Tag Archives: mercy

Loving Yourself: A High Holidays Primer for Non-Jews

There is a Midrash (a commentary on the Five Books of Moses in the form of a parable) about a successful businessman who meets a former colleague down on his luck. The colleague begs the successful business man for a substantial loan to turn around his circumstances. Eventually, the businessman agrees to a 6 month loan and gives his former colleague the money. At the end of the 6 months, the businessman goes to collect his loan. The former colleague gives him every last penny. However, the businessman notices that the money is the exact same coins he loaned the man. He was furious! “How dare you borrow such a huge amount and not even use it? I gave this to you to better your life!” The man was speechless.

Likewise, the Almighty gives each of us a soul. He doesn’t want us to return it to Him at the end of our days in the same condition that we received it. He wants us to better ourselves, to enhance our souls by doing the mitzvot (613 commandments). It is up to us to sit down before Rosh Hashana and make a list of what we need to correct in our lives between us and our fellow beings, us and God and us and ourselves!

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
Shabbat Shalom Weekly for Nitzavimm (Deut. 29:9-30:20)
Aish.com

shofar-rosh-hashanahRosh Hashanah begins Sunday evening, October 2nd, which is only a few days away. This has pretty much zero meaning in normative Christianity and immense meaning in normative Judaism, as well as in Messianic Judaism and some corners of the Hebrew Roots movement.

One of my readers, ProclaimLiberty, who is a Messianic Jew living in Israel, has suggested that Sukkot might serve for Gentile Messianic believers as a better holiday to observe what Jews typically practice during the High Holidays. Perhaps he’s right. Certainly Zechariah 14:16-19 has much to say about this.

In my own circumstance, I don’t plan to commemorate the High Holidays. I don’t doubt my wife will attend synagogue, but for personal reasons, I choose to make those observances within myself.

I hadn’t planned to blog again on this topic. My previous blog post The Month of Elul and the Gentile Christian has gained a lot of traction and the conversation is up to 53 comments as of this writing. But then I saw the quote from Rabbi Packouz’s recent article and was reminded of the “Parable of the Talents” we find in Matthew 25:14-30. I’m certainly not suggesting a direct parallel. Rabbi Packouz would not have considered referencing the Apostolic Scriptures, and the classic Christian interpretation of the parable doesn’t touch upon the above-quoted midrash, but I want to play a game.

Specifically, I want to play a game of pretend. I want to pretend that the parable can have multiple, metaphorical meanings. Let’s just pretend that we can apply the commentary by Rabbi Packouz to the Parable of the Talents and say one of the things God does not want is for us to waste our very lives.

Let’s just say that one of the things that Yeshua wants us to make use of is God’s investment in our own personal value.

In the comments section of my blog post on Elul, it has come up multiple times that Gentiles in God’s economy have less value, perhaps much less value than Jews. I don’t necessarily believe this, but any non-Jew who has been around the Messianic Jewish community long enough can get the impression that, based on the centrality of Israel and the Jewish people in all of the covenant promises of God, including the New Covenant, we don’t count for much.

So, to again quote R. Packouz, let’s just pretend that relative to being human, whether we are Jewish or Gentile, “the Almighty gives each of us a soul. He doesn’t want us to return it to Him at the end of our days in the same condition that we received it. He wants us to better ourselves…”

Since the 613 commandments aren’t applicable to us, it becomes a bit if a head-scratcher as to what we are supposed to do to improve ourselves, but that’s only if we aren’t paying attention. Many of the things that Jews do to improve themselves are available to everyone.

tzedakahGive to charity, pray, volunteer your time at a local foodbank, and generally act toward others in a kind manner, even when you have to go out of your way to do it.

It is said that the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:36-40) are to love the Lord your God with all of your resources and to love your neighbor as yourself. These two commandments are just big containers that hold lots of other commandments, some having to do with your relationship with God and others with your relationship with human beings.

