Imperfect and Perfect

praying_at_masadaGod appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am Almighty God. Walk before Me and be perfect.”

Genesis 17:1

If a human being cannot be perfect, why did God demand perfection of Abraham?

The entire context of the verse indicates both the definition of this perfection and the way in which it can be achieved. It is obvious that no human being can aspire to equal God’s degree of perfection. What man can achieve is to live according to God’s teachings and thereby live up to his own human potential; more than man’s personal maximum is not possible or expected. Thus, God did not say simply, “Be perfect”; He said, “Walk before Me + and thereby you will be perfect.” When a person tries to live according to the Divine teachings, that constitutes human perfection, although one is technically never perfect.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that the Hebrew word for “walk” in the above verse is not telech but heshalech which implies, “Go your way in spite of opposition, not making your progress dependent on external circumstances, but being led from within yourself: Let your movement proceed from your own free-willed decisions.”

The picture is now complete; human perfection can be achieved by making a free-willed choice to live according to the Divine teaching.

Today I shall…

…try to realize that although I cannot be absolutely without flaw, I can be perfect if I make free-will decisions to obey the Divine will.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day – Cheshvan 6”
Aish.com

This brings to mind something my Pastor and I periodically discuss. Perhaps I’d better preface this with scripture:

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.

James 2:10 (NASB)

No one keeps the Law (Torah) perfectly. No one can. So when I insist that Jewish people, including Messianic Jewish people, remain obligated to the mitzvot, he counters with James 2:10. No one can keep the law perfectly, therefore, no one can keep the law. It’s like he’s saying, “if no one can keep the law perfectly, why bother trying to keep it at all?”

Jesus once said that if a man looks at a woman with lust in his heart, it’s as if he had physically committed adultery with her (Matthew 5:28). And yet, probably most men at one time or another in their lives have found themselves looking at a beautiful woman and having lustful thoughts, even momentarily. Does that mean such men, having failed once (or more than once), should throw their marriage vows to the winds and start having physical “relations” with every woman who strikes their fancy?

praying-apostleI should hope not. As people of faith, we should strive to live out our lives in as close an approximation to the perfection of our Master as we can, all the while knowing we will never behave in a perfect manner. We try to better ourselves, we pray for God’s help in bettering us, but even if we come closer to our Master’s example, we’ll never match it.

Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’

John 15:20 (NASB)

I don’t think “perfection” is what Jesus had in mind when he made that statement, but it seems to fit today’s example. Just because we can’t be perfect like our Master doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

Putting all this back into the original context, and summoning Rabbi Twerski’s example, just because an observant Jewish person cannot perform all of the mitzvot perfectly (and may not perform some of the mitzvot at all) doesn’t mean that they should abandon their obligation to the Torah of Moses as a way to draw closer to God, or to surrender the lifestyle God gave to the Jewish people which uniquely identifies them as Jewish.

My understanding of one of the purposes of performing the mitzvot is to help a Jewish person continually be reminded that they are Jewish. You wouldn’t think remembering this would be much of a chore, but consider how rampant assimilation of Jews is in our society today. The mainstream culture works very hard at getting everyone to fit in, blend in, assimilate to the will of the world’s “marketing department,” and never, ever to be different or distinct in any way whatsoever.

So being an observant Jew is a lot of work. It would be much easier to assimilate. It would be much easier to be able to go to any restaurant in town and to order anything on the menu. It would be much easier to drive, cook, shop, play golf, and surf the Internet on Shabbat. It would be much easier not to have to study Torah, study Mishnah, study Hebrew (and in some cases Yiddish). It would be much easier to set aside the fixed times of prayer every day, easier to not don tzitzit, easier to not lay tefillin.

But being born into the covenant as all Jewish people are, it is incumbent upon each Jew to live as a Jew. God gave people, including Jewish people, free will, so a Jewish person can choose to observe the mitzvot or not (or choose which of the mitzvot to observe and which ones to ignore), but sooner or later, God will get around to reminding each Jewish person that they are indeed Jewish. The reminders are not always pleasant or easy to endure.

rabbi-prayingI’ve said before that only faith justifies one before God, not observing the mitzvot. It’s not what we do but why we do it and who we do it for that matters. If our thoughts and behavior are not focused on God and responding to God’s will, no matter how well we do something and no matter who we may show kindness to, it begins and ends with us. There is no connection to eternity.

But faith and justification are only the beginning of the journey. Once we have grasped onto “God’s fringes” tightly, we must respond to grace and faith by living life as God wills. For a Jew, that means Torah observance. How to observe the Torah, which of the mitzvot to start with, which tradition to employ in the observance (for instance, there’s more than one way to lay tefillin and to tie tzitzit) is a question and I don’t have the answer. But that doesn’t mean the Jewish person ceases in being obligated to try. Who is to say that the Ashkenazi way to tie tzitzit is any better or worse than the Sephardic tradition? Perhaps both are pleasing to God.

If a Jewish person were to wait around for iron-clad confirmation of exactly which way to do a particular mitzvah, they could wait around until Messiah comes (or returns).

