At every moment it views in astonishment the wonder of an entire world renewed out of the void, and asks, “How could it be that anything at all exists?”
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
As you read this, it is Thanksgiving, an American national holiday dedicated to giving thanks for the bountiful blessings we have each received from God. At least that’s how it was originally conceived. It’s also the first full day of Chanukah (spellings vary), the Jewish holiday celebrating the miracle of the meager Jewish forces defeating the mighty Greeks, and that in sanctifying the Temple, Hashem, God of Israel, allowed one day’s worth of sanctified oil to burn for eight days, thus cleansing and dedicating the Temple for holiness.
Thankfulness and miracles. And yet how often do we fail to appreciate what God gives us, especially in a land of plenty.
I’ve been pondering my conversations with my Pastor as well as the sermons of John MacArthur and the other presenters at the Strange Fire conference. In my recent investigation into the concept (as opposed to the movement) of Christian fundamentalism, I see that at its heart, it is just the attempt to render a basic definition of the essentials of what makes a Christian. It’s the minimum set of standards, so to speak, that one must uphold to be an authentic believer.
Of course, in order to create a minimum set of essential beliefs or attributes, you have to take the vast body of information in the Bible and reduce it down to its bare bones, so to speak. You have to determine what is an absolute must about the Bible, and then consider that most of the other “stuff” is good, but not a deal making or breaking requirement.
But that’s also one of the flaws in Christian fundamentalism. It’s reductionistic. It cuts out things like miracles, and wonder, and awe, and amazement in an incredible, infinite, personal, creative God!
In establishing a core, fundamentalism must eliminate or at least set to one side, thoughts, feelings, and meditations such as those expressed in the above-quoted words of Rabbi Freeman.
Is it wrong to be astonished by God? Is it an error to be thankful for not only the tangibles of the Bible, but the sheer fact that God exists and chooses to be involved in our lives just because He loves us?
For Jewish people, awareness of God goes beyond the generic thanksgiving for the blessings of Heaven. The very fact that Jews exist in our world today after so many thousands of years of effort the world has expended in trying to exterminate them, is a very great miracle.
We say every day during Chanukah in the Shemona Esrei the Al Haneesim (on the miracles), “When the wicked Greek kingdom rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and compel them to stray from the statutes of Your Will.” The order of the prayer mentions that first the Greeks wanted the Jews to forget Torah and secondly to stray from Hashem’s statutes.
The Greeks understood exactly how to undermine Judaism and expedite assimilation. How was this done? The Gemara in Hureous states that a father has an obligation to teach his son Torah from the moment he is old enough to speak. The first pasuk of Torah that a father teaches his child is,”Moshe commanded us with the Torah and this is the heritage of the congregation of Yaakov.” The second pasuk a father is obligated to teach his child is the Shema – “Hear, O Israel: Hashem is our G-d, Hashem, the One and Only.” – Which asserts our belief in the unity of G-d.
I know that a lot of Christians support the existence of the Jewish people and Israel, and yet devalue the practice and observance of Judaism. A lot of prejudice has been generated in Christianity against Judaism over the long centuries, and particularly the mistaken idea that much of the Torah represents not the Word of God, but the man-made traditions of the Rabbis. Further, the general (and again, mistaken) belief in the Church that God only gave the Jewish people the Torah to prove to them that no one can attain righteousness by human effort and that they must depend on the grace of Jesus for salvation, re-enforces the idea that Torah observance and therefore Judaism is a “religion of useless works.”
It is beyond imagination to most Christians how a Jew who has faith in Yeshua as Messiah and thus is saved by grace, can still desire and even demand to continue observing the mitzvot and align with the larger, non-believing Jewish community.
But, as Rabbi Kalatsky points out, or at least as I infer from his commentary, God gave the Torah to Israel to sustain Israel, to define and preserve the Jewish people. Being Jewish isn’t just a string of DNA and it’s not just a set of ethnic practices, customs, traditions, and rules, it’s an identity, a life, and a continual experience assigned to the Jewish people by God. A Jew who doesn’t observe the mitzvot is still Jewish of course, but the full blessings and apprehension of the unique relationship between Jewish people and God can only come from a life immersed in Torah and in Judaism. And Rabbi Kalatsky is hardly the only one to make such observations.
