Torah “commandedness”. Many non-Jews are attracted to Torah as a means of having a closer walk with God through the commandments, but they resist a fully Jewish experience with those commandments (because it is too Jewish).

Derek Leman wrote a multi-part series called Not Jewish yet Drawn to Torah (the link goes to part 1) addressing this dynamic in much detail. Leman doesn’t criticize Gentile attraction to the mitzvot but rather the approach that allows Christians (including “Gentile Messianics”) to approach the Torah with a casualness that Judaism doesn’t understand and finds offensive. Christians, particularly in the West, tend to think of their faith as only involving Jesus and the individual (“Just me and Jesus”). Judaism, though acknowledging the individual relationship, is much more about community and being a people under God, rather than an individual under God. Leman presents “Lessons Learned from Past Mistakes” illustrating some of this problem:

You should know that many have walked the path before you. And many have found some unhelpful paths and can warn you not to try them.

The major problem many Torah-seeking gentiles have run into is very similar to the problem of shallowness in much evangelical Christianity: individualism run amok.

EVANGELICAL CHRISTIAN SHALLOWNESS = “The gospel is about me and my salvation.” Read some N.T. Wright, like Justification or Surprised by Hope or After You Believe.

TORAH-SEEKING GENTILE SHALLOWNESS = “The Torah is about me and my status with God.” Read some medieval commentators and Jewish theologians, would you? Learn the depth.

A BETTER PATH = Learn slowly and carefully. Think before jumping into things. Consider that God has a plan for the whole world, through Israel, to redeem. How does Torah fit into that? What is your place in God’s plan?

While Christianity doesn’t share an equal and identical covenant identity with the Jews, we do operate from the same “core values:”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” -Matthew 22:37-40

If we, as Gentile believers, feel drawn to perform some additional mitzvot on a voluntary basis, and beyond what is required by Jesus, in order to further honor God, we need to respectfully approach how best to prepare for the experience of offering that service. While there is no mandate to flawlessly imitate a Jewish person, we can still attempt to take our actions a little more seriously and inject more formality into the process, not because God needs it, but because we need to be reminded that any action performed in His Name should invoke respect and awe of God.

Christianity and Judaism do share mandates to perform some of the same mitzvot, the actions I typically quote in many of my blogs, to feed the hungry, visit the sick and the prisoner, clothe the unclothed, and to welcome the stranger. In doing those deeds, why shouldn’t we as Christians, allow ourselves to perceive the incredible responsibility God has placed in our hands to serve Him and to serve others? Doesn’t that deserve a little formality and ceremony? Shouldn’t we ask for God’s aid in performing duties done in His Name? Aren’t these types of details there to help us, too? Let us remember these words and say them in truth to God:

I know in my heart that I am not as I should be. I have done much wrong. Nevertheless, You God are gracious and merciful. I therefore plead with You to help me serve You in truth.

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