The point is, God gave each and every one of us our lives and He expects us to do something with those lives. Not just with specific talents or gifts, and not just with money, but with all that we are. Going out, we should be better people than we were when we came into this world.

We Gentiles who are in some manner associated with the Messianic movement or at least the Messianic perspective often complain about our status, as if the Jewish people have it all sewn up. I don’t think that’s the case. I think we get so busy being involved in our own angst, that we can’t see beyond it.

I read an article in the “Ask the Rabbi” column at Aish called Synagogue Dues: Pay to Pray? The Jewish person asking the question is upset that Jews should have to buy a ticket or a membership to a synagogue in order to enter and pray on the High Holidays. He’s so upset that he’s deliberately boycotting the holidays.

The Aish Rabbi responds in part with this:

I must say, however, I’m surprised by your reaction to this whole situation. Who are you ultimately hurting by boycotting the holidays? Instead of saying: “That blasted synagogue! I’ll teach them a lesson and defile my soul with some bacon!” Why not say: “I’ll start my own synagogue and the policy will be free seating on High Holidays for those who can’t afford tickets.”

It’s the difference between being proactive and reactive. Proactive means making your own reality happen. Reactive is allowing other people’s shortcomings to hurt you. Judaism is a religion of action. So let me know when you start that synagogue. It’ll be my honor to pray with you there!

There may be some difficulty in defining the roles and duties of Gentiles who have chosen to become part of a Messianic Jewish community, but make no mistake, no Messianic Jewish person, no matter what their position or education, can interfere with your relationship with God.

If you feel there’s something about Messianic Judaism or some Messianic Jews that devalues you as a creation of God and a devotee of Yeshua, that may be your problem and not their’s. Even if an individual Messianic Jew (or anyone else) attempted to persuade you that God thinks of you as sloppy left overs compared to Jewish people, that simply is not true.

awareness-of-godA friend of mine is fond of saying, “Do not seek out Christianity, and do not seek out Judaism. Seek out an encounter with the Living God.”

If you’re here, that means God wants you here, and he expects you to fulfill whatever roles and tasks He has assigned you. Your job, our job, all of us, Jews and Gentiles alike, is to seek out what we are supposed to do and then to do it.

I believe the first task is to truly embrace the fact that God loves us and wants us to appreciate that love, not only by loving God but by loving ourselves. How can we love our neighbors as ourselves if we don’t love and value our own existence first?

Working Together

And we are human, after all. Our humanly unique sense of self is partially framed and reinforced by our awareness of that self in relation to others. It’s only human nature to hope you might be in some way “better” than others — smarter, possessing of higher status, more resources, and greater physical attractiveness — even if that’s not always the case. From there, it’s only a short step toward actively seeking out the more negative aspects of others to feel better by comparison. And once we’ve begun to indulge in those self-gratifying judgments, it’s hard to stop. How else can you explain American’s fascination with reality TV? Next to Honey Boo-Boo and the Duggars, we all look pretty good, right?

Wrong.

Research has also shown that people who seek out and comment upon negative traits and behaviors in others are often highly anxious about those very same traits in themselves.

-Leslie Turnbull
from the article “Don’t Judge Me”
The Week

bullyingAccording to this magazine story based, supposedly, on research, it’s natural for human beings to be judgmental, it just makes us unhappy. I suppose that might mean that it’s not natural for a person to give the other guy or gal the benefit of the doubt and to judge them favorably.

However, in Judaism, it is considered desirable to judge others favorably:

Joshua the son of Perachia and Nitai the Arbelite received from them. Joshua the son of Perachia would say: Assume for yourself a master, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every man to the side of merit (emph. mine).

Pirkei Avot 1:6

Now let’s expand our information base to include the Apostolic Scriptures, which also, I believe, qualifies as Jewish wisdom.

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.

Philippians 2:3-4 (NASB)

Also…

But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

James 3:14-18

James (Jacob or Ya’akov), the brother of Rav Yeshua (Jesus), writes that jealousy, selfish ambition, and arrogance are also natural for human beings, and he calls these qualities “earthly, natural, demonic.”

