Yitro: Walking with Israel

Har_SinaiOn the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai. Having journeyed from Rephidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain, and Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.” Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all that the Lord had commanded him. All the people answered as one, saying, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” And Moses brought back the people’s words to the Lord.

Exodus 19:1-8 (JPS Tanakh)

Did you ever get angry about what someone did and say, “I would have never done that if I were him!”? Probably most of us have said that one time or another.

I’ve got news for you! You would have done EXACTLY what he did if you were him. If you had his genes, his upbringing, his education and philosophy on life along with his desires and attitudes … you would have done precisely what he did. The proof is … that’s what HE did! The difference is that you are not him and you think that with all that you are, that you would have acted differently. Hopefully, if you were in his situation, you would not do what he did.

What we have here is a failure to judge our fellow human being favorably.

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Commentary on Torah Portion Yitro
Aish.com

This week’s Torah Portion is kind of a big deal. It’s the parashah where we see the Children of Israel “as one man” receiving the Torah from God! This is the defining moment when Israel truly becomes a nation before God and it also is what, more than any other single event, defines the Jewish people today, in spite of what some people may say about Jews, Judaism, and Israel.

But we have a problem, at least on the surface. The Children of Israel stood before Moses and before God and said as a single group, as a nation, that “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” That response is not only the agreement of all the people who were actually there, but for all of their descendants across the ages as well. Israel said that they would do everything that God had spoken, all of His laws, all of His ordinances, everything.

Did they? Do they?

I won’t go through a lengthy list of quotes from the Tanakh, but the simple answer is “no.” That first generation out of Israel did not enter the Land and take it at the command of God. Forty years of wandering in the wilderness was also forty years of struggling with God as well as Moses and Aaron struggling with God to preserve the People from their own disobedience and grumbling.

Even after Joshua led the next generation to take the Land (and Moses was also disobedient and as a consequence, was not allowed to enter Israel), there were problems. In fact, reading through the Tanakh reveals a significant history of Israel and her Kings, even David and Solomon, disobeying God and failing to do all that the Lord had said.

joshua-in-israelNo, I’m not going out of my way to “Jew bash,” simply stating what we all know. Does that mean the Torah is useless, the Israelites weak and disobedient, and the modern Jewish people are followers of a “dead religion?”

Absolutely not. What it means is that they are human.

I’ve sat in a Bible study in church (not the church I go to now…this was many years ago) and heard a man, a retired Pastor (normally a very nice guy) say point-blank that “we Christians” would never disobey God the way the Israelites did.

Oh really?

Remember what Rabbi Packouz said above?

If we were living in those days, had experienced what they experienced, had lived through slavery, were suddenly thrust into a brand new world, even experienced the amazing, awesome, unimaginable presence of God among us, yes we too would have said and done all the things the Children of Israel did.

Sorry to say.

There is a saying in Pirke Avos 2:5 (“Ethics of the Fathers”), “Hillel says, ‘Don’t judge your fellow human being until you have been in his place.” It is upon us to try to put ourselves in someone else’s situation before passing judgment.

Also in Pirke Avos 4:3, Ben Azai says, “Do not scorn any person, nor be disdainful of any thing for there is no person who does not have his hour and no thing which does not have its place.”

The Torah source for this mitzvah, commandment, is “You shall judge your fellow human being with righteousness” (Leviticus 19:15). This verse obligates us to give someone the benefit of the doubt when we see him performing an action that could be interpreted in his favor.

The Torah also teaches us, “Love your fellow human being as yourself …” (Leviticus 19:18). The Baal Shem Tov used to say, “Love others as yourself. You know that you have many faults, nevertheless, you still love yourself. That is how you should feel toward your friend. Despite his faults, love him” (Likutai Abraham, p. 221).

Setting aside Rabbi Packouz, what can we learn from another “Rav” with whom we Christians might be more familiar?

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7:1-5 (ESV)

old-city-jerusalemAll week long, I’ve been writing blog post after blog post presenting some rather unusual ideas about the Torah, the instructions to the Israelites from God, and how it is lived out in Judaism and sometimes within Christianity. My friend Boaz Michael says that the weightier matters of the Torah are also taught in church, such as love of kindness, feeding the hungry, compassion for the widow, and so on. Granted when we get into the area of halachah and how the Jewish community will walk before God, things become complicated, but lately, I’ve been encouraged to see halachah as the communal conversation and response of the Jewish people to the Torah and to God. It’s a living, interactive process by which Jews seek to obey God and live their lives before God as Jews. By definition, Christians, who are taught to conceptualize God and the Bible in fundamentally different ways, are going to have a tough time with this (even some Jewish people have a tough time with this).

