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”
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?
I 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.
I’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.
The 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.
“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.”