Not a pretty picture.

He advocates for behaving gently, reasonably, and treating others with mercy.

The Jewish PaulAs students of the teachings of Yeshua as they are interpreted for the Gentiles by the Apostle Paul (Rav Shaul), we really need to be different from the world, behaving “unnaturally”, and as a “light to the nations” (Matthew 5:14-16).

Maybe it’s “natural” for us to be snarky and unkind to others, but as Ms. Turnbull’s article points out, we may complain the most about people who are the most like us.

So the next time you feel the urge to snark about the way your brother-in-law tries to dominate every conversation, spend a few minutes listening to yourself. You might just realize it’s time for you to pipe down, too.

Further…

Need more reason to curtail that instinct to be a hater? Consider this: Unjust criticism may be hurtful to others , but it hurts those who over-indulge in it even more. Just as those who spend a lot of time in the water fixate on the extremely rare shark attack while ignoring the much more prevalent (but still almost non-existent) threat of lightning on land, folks who over-focus on negativity will eventually only see what they spend time thinking about: the bad stuff.

So being judgmental and negative not only hurts us, it hurts other people, and our teachers, as we read them in the Bible, instruct us to not hurt others, but rather, to be kind and, as much as it depends on us, to be at peace with everyone (Romans 12:18).

Not particularly common in the blogosphere, even in the religious blogosphere.

I’m not writing to lean on anyone or masking my own criticism toward anyone else, but with all of the verbal and physical violence in the news and social media lately, it seems like there’s no place to go for a bit of peace.

cooperatingBut ideally, we should be able to seek out other disciples in Messiah for that peace, Jew and Gentile alike.

Not only that, but we should be able to work together, for although we represent a diverse population, and there are sometimes significant differences between Jewish and Gentile disciples, we do have something in common:

From the above closing words of the Acts of the Apostles [Acts 28:30-31] we can see that the Kingdom of God was the message that Paul and the other Apostles preached, a message of God’s Kingship in the person and work of Yeshua Messiah. The Bilateral Messianic Community was the body of believers who had accepted the message of the Kingdom of God and were to be the proclaimers of the coming of the Kingdom of God.

-Sean Emslie
“The Kingdom of God and The Messianic Hope: Bilateral Messianic Community and Kingdom in the Epistles and Revelation”
Toward a Messianic Judaism

When did we forget this and how can be get back to what we’re supposed to be doing?

Longing for Mercy in an Ordinary Life

When Moses got up that morning and counted the sheep, he did not say to himself, “I think I’ll take the sheep out on the west side of the wilderness over by the Mountain of God.” Mount Horeb was simply Mount Horeb, an indistinct rock in the wilderness like so many other hills and mountains, completely ordinary looking. There was nothing special about it. Mount Horeb became Mount Sinai, the mountain of God, simply because God chose it, not because it was taller, mightier or holier than any of the surrounding hills and mountains.

-from “Ordinary Life” the Torah Club commentary on Shemot
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

This topic pops up periodically in Christian circles, usually in response to a question such as:

How could God use me for anything? I’m no one special. I’m just an ordinary person with an ordinary life.

Another part of the answer goes like this:

Most of us do not regard ourselves as extraordinary people. You probably think of yourself as a fairly ordinary person with a fairly mundane life. From God’s perspective, that is perfect. You are the perfect person with whom He can do extraordinary things. He is not looking for prophets; He is looking for normal people who are carrying on under normal circumstances.

Frankly, I’d be elated to live an ordinary and mundane life perfectly or even just reasonably within the bounds of God’s expectations. I don’t have to be Moses. I don’t want to be Moses. I am unworthy to be anything like Moses. I just want to be “me” but a better “me” than I am today.

Teshuvah within an “ordinary life” is a lot of hard work with no guarantee that life will get immediately better even upon turning away from sin. An “extraordinary” life seems exhausting by comparison.