But do we judge the ancient Israelites, the more recent Jewish population who lived in the days of Jesus, Peter, and Paul, and the modern Jewish community, particularly those in the Messianic space, by our own Gentile Christian standards, given that those standards do not have much of a basis in common with Judaism? Have we walked a mile in the shoes of a Jew?

Even if you are a Christian who has spent a lot of time with the Jewish community, either here in the U.S. or even in Israel, while you may have some insights into Jews and Judaism that many Christians lack, there’s still a long road between living with Jews and being Jewish. Even converts to Judaism will struggle to make up the distance, the lack of a Jewish childhood, the lack of Jewish parents and growing up in a Jewish community.

There’s a lot of judgement and disdain of Jews by Christians, including those in the Hebrew Roots community, but upon what is it based? It is especially surprising and disappointing that a Gentile Christian can say they are “observing Torah,” wear a kippah and tallit katan in their daily lives, daven with a siddur while wearing a tallit gadol and laying tefillin, keep Leviticus 11 “kosher,” and claim to love Israel and the Jewish people, and yet still judge and reject everything it is to be Jewish and to live as a Jew. Sometimes, I think it’s even worse for some of those same Gentiles who style themselves as “academic” or “resource institute” experts to treat the Jewish people as a “thing” or an “object” for study (and it’s easier to throw away an object than a human being), rather than as living, breathing, people.

You don’t have to agree with how Jewish people conceptualize their world, but then again, you don’t have to attempt to live as a Jew either, if that is your opinion.

It’s been a busy and difficult week in this little corner of the blogosphere. I don’t usually spend so much time and effort on a single topic across an entire week, but this theme took over my thoughts and emotions and I had to write (and write and write) about it.

I don’t claim to bear any great wisdom or insights, but writing is what I do when I want to explore and I’m trying to understand. Blog comment contributor “ProclaimLiberty” has suggested that halachah is akin to the Jewish communal conversation with God and the sages. Writing is part of what I do as an individual when I’m trying to talk to God. I just share the conversation (my end of it, anyway) with the Internet.

PleadThe Children of Israel failed God because we all fail God! If God’s grace wasn’t with humanity from the very beginning, we never would have survived, and there would be no human population in the world today. God is gracious and we know this, but we cannot even begin to comprehend the extent, scope, and vastness of His graciousness to us all, and especially to Israel, the apple of His eye, His treasured, splendorous people.

The Lord said to Moses: Thus shall you say to the Israelites: You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens…

Exodus 20:19 (JPS Tanakh)

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Luke 23:34 (ESV)

God speaks to us all but we don’t always understand. It would have been amazing if we could have been there among Israel to actually see and hear God speak from the very heavens, but God gives us enough. And yet we don’t always know what we’re doing, including when we curse rather than bless Israel. We should try to understand Israel and understand God.

The first positive mitzva is, in the words of Rambam, (Maimonides: Mishneh Torah, Yesodei haTorah 1:1.) “To know that there is a First Being, who caused the existence of all beings…The knowledge of this principle is a positive command, as it is said, I am the Eternal your G-d.”

This is a Mitzva relating to mind and intellect. True, every one of Israel believes in G-d with a simple faith, and his heart is whole with G-d; still it is the duty of the mind and intellect to bring this faith to a level of knowledge and comprehension. This is the meaning of “To know that there is a First Being;” the Mitzva specifies comprehension and intellectual grasp, as written in Torah: “Know the G-d of your father and serve Him with a whole heart” (Divrei Hayamim I, 28:9.) and it is also written, “know this day etc.” (Devarim 4:9.)

“Today’s Day”
Monday, Sh’vat 19, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

If we don’t understand Israel perhaps it is because we don’t really understand God, and we should spend some time in Jewish shoes; standing in their place. Failing that, we should seek God’s wisdom and particularly, we should repent and seek His forgiveness.

Erev Shabbat is coming. This would be a good time.

Good Shabbos.

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7 thoughts on “Yitro: Walking with Israel”

  1. James: “If we were living in those days, had experienced what they experienced, had lived through slavery, were suddenly thrust into a brand new world, even experienced the amazing, awesome, unimaginable presence of God among us, yes we too would have said and done all the things the Children of Israel did.”

    This is a good point. Thank you. Having come out of an extremely harsh, violent, and oppressive early life, I remember how I responded when there was no one left to hurt me. I still saw danger where there wasn’t any, responded as a wounded animal would even when no one was harming me. It takes a long time, and a lot of patience.

