humble desert

The Humble Desert

This is the second of two blog posts I wrote several weeks ago. I don’t know when or if I’ll write anymore.

Ohr HaChaim explains the first verse in Sefer Devarim in a novel way: He says that Moshe was alluding to nine attributes that are necessary for those who go in the path of the Torah.

-from “A Mussar Thought for the Day,” p.132
Sunday’s commentary for Parashas Devarim
A Daily Dose of Torah

Although this commentary was written for a Jewish audience, we non-Jews in Messiah who seek his Kingdom may glean some insights into the necessary attributes for us to turn to Hashem, God of Israel, in repentance and humility.

The following is a truncated version of this list of nine attributes. For the full text, go to pp. 132-133 of the aforementioned portion of A Daily Dose of Torah

  1. The word “on the other side,” is an allusion that one should acquire the trait of Avraham, as it says (Bereshis 14:13) “and told Abram, the Ivri…” [The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 42:13) says that our forefather Avraham was called the “Ivri” because he was on one side…of the world, and the rest of humanity was on the other. The Eitz Yosef (ad loc.) explains that this refers to Avraham’s recognition of his Creator, challenging the status quo of his time, when idolatry was the norm.]
  2. A person should constantly have self-reproof in mind, as the Gemara says (Berachos 7a): “One self-reproof in a person’s own heart is better (for his self-improvement) than 100 lashes.”
  3. One should be humble, as the Gemara says (Eruvin 54a): A person should conduct himself as if he were but a humble desert…
  4. One’s humility should follow the proper course as delineated in Rambam (Hilchos Dei’vos Ch. 5). [Rambam writes at length there about the proper conduct one should display, both in public and private.]
  5. The Mishnah (Avos 3:1) says that two of the things one should remember so as not to come to sin are that a person ends up buried in the ground, and that he will have to stand in judgment before Hashem for all his deeds. In Avos 2:10, the Mishnah tells us to repent every day, lest one die without repentance.
  6. The virtuous say (Chovos HaLevavo, Shaar HaPerishus 4) that one should be outwardly cheerful and inwardly mournful.
  7. One should have a pure and clean heart, as Dovid HaMelech prays in Tehillim (51:12), “A pure heart create for me, O God.” One should distance himself from hatred, jealousy, strife and bearing grudges.
  8. One should regularly learn Torah, as it is stated about our forefather Yaakov (Bereshis 25:27): “Yaakov was a wholesome man, dwelling in tents,” which refers to the study tents of Shem and Eiver (Rashi ad loc.).
  9. One should not passionately pursue things that seem valuable, meaning, the wealth of the physical world, because one who is following his heart’s desires is not doing God’s work.

How can this be applied to the non-Jew in Messiah? We can only look to those texts in our Bible, enshrined in the Apostolic Scriptures, that describe what is required of us through Messiah as a result of his humble birth, his life among Israel, his death at the hands of the goyim, his miraculous resurrection, and triumphant ascension.

MessiahThere are two general models by which we non-Jews may learn our proper behavior as disciples and perhaps look to the above-listed nine attributes: The behaviors of our Master, Rav Yeshua, that we find recorded in the Gospels, and what the Apostle Paul taught, as well as mitzvot we see the righteous Gentiles of that time performing, also chronicles in the Apostolic Scriptures.

Let’s take another list of those nine attributes and see if they make any sense when applied to a Gentile disciple of the Master.

  1. To be separate from the rest of mankind. Are we Christians “called out” from the mass of general humanity to be something special to God?
  2. To constantly reproof ourselves. Reproof is just a fancy word meaning rebuke, reprimand, reproach, or admonition. Applied to a believer who sins (and who doesn’t sin, even among the redeemed Gentiles?), we should be our own worst critics, for self-reproof is better than being “called out” because of our sins by others.
  3. To be humble. Looking at Eruvin 54, the relevant portion states: “If a person makes himself [humble] like a wilderness on which everyone tramples, [Torah is given to him like a Matanah (gift),] and his learning will endure. If not, it will not.”
  4. I don’t have access to Rambam’s lengthy discourse on humility, so no illumination will come from his insights, at least not in this small write-up.
  5. Avos 3:1 seems pretty self-explanatory. Once you fully realize that you are mortal, an end will come, and you will stand in judgment before a righteous and just God, should you continue to sin? And yet we do all the time. How wretched we are.
  6. Outwardly cheerful and inwardly mournful. Sounds like Matthew 6:16.
  7. In order to have a pure and clean heart, we would have to be in a constant state of repentance, which seems pretty consistent with what we’ve read so far.
  8. Regularly learn Torah. That fits in with what we generally assume about Acts 15:21 but, if we expand that idea to regularly studying the Bible, and all Bible learning could be considered “Torah” or “teaching” in a way, then why couldn’t we benefit from this?
  9. What is most important to us? A nice house? An expensive car? Watching the most recent superhero movies in the theaters? What did the Master teach in Matthew 22:36-40? What did he teach in Matthew 6:19-21?

