Re’eh: Seeing to Learn

gerizim_ebalSee, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced. When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and possess, you shall pronounce the blessing at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount Ebal.

Deuteronomy 11:26-29 (JPS Tanakh)

These words are spoken to the entire Nation of Israel, at the very end of a forty-year term in the desert. Two distinct mountains were on open display. Mount Grizim is plush, rich, and flowering with the promise of life. Mount Eivil in stark contrast is conspicuously barren and empty. This visual aid is employed to etch into the psyche of the assembled the lesson of remaining loyal to the task and mission of Torah and Mitzvos. In the recording of the event Moshe refers to that day as- “today”. What’s so special about that day? Every day he spoke was also a “today”. Why was that day worthy of a title for all time “today”?

The Ohr HaChaim answers that that day they were capable of understanding his lesson based on the statement of the sages, “A person does not stand on (truly grasp) the knowledge- opinion of his teacher until after forty years” (Avodah Zara 5B).

That means that now after forty years they can begin to truly comprehend what Moshe had told them back then. Why does it take forty years? Were these not brilliant people?

-Rabbi Label Lam
“See What Can Be Seen”
Commentary on Torah Portion Re’eh
Torah.org

Nearly a year and a half ago, I reviewed Toby Janicki’s article “The Gentile Believer’s Obligation to the Torah of Moses,” published in Messiah Journal #109/Winter 2012. I remember at the time being a little surprised at even the title, since my understanding back then was Messianic Judaism was striving for pretty much total isolation between Messianic Jewish and Christian/Messianic Gentile religious practice, at least publicly.

I happened to recall my review the other day when I noticed in the analytics for this blog that someone had viewed it.

I went through the original review and realized that my perspectives have changed in the last eighteen months or so. My fuzzy understanding of the Torah of Moses and its connection to the Gentile believers in Messiah is a little bit clearer. This isn’t to say I have everything “dialed,” so to speak, about the Bible and how it works, but I think it’s fair to say that I’m capable of learning and growing intellectually and spiritually.

While the quote from the Ohr HaChaim speaks to the necessity of the passage of time for learning, I’m not going to take it too literally (in forty years, I’ll either be nearly 100 years old or dead). But I am inspired to re-read Toby’s article and to re-review it as processed through the brain I have now vs. the one I had at the beginning of 2012 (I can only imagine that Toby will chuckle because I continue to wrestle with something he understands so clearly).

There has been a tremendous struggle between Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots relative to who “owns” the Torah. That’s an overly simplistic statement, of course, but the surface perception is that the Jews in Messiah get to keep the Torah for themselves while the Hebrew Roots people want them to share. On top of that, traditional Christianity says that we don’t need the Torah at all, just the grace of Jesus Christ.

Like I said, I’m being overly simplistic, so don’t take what I’ve just said too literally.

simhat-torahThe truth of the matter is that we all need the Torah. Even before the Christian Era, I believe that the Jewish people saw themselves as a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6) and that we would all learn from the Torah as “the Law went forth from Zion.” (Isaiah 2:3). How does one learn the ethical, moral, and holiness standards of God apart from the Torah, the teachings of God? We don’t.

However, that concept has been misunderstood to mean (at least in certain circles), that we Christians must learn and observe every single mitzvot in the Torah (or at least the ones that can be observed without the existence of the Temple, the Priesthood, and the Sanhedrin) in exactly the same way as the Jewish people.

Acts 15 shoots that concept down in flames (I know this is debatable but then again, everything is) as I painstakingly chronicled in my review of D. Thomas Lancaster’s commentary on the matter, but Toby Janicki picks out of the ashes, the “phoenix” of Torah that applies to the non-Jewish believers.

And it’s a lot.

I don’t think we ever got a chance to really see the results of the Jerusalem Letter in action. We don’t see a detailed report in the New Testament of how those declarations were understood and practiced in early Christian congregations, the ones that would have existed during Paul’s lifetime and soon after. More’s the pity, because a document providing such details would answer a lot of questions and solve a lot of problems.

Once you rocket through history much past Paul’s death, the wedge between believing Jews and Gentiles was already being pounded into place, and by the time we get to the third and fourth centuries CE, we’ve been split apart and any recognizable form of “Torah practice” among non-Jewish believers had gone the way of the Dodo bird (I’m not quite sure how much help the Didache would be since it’s dated to the late first or early second centuries, but I guess I could buy a copy and find out).