It’s like my current frustration with the politicians in Washington over their lack of action in solving the debt ceiling crisis. I want to scream at them, “Just do something!” The Nike company’s well-known slogan of “Just Do It!” comes to mind.

Rabbi Twerski said that even though he knows he cannot be without flaw, still he does his best to walk in the way of his fathers and of God. He also said something peculiar:

Although I cannot be absolutely without flaw, I can be perfect if I make free-will decisions to obey the Divine will.

How can performing the mitzvot make one perfect simply by exercising free-will in obeying God?

Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:48 (NASB)

Jesus can’t possibly expect literal perfection from his disciples since none of us are perfect. Nothing we can do will ever be perfect. No thought we possess, even our faith is never perfect, so where does this expectation come from?

The road to perfection is infinitely long, and no matter how far we walk down that road, we are always at the starting line. God has to reach out to us to cover the distance we are incapable of traveling. All we can do is to turn to God in teshuvah and to do our best (which will never be good enough) in faith and love, and let God’s grace bridge the gap between lowly man and a Heavenly God.

In the performance of the Torah mitzvot, all a Jewish person can do is that…turn to God in faith and love, imperfectly attempting to do His will by living as a Jew, and letting God’s grace make the imperfect into the perfect.

jews_praying_togetherThe blood of goats and bulls never saved, but faith and grace saved. Davening Shacharit while wearing a tallit katan and laying tefillin doesn’t save, but faith and grace will save. However, in ancient times, God required (not requested, required) the Israelites to sacrifice goats and bulls, and even to this day, God requires (not requests, requires) Jewish people to observe the mitzvot, which includes davening Shacharit while wearing a tallit katan and laying tefillin.

It doesn’t save. It never did. And Jewish people won’t be perfect at all of the mitzvot all of the time. But they are still obeying the will of God in the best way they know how…just like the rest of us, just like Christians in the Church. We’re all doing what we can do. God will take care of what we can’t do. We just need to realize that when we’re tempted to judge others.

People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

-Popular idiom

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at 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,’ and behold, the log is 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 (NASB)

It does not become a Christian to criticize a Jew for not being perfect in the performance of the Torah mitzvot when there is no Christian, even under the full grace of Jesus, who lives a perfect life in Christ.

By the way, this is my one thousandth “morning meditation.”

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10 thoughts on “Imperfect and Perfect”

  1. Congrats on 1000!!

    Christianity HAS to perpetually harp on not being able to keep the whole law ‘like he’s saying, “if no one can keep the law perfectly, why bother trying to keep it at all?”’ It is the only way they can keep up the charade of ignoring mitzvot that are clearly written for ‘all generations.’ It is the easy way to cheapen grace and produce substitute standards, like ‘don’t drink and chew or go out with girls who do.’

    Christianity also refuses to deal with the verses that say, ‘it is NOT too difficult’ and ‘you WILL live by them (they are life to you).’

    I know you and I disagree on what parts of Torah apply to Christians, (I believe all the black words do… ) but I think we can agree that they do not take the Torah seriously enough and try to paint their own substandard on all others, including the Jew. Until they correct this, at least in part, they will have no serious impact in the lives of Jews for the Jewish Messiah.

  2. Thanks, Pete. I appreciate your continuing to read and comment on my blog. I don’t just want a bunch of people to come here who always agree with me and different perspectives are good to discuss. It’s only a few folks out there that believe differences of opinion have to become personalized conflict.

    As for as what parts of Torah do and don’t apply to non-Jewish disciples of the Master, we may not be as far apart as you think. I only suggest that those portions of Torah specifically identifying a person/group as Jewish are reserved for the Jewish people. Most or all of what is considered “the weightier matters of Torah (justice, charity, compassion, mercy) apply to all of us.

  3. When a Jewish person lays tefillim, even though it is a very specific and “physical” commandment to “bind them for a sign upon thine hand”, it also means something very spiritual since this act is to be considered as a “sign”. So I guess that a Jewish person wearing tefillim is actually “expressing” something that it should be well established within his heart. Otherwise, it would be meaningless. I also think that when we Christians raise our hands to Heaven, to our Father, this act constitutes an “expression” of something that it is well established within our hearts. Otherwise, it would be meaningless… Then, if a Christian feels very deeply inside, that He/She wants to honor HaShem biggest (Mark 12:29) commandment “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD”, then what is the appropriate way to “express” such commandment?

  4. There are the things we do and then there is why we do them. Sometimes we are more focused on God than others, but at least God sends us reminders to pay attention to Him.

  5. Your example is good, I also use a similar, “if I cannot love perfectly, should I love at all…” another example comes from running my own business, and if a potential hiree said, “I cannot work perfectly, so I will not work at all…” would I hire them? Of course not.

    Concerning most Christians, if they are not responsible to the Sinai Covenant or the Law of Moses, then the argument is moot and they are simply not responsible. This also would make majority of Yeshua’s words of no benefit or concern to gentiles. However, if they are, then they have to deal with the arguments stated above.