The Jewish PaulAlthough the Master appointed the Pharisee Paul to be the emissary to the Gentiles, and tasked him to bring the Good News of Messiah to the people of the nations of the world, Paul was not commanded to convert those Gentiles into Jews. Although Paul brought many non-Jews into Jewish social and worship contexts to teach them to understand such foreign (to them in those days) concepts as a monotheistic view of One God, who and what “Messiah” is and what he means, and what the “good news” is to Israel and how it can be applied to the rest of the world, at some point, he had to realize based on the sheer number of Gentiles in the world in relation to the tiny number of Jews, that the Gentiles would quickly develop their own communities, congregations, and perhaps their own customs, halachah, and praxis, independent of direct (or even indirect) Jewish influence. The tiny Apostolic Council of Jerusalem couldn’t hope to administer a world wide population of Gentiles.

Two-thousand or so years later, Christianity and Judaism, having traveled along widely divergent paths, seem like an apple and an orange trying to find common ground and not doing a very good job of it. Judaism isn’t what links Jews and Gentiles in Messiah. Judaism is what links Jews to other Jews. It’s what links Jews to Torah. It’s what links Jews to Israel.

Judaism isn’t what teaches the apple and the orange that they are both fruit (assuming you’ve seen the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding). The promise of living in the Kingdom of Heaven, otherwise known as the Kingdom of God, or even the Messianic Era…this is what we have in common, all of us, all of humanity…all people everywhere, or at least those who make teshuvah, turn to God, and who answer the call to be redeemed.

But Jews are part of the Kingdom by covenant. The path for the rest of us is more complicated, at least once you set aside the notion we’ve been taught out of a truncated Gospel, the notion commonly taught in most Christian churches.

Although Messianic Judaism in its various modern incarnations is a very good place to learn about how God’s redemptive plan for Israel, and through Israel, the rest of the world, is really supposed to work, it can also (and certainly has in many cases) lead a lot, or many, or most non-Jews associated with Messianic Judaism to some very confusing conclusions.

Learning from within a Jewish context of one sort or another is valuable, but none of that means we non-Jews are supposed to consider Judaism a permanent destination. Our destination lies elsewhere.

Yeshua’s (Jesus’) central message was Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near, not “Believe in me and you’ll go to Heaven when you die.”

Sadly enough, Christianity widely teaches that Paul’s central message was “humans are saved from sin by believing in Jesus.” So either Paul completely turned the good news of Messiah on its head, so to speak, or Christianity totally misunderstands Paul.

For people like me, that is, non-Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah, it is vital to comprehend what the Master taught about the Kingdom and then see how Paul interpreted those teachings as applying to the people of the nations. Only understanding that gives me a clear picture of the actual context in which God expects people like me to operate and what I’m supposed to do with all this information.

Apostle Paul preachingI shouldn’t have to look far. Paul’s discourse to the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch where he addressed Jews, proselytes, and non-Jewish God-fearers should tell the tale and show us what he taught that so excited the Gentiles.

As Paul and Barnabas were going out, the people kept begging that these things might be spoken to them the next Sabbath. Now when the meeting of the synagogue had broken up, many of the Jews and of the God-fearing proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, were urging them to continue in the grace of God.

The next Sabbath nearly the whole city assembled to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began contradicting the things spoken by Paul, and were blaspheming. Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first; since you repudiate it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us,

‘I have placed You as a light for the Gentiles,
That You may bring salvation to the end of the earth (Isaiah 49:6).’”

When the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was being spread through the whole region.

Acts 13:42-49 (NASB)

You should read all of Acts 13 for the full context, keeping in mind that Luke probably wrote down only a short summary of Paul’s complete address to the synagogue.

We do know that Paul advocated for redemption of the Gentiles through Israel’s redemption, and that the news among the Gentile God-fearers was so well received during Paul’s first Shabbat visit, that multitudes of non-Jews, most of whom were probably not God-fearers and in fact, most of whom were likely straight-up pagans, enthusiastically showed up on the next Shabbat, dismaying the synagogue leaders to the extreme, but attracting a lot of excited Gentiles to the “good news.”

That good news wasn’t Judaism. The local Gentiles always knew that they could undergo the proselyte rite to convert to Judaism (and some few of them actually did). Paul wasn’t preaching for all Gentiles to convert, he was preaching the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven, where all people could receive the Spirit of God, could be reconciled to the Creator of the Universe, and receive the promise of the resurrection and a place in the World to Come.

This was as open to the Gentiles as it was to any Jew.

Verse 38 of the same chapter says that Messiah proclaimed forgiveness of sins (through teshuvah or repentance) to even the Gentiles, something most of the Goyim (and probably most Jews) hadn’t even considered possible before, especially within their polytheistic family and social framework.

The synagogue was where Gentiles had to go, at least initially, because that was the only place in town where anyone taught anything about the God of Israel and the meaning of Messiah’s message. Like I said, Judaism isn’t the final destination for the Gentile. It was and perhaps sometimes still is the place we need to go in order to learn that our final destination is the Kingdom of Heaven. That’s where we need to focus our attention.

alone-desertIf we get too caught up in trying to “belong” to Judaism, we are either going to become frustrated when it doesn’t work out that way, or offended and angry when Jews in Messiah see we Gentiles as interlopers and poachers of their territory.