What all this means is that you can expect my review of Toby’s 2012 article sometime next week. If anyone can suggest which copy of the Didache I should purchase from the list presented at the above-link, that would help, too.

In a way, I don’t really blame Hebrew Roots folks for finding the Torah beautiful, praiseworthy, and desirable in study and practice. I’m attracted to it as well. I really don’t understand Christian aversion to “the Law” as something horrible, and awful, and too terrible to even consider but then again, that’s what most churches teach. It isn’t that I think Christians should don tallitot and lay tefillin and try to look like Jews, far from it. But we should admit that we need the Torah for two basic reasons: The first is that it defines our relationship with Jesus and with God the Father through the Abrahamic covenant. The second is that every ethical, moral, and spiritual principle that we live by as Christians is found in the Torah. The Torah was taught by Jesus. Without an understanding of the Torah and the Prophets (and this should be huge in Christianity), we have no hope of understanding anything Jesus ever taught!

torah-what-isThat’s actually true of Paul and any of the other Apostles, so in my opinion, the first class that any newbie Christian should ever attend is Torah 101. Starting new Christians in the Gospels and the Epistles sounds nice but it’s almost next to useless. It’s like trying to teach a four-year old Calculus before they’ve even learned how to count to ten. It’s why I think First Fruits of Zion’s (FFOZ) Torah Club volumes are tremendously important. Not only do they teach Torah, but in a way that is very “Christian friendly.”

From all those who have taught me I have gained wisdom.

Psalms 119:99

The Psalmist is telling us that he learned from everyone, that everyone was his teacher. From some, he learned what to do; from others, what not to do.

If we learn from others’ mistakes, we need not make our own.

Just as we can learn from every person, we can learn from every event. Positive experiences are obvious sources of learning, because each positive act we do adds to our character and prepares us to better face the next challenge in life. Negative experiences can be valuable, too, but only if we are sufficiently alert to learn from them.

The list of lessons that we have learned the hard way may be long, but each one has taught us what not to do and thereby it becomes a positive experience. Indeed, the Talmud states that when people sincerely regret their mistakes and change themselves for the better, the wrongs that they did become actual merits (Yoma 86b). Only when we fail to learn from our mistakes and, rationalizing and justifying, obstinately insist that we were right, do our misdeeds remain deficits.

We have the capacity to make life itself a tremendous learning and growth experience.

Today I shall…

…try to look for lessons from everyone and everything, whether my teacher is positive or negative.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Kislev 17”
Aish.com

I don’t think the problem is dealing with positive vs. negative teachers but just with “unanticipated” teachers. For traditional Christians, I think Jewish teachers or teachers very familiar with the Jewish (especially Messianic) perspective on Torah and Messiah are important. Jewish teachers aren’t necessarily a problem for Hebrew Roots people, but often, Christian teachers are. Many people in Hebrew Roots no longer see themselves as affiliated with anything called “Christianity” and sometimes they even define themselves by a completely new religious identity in order to separate themselves from the “crimes of the church,” real and imagined. “The church” is something they’ve “come out of,” like a Jew might have escaped the Soviet Union in the 1960s or one “comes out of pagan Babylon,” a den of iniquity and sin.

Oy.

I’m hardly what you would call a traditional Christian, but I must say that I’ve learned a tremendous amount in my conversations with my Pastor. For Hebrew Roots folks, at least some of you, it might not hurt to find a Christian to connect to and even “embrace” on some level if, for no other reason, than to overcome what for davening_morningsome people I’ve personally met, is a phobic response to Christians and Christianity. Really, we’re not all that bad and in my time in church (in spite of my meditation of yesterday morning), I’ve met a few very kind, gentile, and Holy people.

Remember what Rabbi Twerski said about everyone being a teacher? That means Everyone, not just the people you are attracted to as teachers.

Whether you call yourself a Christian, a Hebrew Roots person, or something else, you…we all have a blessing and a curse set before us as well. We can accept the blessing and choose to learn the Torah as it was intended for us and to take upon ourselves teachers we never thought we’d share a classroom or corner of the blogosphere with, or we can choose to isolate ourselves in our own comfortable little silos, and learn only what we want to learn, which means in that case, very little and nothing new and illuminating.