Of course with God, all things are possible (Matthew 19:26) but God is God and I’m just me.

When I became chief rabbi, I had to undergo a medical examination. The doctor put me on a treadmill, walking at a very brisk pace. “What are you testing?” I asked him. “How fast I can go, or how long?” “Neither,” he replied. “What I am testing is how long it takes, when you come off the treadmill, for your pulse to return to normal.” That is when I discovered that health is measured by the power of recovery. That is true for everyone, but doubly so for leaders and for the Jewish people, a nation of leaders (that, I believe, is what the phrase “a kingdom of priests” means).

-Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
“Light in Dark Times”
Chabad.org

Man alonePart how I measure my physical health is how quickly my heart rate recovers after a cardio workout. However, that principle can be applied to a completely different context. How quickly a person recovers after a major failure in making teshuvah and restoring relationships with God and people is also a measure of health.

Of course, there could be a problem:

Question: What if the person to whom you want to apologize won’t speak to you?

Answer: Here is what Maimonides writes on the matter:

If his colleague does not desire to forgive him, he should bring a group of three of his friends and approach him with them and request [forgiveness]. If [the wronged party] is not appeased, he should repeat the process a second and third time. If he [still] does not want [to forgive him], he may let him alone and need not pursue [the matter further]. On the contrary, the person who refuses to grant forgiveness is the one considered as the sinner.

-Rabbi Menachem Posner
Comments from the article:
“Teshuvah — Repentance”
Chabad.org

While facing God with your sin and asking for forgiveness as part of true teshuvah is daunting, we have certain promises in the Bible that God will indeed forgive us of our sin, cleansing us and making us white as snow (Psalm 51:7). However, with the people we have hurt, they are quite likely, at least initially, to react with blame, anger, and rejection.

In Rabbi Posner’s comment above citing Maimonides, we should repeatedly approach the offended party and continue to ask for their forgiveness. However, there is a limit as to how many times we are expected to extend ourselves and, at least from the Rambam’s point of view, anyone who refuses to forgive a true Baal Teshuvah is considered a sinner themselves.

Not that this is much help if you’re trying to repair relationships.

Every prayer of the heart is answered. It’s the packaging that doesn’t always meet our taste.

Maamar Vayigash Elav 5725, 6—based on a statement of the Baal Shem Tov, Keter Shem Tov.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Bad Packaging”
Chabad.org

Yes, we can pray for a positive outcome, and as Rabbi Freeman says, God answers all prayers, but the “packaging,” that is, exactly how God answers the prayers, may not be what we desired or hoped for.

Hearken and hear Israel (Devarim 27:9), this is the time marked for the redemption by Mashiach. The sufferings befalling us are the birth-pangs of Mashiach. Israel will be redeemed only through teshuva (Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit I:1). Have no faith in the false prophets who assure you of glories and salvation after the War (Note that this was during the early 1940’s). Remember the word of G-d, “Cursed is the man who puts his trust in man, who places his reliance for help in mortals, and turns his heart from G-d” (Yirmiyahu 17:5). Return Israel unto the Eternal your G-d (Hoshei’a 14:2); prepare yourself and your family to go forth and receive Mashiach, whose coming is imminent.

-from “Today’s Day” for Wednesday, Tevet 15, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

praying aloneThis is heralding a very extraordinary time that will lead to the ultimate redemption of Israel and the nations, but in the meantime, there are still many mundane matters we all struggle with. I find it hard to always pray for the return of the Master when all I really want is to be successful in teshuvah, for God to grant me mercy and forgiveness, and for His Spirit to soften the hearts of those who have been hurt so they will be moved to mercy and forgiveness.

May God grant this to all of us, for who hasn’t failed?

Vayigash: Will the King Show Us Mercy?

king-davidAnd Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph!”