It was Judaism that provided the refuge for my parents in the disorienting passage from one society to another. My father’s rabbinic calling transcended borders. Hebrew remained the key to eternal verities. The Jewish calendar continued to govern the rhythm of our home. I never heard my parents lament the money they were forbidden to take out of (1940s) Germany, only the shipment of books from my father’s library that never made it to America.
As I write all this, I find it strange and even amazing that I, a Gentile Christian, can feel so passionate about supporting a Jewish life abundantly enriched by the Torah of God.
Many Christians see Judaism in more or less the same way I see some fundamentalist Christians: as a faith made up of discrete, definable, finite, quantifiable pieces. A faith that is like listening to an auto mechanic explain what each of the parts of your car’s engine does, who takes it apart, shows you each gasket, spring, and fitting, then puts it all together right before your eyes and starts it up for you. Sure, it’s incredible and amazing, but it is also fully within the grasp of human beings.
Is that all that God is? Is He nothing more?
Consider three things, and you will not approach sin. Know whence you came, whereto you are going, and before Whom you are destined to give an accounting.
-Ethics of the Fathers 3:1
If we thought about our humble origin on the one hand, and the greatness we can achieve on the other, we would come to only one logical conclusion: the potential for such greatness could not possibly reside in the microscopic germ-cell from which we originated. This capacity for greatness can reside only in the neshamah (soul), the spirit which God instills within man.
What an extraordinary stretching of the imagination it must take to think that a single cell can develop into the grandeur which a human being can achieve! People have the power to contemplate and reflect upon infinity and eternity, concepts which are totally beyond the realm of the physical world. How could something purely finite even conceive of infinity?
Our humble origins are the greatest testimony to the presence of a Divine component within man. Once we realize this truth, we are unlikely to contaminate ourselves by behavior beneath our dignity. We have an innate resistance to ruining what we recognize to be precious and beautiful. We must realize that this is indeed what we are.
Today I shall…
…try to make my behavior conform to that which I recognize to be the essence of my being: the spirit that gives me the potential for greatness.
-Rabbi Abraham J. Twersky
“Growing Each Day, Kislev 20”
This too is Judaism; the recognition that it is God’s Spirit that imbues us with the ability to strive to be more than who we are right now.
Hashem, what is man that You recognize him; the son of a frail human that You reckon with him? Man is a breath; his days are like a passing shadow.
–Psalm 144:3-4 (Stone Edition Tanakh)
David, a King, a man after God’s own heart, gazed up in wonder that God took any notice of human beings at all. Why don’t we do the same? Why can’t we turn our hearts away from our trivial pursuits and in thanksgiving, awe, and wonder, turn to the majesty and magnificence of the One true King of the Universe, Lord and Master of Eternity, and the lover of our very souls? For as much as the food on our tables, and our jobs, and our families, and all that God’s providence has placed in our lives, wonder too is a gift of God.
And when Thanksgiving and Hanukkah coincide we find ourselves doubly blessed. We will be able to offer thanks to God on the same day for both our spiritual and material blessings. Let us delight in this extremely rare opportunity to bless God for the food for our bodies as well as the survival of our faith that grants us spiritual sustenance for our souls.
-Rabbi Benjamin Blech
I’m writing this a full week before you’ll read it. Perhaps you’ll wake up early on Thanksgiving morning and read this “meditation” with your first cup of coffee, or while the turkey is baking and there’s a lull in the kitchen activity, or later, after the meal and the football games are over, as the pumpkin pie is settling in your stomach and you hold a glass of wine in your hand, but I have a hope for the day you read this. I hope that you’ll take a moment, turn away from your computer, maybe close your eyes or turn your gaze to Heaven, and know that you are in front of the Throne of God, a God who loves you, a God you provides, not only for your body, but for everything you can imagine, and for everything you can’t.