The Hebrew language does not lack synonyms, and there are several other verbs which could have been chosen to begin the verse: “And Moshe gathered together the children of Israel.” The word employed, vayakhel, is significant, for it implies the fusion of the people into a kahal or communal entity, far more than a collection of individuals.
A group which gathers together can also move apart, and even while together, the union is not complete. A kahal, by contrast, represents an eternal entity that unites individuals in a new framework, highlighting the fundamental bond that joins them.
-Rabbi Eli Touger
“More than Gathering Together”
Commentary on Vayakhel; Exodus 35:1-38:20
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXI, p. 250ff;
Sefer HaSichos 5749, p. 292ff;
Sichos Shabbos Parshas Vayakhel, 5752
This commentary should speak to those people who believe that the Jewish people no longer are a people before God. It should speak to those who believe that God divorced Israel and married the Christian church. It should speak to those who believe that God abandoned His people Israel and transferred His eternal covenants to the church as the “new Israel.” It probably won’t, but it should. Look at what Rabbi Touger is saying. He’s saying that the Jewish people are uniquely a people, a unity, a kahal. They were at Sinai and they remain so today.
But what about the church?
I’m sure I’ve written about this before (but the problem with writing so many “meditations” is that I can’t be sure when or where), but is Christianity “a people?” In the strictest sense of the term, the answer is “no.” One is only a Jew if you have a Jewish mother (though having two Jewish parents would be really great) or if you converted to Judaism using a formalized process in a recognized branch of Judaism (this last part is problematic, since Orthodox Jews don’t recognize converts who went through Conservative or Reform synagogues). On the other hand, anyone can be a Christian. All you have to do is profess faith in Jesus Christ. You can come from any language, nation, or tongue, and God will not withhold the grace of Christ from you. You will belong (actually, I’m still working on that “belong” part).
But will you be a “kahal?” Will you be an “eternal entity that unites individuals in a new framework, highlighting the fundamental bond that joins them?”
How many Christian denominations exist today? I can’t find any one statistic that is authoritative or definitive, but it seems to be in the tens of thousands. Tens of thousands of individual and unique Christian denominations.
That’s a lot. Are they all a unity together; an eternal entity together?
That’s hard to say.
I’m not just commenting on this week’s torah portion (which is a double portion that includes Vayakhel and Pekudei). I’m performing a minor comparison of Judaism and Christianity. This is extremely oversimplified and open to tons of criticism, but hear me out.
My friend Gene Shlomovich has written a couple of blog posts recently. One is 50 signs you may subscribe to Replacement Theology which, as you might imagine, highlights a series of factors that contribute to elevating the Christian church at the expense of Jews, both in society and supposedly in the eyes of God. The more recent blog that caught my attention though is Test of a true convert to Judaism. The test is an easy one. If you want to convert to Judaism but you find out that the next Holocaust is just around the corner, would you still convert?
This is one of the reasons that Jews do not evangelize and are very hesitant to accept converts. When the going gets tough, the converts may not see themselves as integrated with the Jewish kahal. If you are born a Jew, it doesn’t matter how you see yourself. Hitler’s Nazis took all Jews to the camps, religious or secular. It didn’t matter if they saw themselves as part of the kahal of Israel, they still suffered and died. A Jew is bound the the community body and soul.
But is a Christian?
I admit, the church probably has to work harder at it, since we come from such a diverse set of backgrounds, but it’s not impossible to become a unified entity under Christ. The problem is how we see the rest of the world. Unlike Judaism, Christianity has a mandate to speak to the rest of the world. We are directed by Christ to make converts of all nations (see Matthew 28:18-20). No man must be our enemy because he has the potential to be our brother in the Messiah, regardless of his former life.
I had a discussion on another Christian blog recently regarding the Coexist Bumper Sticker phenomenon. The writer of that blog (no, I won’t provide links) was generally against the bumper sticker campaign as he felt it was directing Christians to simply get along with those of different faiths or or no faith at all, denying our mandate to evangelize to those groups. He also felt the coexist bumper stickers denied this:
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. –John 14:6 (ESV)
The blog writer separated the world into two camps…us and them. Those who are not part of us (Christianity) are against us. But if that’s true in an absolute sense, how will we ever be able to share the “good news” to people we hold in disdain? To be fair, he wasn’t really rejecting secular humanity, just resisting the “dumbing down” of Christian convictions for the sake of political correctness. But it reminded me of how many other churches erect extremely rigid barriers against the “unsaved,” and those of us who came to Christ late in life and with “a past.”