Genesis 45:3

The Chofetz Chaim comments that from the time the brothers first came to Egypt to get food — when Joseph spoke with them roughly and accused them of being spies — they were puzzled about what exactly was happening and why it was happening. In both encounters with Joseph they had many questions about their experiences. As soon as they heard the words, “I am Joseph” all their questions were answered. The difficulties they had in understanding the underlying meaning of the events — why Joseph accused them of being spies, yet treated them well, accused them of lying and stealing, but gave them a banquet, insisted on bringing the younger brother to Egypt, etc. — were now completely clarified.

Similarly, says the Chofetz Chaim, when the entire world will hear the words “I am the Almighty” at the final redemption of the Jewish people, all the questions and difficulties that people had about the history of the world with all of its suffering will be answered. The entire matter will be clarified and understood. Everyone will see how the hand of the Almighty caused everything ultimately for our benefit.

Dvar Torah for Torah Portion Vayigash based on
Growth Through Torah by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Referenced by Rabbi Kalman Packouz
at Aish.com

The brothers of Joseph discover a startling reality. The ruler of the Egyptians who has been treating them harshly all of this time is really their brother Joseph. In an instant, all the cruelty they showed him, including trying to murder him, must have come to the forefront of their conscience.

Before this, the Egyptian ruler had the power to do anything to them, imprison them, make them slaves, even kill them, but “it wasn’t personal.” That is, the sons of Jacob were no more or less significant to an Egyptian ruler than anyone else.

Now they not only discover that this man has the power of life and death over them, but that he is their brother, who they left for dead, who almost surely has a personal motive for seeking revenge. The brothers knew they had no right to appeal to Joseph for mercy, for they had not showed him mercy. They could only hope that in the years he ascended from slavery and imprisonment to being a viceroy of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh in power and authority, that he had learned wisdom and compassion and would be willing to offer them something they did not deserve: mercy and the continuation of their very lives.

Now look at what Rabbi Pliskin had to say from the above-quoted text:

Similarly, says the Chofetz Chaim, when the entire world will hear the words “I am the Almighty” at the final redemption of the Jewish people, all the questions and difficulties that people had about the history of the world with all of its suffering will be answered.

How much of the non-Jewish world will tremble at the feet of God when they realize the Almighty has appeared at the final redemption and that He is not at all pleased with how His people Israel have been treated?

Over the long march of centuries since Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, since Joseph confronted his brothers, since Moses, Aaron, and Miriam liberated the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and set them before God at Sinai, and on and on across history, every people, tribe, and tongue throughout the Earth has been seeking to kill the Jewish people, God’s splendorous treasure, the apple of His eye.

This includes the Church of Jesus Christ. How confusing it will be in those days to be a Christian who has harbored hatred toward Jewish people, Judaism, and Israel, and to be confronted by an angry Jewish King. How strange it will seem to many Christians who have loved Israel but continued to deny the validity of the Torah, the Temple, and the adherence of Jewish people to a Jewish way of life for those Gentile believers to be faced with a Jewish King who upholds the “Jewishness” of his people Israel.

“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Matthew 25:41-46 (NASB)

Woman in the darkI used to think this was an injunction for believers to show kindness and compassion for all of the needy people around us (and I still think we should), but almost a year ago, I heard a good and kind Christian man in a Sunday school class interpret this statement as the duty we Gentile believers have to take care of all the needy of Israel.

And if that statement is true, then woe be to the many, many Christians past and present who have utterly failed to do so because those needy people were “just Jews.”

In the case of the brothers of Joseph, their kinsman who was also ruler and King over them was merciful after all:

Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure Your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.

Genesis 45:5-8 (JPS Tanakh)

But was it for Jacob’s sake that Joseph spared his brothers? And for whose sake shall the King of Israel spare those among the nations and particularly those among the Church who have treated his little ones poorly?

…but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.

Matthew 18:6 (NASB)

Mark Nanos in his book The Mystery of Romans defines the “weak” and “stumbling,” relative to Paul’s letter to the Romans, as the Jews in the synagogues of Rome who had not yet come to faith in Messiah. I’ll write a detailed “meditation” on this topic in a few days, but Nanos understands Paul’s admonition to the “strong,” the Gentile believers, as failing to uphold their responsibility to encourage the stumbling Jewish people, resulting in them stumbling even further away from faith. Paul never gave up on the stumbling, and he would have sacrificed everything for them.