In some ways, that’s probably what caused a lot of the problems in Gentile integration into Jewish social and community circles that we find in Luke’s “Acts” and Paul’s epistles.

Rather than trying to bulldoze my way into Messianic Judaism, I’m determined to become a humble desert, to be the dust under everyone’s feet. In the siddur, it says “To those who curse me let my soul be silent, and let my soul be like dust to everyone.”

All I can do is to continually repent before the Throne of God, try to live my life in humility, and seek to behave in a manner pleasing to my Master so that one day I may enter the Kingdom…

…even if it is like dust seeping in through the doorway.

The Torah states, “You shall trust wholeheartedly in the Lord, Your God” (Deuteronomy 18:13).

Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, known as the Chofetz Chaim, used to say, “The Torah obliges us to trust wholeheartedly in God … but not in man. A person must always be on the alert not to be cheated.”

The Chofetz Chaim devoted his life to spreading the principle of brotherly love, the prohibition against speaking against others, and the commandment to judge people favorably. Though he was not the least bit cynical, he was also not naive. He understood the world and human weaknesses.

In Mesichta Derech Eretz Rabba (chapter 5) it states that we should honor every person we meet as we would (the great sage) Rabbi Gamliel, but we should nevertheless be suspicious that he might be dishonest.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
as quoted at Aish.com

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10 thoughts on “The Humble Desert”

  1. I appreciate a lot from this meditation, James. One example is your quote from the siddur saying something about being quiet when cursed [not unlike Yeshua not cursing those who were in the process of putting him to death, although apparently this doesn’t always have to happen as Paul didn’t always follow through on a teaching like that]…

    …and then your picture
    of being dust
    reaching a positive destination.

    I love that you emphasize the humble birth, the life with Israel, the death at the hands of gentiles, the resurrection, and ascension.

  2. 9. One should not passionately pursue things that seem valuable, meaning, the wealth of the physical world, because one who is following his heart’s desires is not doing God’s work.

    9. What is most important to us? A nice house? An expensive car? Watching the most recent superhero movies in the theaters? What did the Master teach in Matthew 22:36-40? What did he teach in Matthew 6:19-21?

    I’m loving this. And I’m remembering when Paul said, “What do you want?” {I’ve done a re-working of a passage from Paul I posted maybe a couple weeks ago. I’m doing so to arrive at something to print to take along with me at meetings I’ve been invited to of atheists. In a newer summation, written maybe a week ago, I have bolded this question.}

    Paul also said that one who doesn’t provide for his family is worse than an infidel. Plus, that he hoped his learners would grasp that they should help people like him and those he served. So, the purpose of having anything is to minister to one’s own family and to others.

  3. The quote is from the Siddur and is recited….

    Yes, such things have been scripted on my heart by repetition.

    Rather than trying to bulldoze my way into Messianic Judaism, I’m determined to become a humble desert, to be the dust under everyone’s feet. In the siddur, it says “To those who curse me let my soul be silent, and let my soul be like dust to everyone.”

    All I can do is to continually repent before the Throne of God, try to live my life in humility, and seek to behave in a manner pleasing to my Master so that one day I may enter the Kingdom…

    …even if it is like dust seeping in through the doorway.

    I like how you’re pulling things together.

  4. Quoting you again:

    Paul wasn’t preaching for all Gentiles to convert, he was preaching the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven, where all people could receive the Spirit of God, could be reconciled to the Creator of the Universe, and receive the promise of the resurrection and a place in the World to Come.

    This was as open to the Gentiles as it was to any Jew.

    Verse 38 of the same chapter says that Messiah proclaimed forgiveness of sins (through teshuvah or repentance) to even the Gentiles, something most of the Goyim (and probably most Jews) hadn’t even considered possible before….

  5. It troubles me to see another talmid of Yeshua walking, as it were, in a nether world. Take heart and know that your outpouring of yourself in this blog has touched numerous people, myself included.

    From NT Wright, “Simply Good News,” which affirms that “the gospel” is not about going to heaven when we die (a gnostic concept):

    “Paul, at the end of his remarkable chapter on the resurrection (I Cor 15), declares that because of the coming resurrection, “the work that you’re doing will not be worthless.” Somehow, in ways we cannot a present discern, what is done in the present out of love for God in in the power of the Spirit will be part of God’s new world when it finally arrives.”

    Just as Elijah was not alone, neither are you. Press on, keep running the race.

  6. Thanks for the encouragement, Jim.

    Elijah wasn’t alone because God was with him and I am relying on God to be my companion as well.

    I have my reasons for what I’m doing/not doing. If, by God’s grace, I am successful, then I may return here at some point, or even in mid-process (although I suppose our entire lifetimes are always “mid-process”) and write again.

  7. Very very good .. first time I’ve read your blog in about 9 months. Isense change in you. Very clear in how you Annunciate the kingdom of God living in it here and now. What the Gospel is in basics thanks!

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