It may take some time before it all begins to sink in. Like me, you might have to wait awhile and then rediscover something that didn’t quite make sense before but comes into crystal clarity now. That’s OK, too. Just as long as you’re willing to open your eyes and see what God has set before you this day.

Good Shabbos.

54 days.

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3 thoughts on “Re’eh: Seeing to Learn”

  1. I’m writing this before the first coffee has kicked in, so if the writing is bad, please forgive me.

    It feels like what you’re trying to accomplish is to find a way to determine how you should act. Should you study the Torah with the idea of being observant? Should all Christians do so? Should we leave the Torah behind as a guide to actions and just “live in grace” as some purport?

    Well, I believe we should be living in grace, but that applies to both covenants as we know for a fact that none of us are holy without it.

    But I don’t believe that we should be living according to a list of rules whether we get them from Torah, the New Testament, or the Quran (just threw that last in as an example of how lists can go wrong). Because, though all of them provide a means to create a list of rules to live by, for both the Torah and New Covenant, that is not the point. The point is, that they are both pointing to the Character of God. They are saying. “this is who I am, follow me.” I think it is perfectly ok for the new believer in Messiah or Christ to start in the New Covenant because it speaks as clearly as the Torah about how we should live, and that is, we should be living in relationship with Him.

    It is interesting that if we learn about Him, focus on Him and follow Him in daily dependence, we start living according to the book.

    I think the reason that we don’t have a lot of documentation on how the first Christians lived after the letter in Acts, is because if we don’t need it to live the lives He has chosen for us to live.

    I believe that a Jewish person who is filled with the Holy Spirit, will find himself living more and more according to the ways of the Torah. But it is a daily seeking of Him and depending on His guidance. The main question being, “what do you want me to do right now?” I believe a gentile will find his/her life changing daily as well, though I doubt very much that they will end up in practicing the exact same behaviors as the Jewish believer.

    Well there is a ton more to say and not a lot of time, unfortunately. This is an important topic. I think that we should study both Torah and New Covenant, that we should study them deeply, but that we should study them with the idea that they will teach us about our Father and show us how to live in a relationship with Him. I think both Jewish people and Christians get it wrong when they start living according a certain list of rules, or behaviors. I truly believe that as we follow Him we will start living the lawful, holy lives He desires for us to live. But I think that when we start living according to a certain list, we end up missing the inward character changes that He wants to do in us before the outward things start to change. I guess the simplest way to put this is, there’s a lot that needs to change for us to actually live holy lives, and the changes that need to occur are not necessarily in the order we think they should.

  2. Actually, except for the mitzvot in the Torah that specifically identity a person or group as uniquely Jewish, most of the Torah applies to anyone who is a disciples of the Messiah and a follower of God. Giving to charity is the same for the Christian as it is the Jew. So is feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, showing hospitality to strangers. The Holy Spirit gives us the “why” in terms of the mitzvot, providing context and meaning. Otherwise you’re right, Dree…it’s just following a set of items in a list.

  3. @Dree — I think you’ve got the attitude right, which is pretty good before the coffee kicks in. But once one wakes up and dives into the study process one may discover such passages as Matt.23:1-3a where Rav Yeshua tells his disciples (at least the Jewish ones) to do what the authorized Torah teachers of their era (at that time the scribes and Pharisees) tell them to do. This includes the weighty matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness, as well as the minor halakhic details such as tithing on spices (see verse 23). Jews already have a well-defined pattern of life behaviors that is designed according to Torah to guide us in our pursuit of the attitudes and character that Torah encourages. The degree to which Jews conform themselves to this halakhic pattern varies, but learning is available to enable progressive improvement. Someone like James, on the other hand, is pursuing the question of what halakhah is to guide non-Jews who are not bound by the same obligations that apply to Jews. For this he is investigating old compilations like the Didache as well as recent articles from FFOZ that explore whether the four principles cited as binding on non-Jews can be mapped to relevant portion of the Torah, when more guidance from Jewish sources may be extracted. So, just as Rav Yeshua began his “Sermon on the Mount” with a summary of “Beatitudes” (i.e., “attitudes to be”) as a precursor to obtaining enlightenment from Torah, we all must begin our discipleship process with a proper perspective and attitudes in order to pursue and develop good character by what we do and how we live. Specific detailed guidance is a tool to support this process.

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