For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

Romans 9:3-5 (NASB)

It was the Master himself who called his people Israel “lost sheep” (Matthew 10:6, 15:24) and who are we to disdain those “sheep,” for it is obvious that even in their unbelief, God loves them with a great intensity and will violently protect them, even from those of us who are so arrogant as to believe their Father has cut them off from His care and compassion.

bk_kotelPaul says that all of Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26), though we in the Church cannot fathom this. But though the Jews have always been few in number (Deuteronomy 4:27) and suffered exile and dispersion (Leviticus 26:33), yet they shall be redeemed and live in peace (Micah 4:1-4), for God has declared that Israel shall eternally be a nation before Him (Genesis 17:7, Leviticus 26:43, Deuteronomy 4:26-27, 28:63-64).

It is within the power of the Jewish Messiah King, Yeshua, Jesus, to judge his Gentile Church and to cast out those of us who have failed in our duty to his people Israel in opposition to the prophesies and the commandments. The patriarchs were terrified of their powerful and very human brother for the vengeance he could exact upon them. How much more should we be terrified of an infinitely powerful and eternal King?

It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Hebrews 10:31 (NASB)

Tremble and sin not, reflect in your hearts while on your beds, and be utterly silent. Selah.

Psalm 4:4 (from the Siddur, nighttime blessings)

Let the world that has always hated the Jewish people learn to repent before it’s too late, and let each Christian who has hated or dismissed the Jewish people lie in his or her bed and tremble and be utterly silent before their King whose hand will always uplift Israel and whose greatest desire is to save his precious nation and redeem her as he has promised.

Good Shabbos.

FFOZ TV Review: The Golden Rule

ffoz_tv19_mainEpisode 19: Jesus instructs us “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is the Golden Rule. But why does he add at the end “For this is the law and prophets”? Episode nineteen will explore the words of other rabbis who also distilled down the commandments in a similar way to Jesus. The Golden Rule is the practical application of the Leviticus commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” and thus is the baseline of kingdom ethics and a prophetic picture of the peace of the Messianic Era.

-from the Introduction to FFOZ TV: The Promise of What is to Come
Episode 19: The Golden Rule (click this link to watch video, not the image above)

The Lesson: The Mystery of the Golden Rule

I didn’t think I’d get much out of this episode, so I was surprised when the material covered by First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) teachers Toby Janicki and Aaron Eby folded into several blog posts I’ve written recently, all touching on how we treat our fellow human beings.

The “Golden Rule” is often rendered as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Here’s the Biblical source:

So then, whatever you want sons of men to do to you, do the same to them, for this is the Torah and the Prophets.

Matthew 7:12 (DHE Gospels)

Here’s a more familiar version of the same text:

In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

Matthew 7:12 (NASB)

I guess I’m always a little surprised when I hear how some Christians understand certain parts of the Bible. It would never occur to me to think that Jesus was supposed to be replacing the Torah and the Prophets, that is, the Old Testament, with a new, “one size fits all” law that is simple, easy to understand, and (in theory) easy to accomplish. But apparently, that’s what a lot of Christians have been taught.

They’ve also been taught that Jesus invented “The Golden Rule” and that it is a wholly New Testament concept.

Except, that’s not true.

Toby pulls a story from Talmud commonly referred to as Hillel, Shammai, and the Three Converts. I won’t render the entire tale here, but the core statement, when the Rabbinic Sage Hillel is confronted with a demand by a would-be convert to teach him the Torah while the man stood on one foot (and no one can keep their balance on one foot for very long), is the response, “What you dislike, do not do to your friend. That is the basis of the Torah. The rest is commentary; go and learn!”

ffoz_tv19_tobyThis statement is a variation of what Jesus said to his listeners in Matthew 7:12 and communicates the same thought. But the Rabbinic sages Hillel and Shammai lived and taught a full generation before Jesus began his ministry, so Jesus couldn’t have invented this teaching. Further, both Jesus and Hillel say that “the Golden Rule” is the basis of the Torah and the Prophets, which is often misinterpreted by Christians to mean that this rule replaces the Torah.

