As I write this, I put our little sukkah kit together several hours ago. It’s only a 4 x 6 foot sukkah and the frame snaps together, but it still took me a little over an hour. The canvas is the hardest part to handle, especially alone. Then there is improvising the roof supports so I can roll the bamboo (yes, it came with the kit and is certified kosher) mat across the top. Hanging the lights is usually pretty easy, though this year I used some masking tape to hold the connecting electrical cord in place.
I’ve got a couple of plastic chairs in the small structure, but since the holiday doesn’t begin until tomorrow evening, I decided not to have lunch inside (not that there’s any particular commandment for me to do so, at least as far as I can find).
All of my family had to go to work today, so I’m alone right now. Given that my major “honey do” task after the lawn was constructing the sukkah, I decided, that done, I’d read the Bible.
For the past several years, I’ve been using the same Bible reading plan to go through the Bible in a year. It’s one of the few things I took from my former church experience. The plan actually will take you through the Bible cover-to-cover in 222 days, but I like to build in some “wiggle room.”
That said, I stopped following my plan months ago, as my “slump” deepened, my faith in religion waned, and I decided to focus on other, less spiritual priorities.
Four days ago (again, as I write this), I downloaded a new plan, printed it, and have started reading again. It felt appropriate given my attempt at “starting over” in returning to God.
Since I’d also abandoned my traditional reading and studying the weekly Torah portion, and still having uninterrupted time on my hands, I decided to brush the dust off my Chumash (metaphorically speaking, of course) and pick up with Torah Portion Ha’azinu, including the haftarah readings and readings from Psalms and the Gospels.
I have to admit, it felt good. It’s a pleasant afternoon, and I decided to do my reading on the back patio with a cup of coffee and glass of water, within just a few feet of the wee sukkah I constructed earlier.
And, in defiance of my desire to not rely so heavily on Jewish sources, I also read the commentary on today’s Torah portion from Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s book Growth Through Torah.
Even though Rabbi Pliskin is writing for a Jewish audience, I must confess most of what he has authored in this book makes so much sense to me on a personal and moral level. I’ll return to that in a bit. I want to present something to you first.
As part of my Bible reading plan so far, I’ve read the first four chapters of Matthew. Being back in the Gospels reminds me that Gentiles do, from time to time, appear in those pages. I think it’s important to consider how Rav Yeshua interacted with them and I’ll explain why in a minute.
And when Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, imploring Him, and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, fearfully tormented.” Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.”
But the centurion said, “Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.” Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled and said to those who were following, “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; it shall be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed that very moment.
–Matthew 8:5-13 (NASB)
Jesus went away from there, and withdrew into the district of Tyre and Sidon. And a Canaanite woman from that region came out and began to cry out, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.” But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and implored Him, saying, “Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us.” But He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” And He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she said, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus said to her, “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed at once.
Here we have Rav Yeshua demonstrating two very different attitudes towards non-Jewish people. In the first case, Jesus was actually amazed at the faith in which the Roman Centurion had in Yeshua’s power to heal (and presumably faith in Hashem, the source of all healing). In fact, verses 11 and 12 seem to state that in Messianic Days, many non-Jews, because of their faith, “will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” This is contrasted with a statement about the “sons of the kingdom,” which in this context, I can only presume are Jewish people, “will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” most likely due to lack of faith.
I’m sure these verses have been misused by Christians for centuries to support the old idea that God replaced the Jews with the Gentiles (the Church) in His love and in the covenant promises. While I do not believe this to be true in any sense, there appears to be some support for the idea the Gentile faith in Messianic days, through the merit of Messiah, will at least metaphorically, allow a number of them to “recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”
That’s pretty exciting.
But what about Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman?
A lot of Christian commentators (I can’t cite references, but I do remember this explanation being served up to me more than once) believe that Jesus really wasn’t referring to this person, pleading for her daughter’s life, as a “dog,” and that this was just a test of her humility and faith.
But given the traditional social relationship between Jews and Canaanites in those days, that’s pretty much how he, and most other Jewish people, would have thought of her. Even his disciples implored Rav Yeshua to send the woman away, fully knowing that her daughter was “cruelly demon-possessed.” Not the sort of kindness and compassion we’d expect from students of Jesus Christ.
And it’s almost as if Yeshua provided the healing in spite of his feelings for this woman and her people. Yet it was her great faith that seemed to touch the Rav and transcended their usual social roles.
We know Yeshua himself said that he was “sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 15:24), so the Gentiles weren’t particularly any concern of his, and Yeshua’s interactions with them were an extreme exception rather than the rule.