    But when you say that “surprising and disappointing that a Gentile Christian can say they are “observing Torah,” wear a kippah and tallit katan in their daily lives, daven with a siddur while wearing a tallit gadol and laying tefillin, keep Leviticus 11 “kosher,” and claim to love Israel and the Jewish people, and yet still judge and reject everything it is to be Jewish and to live as a Jew”

    James, I agree with the point of this post, non Jews don’t have the right to do this. But when you equate strict orthodox halacha with “what it is to be Jewish and live as a Jew” then what your saying is any Jew who isn’t following Orthodox halacha isn’t being Jewish. I have a hard time with this for 2 reasons.
    1) I cannot see evidence for this in the bible. I believe it’s far more likely that while He is willing to allow them to create their own halacha, I feel He is giving them that right as a freedom to work it out and I don’t believe He says someone who has a different level of observance or variation of how to walk out a commandment, is therefore not Jewish.

    2) you understand that much assimilation was actually called for by Jews, right? And not Christians forcing it on them? So, again, to define Jewishness by Orthodox observance standards which came later, has effectively defined many Jews out of their identity. Many Jews only know one thing about being Jewish i.e., they aren’t supposed to believe in Jesus, but how can an ancient people be defined by something that came along so much later?

    That’s the reason I get a little twisted with defining Jewishness from a non biblical position.

  2. Actually LW, I was addressing some (but hardly all) non-Jewish folks in the Hebrew Roots movement who believe they are able to define exactly what “Biblical Judaism” is supposed to mean and who disdain those Messianic Jews who choose to live a halalaic life. I know that not all Jewish people in the Messianic movement live according to accepted halachah and probably a whole lot of non-Messianic Jews set aside most or all of halachah (including the Jews in my family).

    Basically, my message for today is don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes or as Hillel remarked, until you’ve spent some time in their place. You and I are intermarried so we have a bit of an advantage over “judaically-aware” Christians who don’t actually live with Jewish people. However, I don’t think I’m in a position to criticize Gene or other Messianic Jews who feel obligated to live according to halachah. From that perspective, it’s not choosing between obeying the Bible (and God) and following halachah. Halachah becomes the means or the “interface” by which a Jew understands Torah and God and how to obey the Creator.

    No system is perfect, and that includes how different “Judaisms” comprehend and apply halachah. Certainly the Haredim go overboard quite often, from what I see in the news, but at the core, there is a way to be Jewish and to obey God for many Jews who have been brought up to love the traditions or who as adults have learned to love them. I’m not going to stand off to one side, Bible in hand, and tell them “you’re doing it wrong.” I’m still trying to get a grip on what it means to obey God as a Gentile Christian. What should I say to all Jews everywhere about how they understand their Judaism and their relationship to God. I can’t even tell my wife what she should think, feel, believe, and act on relative to her being a Jew. That’s not my place.

    Simple question. Do you light candles on Erev Shabbat according to the customs? If you do, then you are defining a Jewish practice of welcoming the Shabbat that is not in the Bible. I’m sure you know this, but if lighting Shabbos candles is acceptable, even though it’s not in the Bible but it is Jewish halachah, what are we to say about the other mitzvot?

  3. “Simple question. Do you light candles on Erev Shabbat according to the customs? If you do, then you are defining a Jewish practice of welcoming the Shabbat that is not in the Bible. I’m sure you know this, but if lighting Shabbos candles is acceptable, even though it’s not in the Bible but it is Jewish halachah, what are we to say about the other mitzvot?”

    Yes, I do because I think it’s my duty to provide a “Jewish home” for my family. And understand that I’m not talking about if it’s “acceptable” to God, and certainly NOT saying halacha is Unacceptable to God. What I’m against is the equating following halacha to following GOd. Maybe if you think of it in a different light you’ll get my point.

    We’re more familiar with the Catholic example where many (all?) Catholics are taught that to to what their Priest says is the same as following God. The Priest follows a line “authority” that comes from the Pope who is Christ’s vicar on earth. So, a Catholic who doesn’t follow the teachings of the Catholic Church is not following God.

    But no matter how acceptable a practice of the Catholic Church may or may not be, I don’t believe it’s biblical to define following God as adherence to a RELIGION. I’d say a Catholic who doesn’t follow the teachings of the Catholic Church may still be following God. Oh well, maybe you’ll get my point.

  4. I get your point, LW and I agree, for certain Jewish communities, following halachah is directly the same as following the commands of God. The ideal of the relationship between Torah and Rabbinic rulings is that Torah always has highest authority. That said, the Rabbinic rulings have authority as well, just on a lesser level.

    I can’t comment on the reality of living by halachah because I’ve never done it and frankly, know few people who do, even though I’ve known a fair number of Jewish people in my day. That’s why I’m advocating for a continual dialog between Christianity (including folks like you and me) and Messianic Jews who see no contradiction between halachah and devotion to Messiah. Do we know for sure how they see their lives or are we projecting what Christian tradition has taught us about halalaic Jews onto halalaic Jews?

    In the end, we may not always agree, but it couldn’t hurt to listen.

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