  6. Concerning most Christians, if they are not responsible to the Sinai Covenant or the Law of Moses, then the argument is moot and they are simply not responsible.

    That’s a little too black and white for me. Unpackaging how the Torah applies to non-Jewish believers vs. Jewish believers takes a little work, but the short version (from my perspective) is that non-Jews aren’t obligated to the mitzvoth that specifically identifies an individual as a Jew (wearing tzitzit and so forth). I realize even that can be debated, but as I’ve said time and again, if we non-Jewish believers put as much time and attention into the “weightier matters of the Torah” as some Hebrew Roots Gentiles do in how they tie their tzitzit or lay their tefillin, then we’d probably be doing very well.

    All that said, my primary focus isn’t Gentiles relative to the Torah, it’s convincing traditional evangelical and fundamentalist Christians of the continuing role the Torah plays in the lives of the Jewish people.

  7. Happy 1,000, James! BTW, the Greek word in Matt. 5:48 means literally “complete, mature, fitted to its purpose” equivalent to Hebrew shalem.

  8. “All that said, my primary focus isn’t Gentiles relative to the Torah, it’s convincing traditional evangelical and fundamentalist Christians of the continuing role the Torah plays in the lives of the Jewish people.”

    Why should they care? They believe that the Torah is for the Jews only, no? How are you different than them?


  9. All that said, my primary focus isn’t Gentiles relative to the Torah, it’s convincing traditional evangelical and fundamentalist Christians of the continuing role the Torah plays in the lives of the Jewish people.

    I understand that your primary focus isn’t gentiles relative to the Torah, but it plays a role in understanding how Jews have a relationship to the Torah… It brings it home, so to speak, because a Gentile is obviously going to ask, “well, where does that leave me?”.

    Also, I appreciate your goal of convincing a proper perspective concerning the Torah in the lives of the Jewish people. Something that hopefully can only spread!

    My point was more at Christianity, not you, if Yeshua was a Torah Observant Jew, as is clearly portrayed in the Gospels, then He kept the Torah, in order to be more like Him or to understand Him, one would have to seek a similar understanding, and if Jews and arguably gentiles are to be like Him, then that would involve Torah observance…

    That’s a little too black and white for me. Unpackaging how the Torah applies to non-Jewish believers vs. Jewish believers takes a little work, but the short version (from my perspective) is that non-Jews aren’t obligated to the mitzvoth that specifically identifies an individual as a Jew (wearing tzitzit and so forth).

    If I remember correctly you believe gentiles are part of the Abrahamic covenant ‘only’ and not to the Sinai covenant, for many, including Christians, this eliminates any covenant connection to the Law of Moses… and I personally don’t see how the Law of Moses could exist outside of the covenant agreement, but that is what you are saying, while this is a side issue, I wonder how you come to this conclusion?

  10. @David: Thanks for the “congratulations” and the note on Matthew 5:48

    Why should they care? They believe that the Torah is for the Jews only, no? How are you different than them?

    Actually, they don’t believe the Torah is for anyone anymore, particularly Jews who have come to faith in Yeshua. I’m trying to present an alternate perspective, Dan.

    My point was more at Christianity, not you, if Yeshua was a Torah Observant Jew, as is clearly portrayed in the Gospels, then He kept the Torah, in order to be more like Him or to understand Him, one would have to seek a similar understanding, and if Jews and arguably gentiles are to be like Him, then that would involve Torah observance…

    My Pastor would just say that Jesus was Torah observant because that was before his death and resurrection when the Torah was still applicable. His position is that “after the cross,” the Torah was “fulfilled” in that it pointed to him. He wouldn’t see that disciples, Jewish or otherwise, would adopt Torah observance in an effort to be more like Messiah.

    If I remember correctly you believe gentiles are part of the Abrahamic covenant ‘only’ and not to the Sinai covenant, for many, including Christians, this eliminates any covenant connection to the Law of Moses… and I personally don’t see how the Law of Moses could exist outside of the covenant agreement, but that is what you are saying, while this is a side issue, I wonder how you come to this conclusion?

    It’s a little more involved than that, Zion, which is why I’ve written so many blog posts on the subject. Paul seemed to always have felt that Gentiles didn’t have to come under the full “yoke of Torah,” but ultimately, he needed a legal ruling from the Council of Apostles and Elders of “the Way” to avoid conflicts, such as the one he encountered in Acts 15:1-2.

    The Acts 15 ruling was to establish the legal status of the Gentile disciples who were entering into the Jewish religious stream of Messianic believers. If they weren’t required to convert, on what basis would they have a legal status, what would that status look like, and what expectations should be placed upon the Gentiles. We, like the Jewish believers, are justified by faith, but once we are “in,” so to speak, what should happen next?

    I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I wrote a six-part series called Return to Jerusalem, based on my review of FFOZ’s Torah Club Volume 6 material. You will likely not agree with what I wrote, but reading it will at least show you the details of what I believe without me having to write the same material over and over.

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