Yet in John’s highly mystical Gospel, as he is declaring himself the Good Shepherd of Israel, he does make one small admission:
I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd.
We presume that these “other sheep” are the Gentiles who will eventually come to faith in the God of Israel through the merit of Messiah, but that must have been a confusing statement to his Jewish audience, since in verses 19 through 21, they accused him of being demon-possessed.
We really don’t find a good example of Gentile Yeshua-devotion in the Gospels, largely because having come to the “lost sheep of Israel,” the Rav wasn’t seeking out, nor did he direct his disciples to seek out, the Gentiles.
In fact, in spite of Matthew 28:18-20, even Yeshua’s closest companions had no expectation that they should actively search out Gentile devotees and make them into disciples. From their point of view, it’s likely that if they had chosen that direction, they would have obeyed their directive by having interested Gentiles convert to Judaism through the proselyte rite.
It wasn’t until about fifteen years later by some estimates, that Peter was more or less forced to witness a righteous Gentile and his household be the objects of God’s acceptance of faith by allowing them the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.
If you read the full context of Acts 10, you’ll see that Peter was pretty reluctant to make the journey to the home of the Roman Centurion Cornelius. Peter’s famous rooftop vision, recorded earlier in the chapter, was Hashem’s effort to convince this apostle that associating with Gentiles, even to the point of entering a Gentile’s home and breaking bread with him, was not going to ritually defile Peter and his Jewish companions (no, it’s not about food…it was never about food).
Just as with Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman, it was a matter of social roles and the perceived “spirituality” of pagan Romans vs. Jewish worshipers of Hashem that kept them apart.
But while Cornelius was a God-fearer and had made many acts of tzedakah (charity) on behalf of the Jewish people, as well as continually praying to Hashem, he was not a disciple of Rav Yeshua until God directed Peter to visit the Centurion’s home and teach him.
It was only then that Cornelius and all the Gentiles in his household received the Holy Spirit of God in the manner of the Jewish disciples as we witnessed in Acts 2.
After this astonishing revelation, Peter had some explaining to do to the “apostles and the brethren” about why he spent several days in a Roman Centurion’s home.
After relating the supernatural circumstances that resulted in Peter visiting Cornelius, he concluded:
“And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.”
It seems that the leaders of the Messianic sect of Judaism once known as “the Way” never anticipated this possibility. They never expected Gentiles to receive the Spirit and to have the ability to repent “that leads to life.”
I believe this is some sort of indication of the qualitative difference between Cornelius’ status before Hashem as a God-fearer and later, as a disciple of Rav Yeshua. Only by Yeshua’s faithfulness and in the merit of Messiah may a Gentile become a disciple, one who is more or at least different from the God-fearer Cornelius had been before, and repent in a manner that “leads to life,” the resurrection, and have life in the world to come.
As far as the Bible is concerned, we never hear of Cornelius again and have no clue as to how he led his life after these events.
But I do believe that the various incidents I’ve referred to so far provide some interesting perspectives as to the encounters of non-Jews with Messiah or with faith in Messiah.
In all of these examples, faith seems to be the common element. It’s faith that transcends the ethnic and national barriers that “contain” God within Judaism and allow the rest of the world to turn to Him. This faith even impressed the Rav, and it was proof of this faith that convinced Peter, and through him, the rest of the leaders of the Way, that Gentiles could receive the Spirit, could repent, could merit the promise of life in the world to come, just as the Jews had.
But what does that mean for we non-Jewish disciples today who don’t find an identity or role in the traditional Church and who do not find it convenient or even warranted, to, in some fashion, imitate Jewish praxis?
My teachings should come down to you as rain.
Rabbi Chayim Shmuelevitz used to cite the Vilna Gaon on this verse that rain helps things grow. But what grows? Only what is there from before. If someone has vegetables and fruits that are healthy and delicious, rain will help them develop. But if there are poisonous mushrooms, rain will help them grow too. Similarly, Torah study makes one grow. But it depends on one’s character traits what one will become. A person who has elevated traits will become a greatly elevated person. But if a person has faulty character traits, the more Torah he studies the greater menace he will become.
-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Commentary on Torah Portion Ha’azenu, p.464
Growth Through Torah
I suppose this is why we have such a diversity of “characters” in the religious space, particularly among the more learned. But if Bible study only amplifies who you already are, then how do you, Jew or Gentile, truly become a better person? More to the point, what path must the “Judaically aware” Gentile take (on a metaphoric deserted island) beyond Bible study, in changing one’s character and becoming more conformed to the expectations of God?
I’ll continue to explore these questions in future “meditations.”