I’ve always been bothered by the arrogance and even apparent cruelty of these type of churches. This is particularly poignant for me, as I’ve mentioned, since I didn’t become a believer until my early 40s. If any of these folks had encountered me in those days, what would they have thought of me? Would they have thought I against them? Would they have thought I was their enemy? But weren’t we all enemies of Christ at one time?
For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. –Romans 5:10 (ESV)
No one is born God’s “friend.” As we grow and develop and become aware of God, we each negotiate our relationship with Him. It may be different from a Jewish point of view, I don’t know. I suspect that although God has promised that all of Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26), that doesn’t give each and every individual Jew a free pass to ignore God or the Torah without certain consequences.
I don’t have all the answers, so don’t ask me to provide them.
But I do know that we, as Christians, cannot simply dismiss the Jewish people or Judaism just because it suits our “superiority” theology, and we certainly can’t spit on those who have not accepted Christ as Lord and Savior because we can only feel better about our salvation in comparison to other people’s state of being without God. There are plenty of people I don’t really like and maybe a few really bad people I’m absolutely against, but how can I be an enemy to someone who was once just like me? How can I refuse to speak to anyone who desires to hear the good news just because they aren’t already just like me?
For me, coexisting isn’t surrendering my convictions in order to get along with the political correctness of the world. It’s the willingness to walk and talk and live in the world around me in all of its diversity, to illustrate that a life lived as a disciple of the Master is not one lived in vain (no matter how many secular and religious people tell me otherwise). How can anyone come to a knowledge of the Messiah if we refuse to share that knowledge, in love and forbearance, with others?
Returning to Rabbi Touger’s commentary, we can’t forget that what God has promised His people Israel was long ago said and done, and we in the church (though I attend no church) cannot undo the will of God toward His kahal.
The most complete expression of this oneness will come in the Era of the Redemption, when “a great congregation (kahal gadol) will return there.”Jews from all over the world will stream together to Eretz Yisrael. This ingathering will be more than geographic in nature. G-d will “bring us together from the four corners of the earth.”But more importantly, there will be unity and harmony among us, and this unity will embrace all existence. “The world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d as the waters cover the ocean bed.”
These are not merely promises for the future, but potentials that can be anticipated today. The massive waves of immigration that have reached Eretz Yisrael in recent years are obvious harbingers of the ultimate ingathering of our nation. And even as the physical reality of the Redemption is coming to pass, so too we can have a foretaste of its spiritual elements. We have the potential to establish a new harmony within ourselves, and to spread that harmony among others. And by these efforts to anticipate the Redemption, we will help make it a reality.
We cannot live in arrogance, taking the place of the groom at the wedding feast (Luke 14:7-11) when we have been commanded to sit down at the lowest place. Not if we expect to be a part of the harmony of which Rabbi Touger speaks. If God wants to honor us, He will move us to a more distinguished seat. It is not up to us to automatically occupy the head of the table.
If Christianity wants to be a kahal of God, unified under our Master and Savior, we must emulate him in being loving to others, as he was to the woman at the well (John 4:7-26). He was not dishonest with her, nor did he “soft pedal” his message to her, but he did not send her summarily away, either.
I tried to explain my point of view on the aforementioned blog, but the blog owner and I continued to talk at cross purposes (forgive the small pun). Eventually, I was inspired to write today’s Torah commentary, such as it is, not speaking to the blog writer as such, but to all Christians in the hope that someone will listen with a softened heart.
Lately, I’ve been writing about my own spiritual journey, which admittedly has become interrupted “at the bottom of a well.” I’m focusing on prayer as the means by which to respond to being “stalled in traffic” so to speak. I understand that a great many things I object to today, I’ll eventually have to accept and let them be. One of them is the idea that I can always have fellowship with other Christians. I want not to be hostile or anxious or upset with those people who are different than I am. Unfortunately, if the church, or some of its members, are circling the wagons and defending themselves against anyone who is even slightly different, then what fellowship do I have with them?
I should say at this point that we are all doing our best to understand and obey God, so I can’t really be upset or angry at the blog writer I’ve been referencing. I know he’s sincere and really does want to help others, but where he may see enemies such as Stalin, Haman, Hu Jintao and Ahmedinijad, I see my next door neighbor, my co-workers, and my family.
I may have to accept that the church is not my kahal and that such a unity will never exist for me. My closeness and unity to God may be found, not within the walls of a church or synagogue, but in the slender pages of the Bible and in solitary prayer. But then, not every Christian blog has the same response to the “coexist” bumper stickers, so who knows what the future may bring?