We’ll get to that in a minute, but Toby also tells his audience that Hillel didn’t invent the Golden Rule either:

…you shall love your fellow as yourself — I am Hashem.

Leviticus 19:18 (Stone Edition Chumash)

Both Hillel and Jesus are drawing directly from a commandment in the Torah, and this is the first clue in solving our mystery:

Clue 1: The Golden Rule is a paraphrase of Leviticus 19:18.

At this point, the scene shifts to Aaron in Israel and he reads a related passage from scripture to us:

A certain sage among them asked him a question to test him, saying “Rabbi, which is the greatest mitzvah in the Torah?” Yeshua replied to him, “Love Hashem your God with all your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your knowledge.” This is the greatest and first mitzvah. But the second is similar to it: “Love your fellow as yourself.” The entire Torah and the Prophets hang on these two mitzvot.

Matthew 22:35-40 (DHE Gospels)

The first commandment, Aaron tells the audience, is taken from Deuteronomy 6:5 and is part of the Shema, the most holy prayer in Judaism, which observant Jews recite twice daily. The second, as noted before, is from Leviticus 19:18

Aaron introduces a concept called “equal decrees,” which is a Jewish interpretative method used in Jesus’s day and one that Jesus was using in the above-quoted scripture. This method says that if two sections of scripture use the same and unusual words, which in this case are “And you shall love” or “ve’ahavta” in Hebrew, then they are considered related and equal to each other. Jesus is saying that there’s a relationship between Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, that they are linked and that they are equal in some manner.

Aaron also drew out that all of the Torah commandments and teachings of the Prophets hang on these two verses. In other words, all of the Torah commandments are dependent upon loving God with all of your resources and loving your fellow as yourself. Instead of replacing the Torah and the Prophets with the Golden Rule, Jesus was upholding and affirming the Torah and the Prophets, just as Hillel was (and who would ever accuse the great sage Hillel of trying to replace the Torah with a simple rule commanding kindness to others?).

ffoz_tv19_aaronIt occurred to me as I listened to Aaron, that anyone who claimed to be “Torah observant” but who didn’t treat others the same way as they would want to be treated, could not actually say to be obeying the Torah of Moses, since all of the commands in Torah are utterly dependent upon loving God and loving others.

Of course, we have to consider the question, “who is my neighbor?”

But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Returning to Toby in the studio, we receive the next clue:

Clue 2: The Golden Rule summarizes the commandments of the Torah.

Now we’ll begin to address who is our neighbor or our fellow.

Then a certain sage arose to test him and said, “Teacher, what should I do to take possession of eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Torah? How do you read it?” He answered and said, “Love Hashem your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your strength, and with all of your knowledge — and your fellow as yourself.” He said to him, “You have answered well. Do this and live.”

He desired to justify himself so he said to Yeshua, “Who is my fellow?”

Luke 10:25-29 (DHE Gospels)

Here, Luke reverses who speaks the two greatest commandments, having the sage who is testing Jesus state them. Jesus says something interesting and something I think should make Christians a little nervous. He says to the sage that if he loves God with all of his resources and his fellow as himself, if he observes these Torah mitzvot, he will live, that is, he will gain eternal life. In “Christianese,” Jesus is telling him that he will be saved if he observes the two greatest mitzvot.

This is very revealing because Jesus didn’t say “believe in me, in Jesus” or even “believe in God” but rather, you will gain salvation if you love God with everything you’ve got and if you love your fellow as yourself.

But what about this neighbor/fellow stuff?

In Luke 10:30-37, Jesus responds to the sage’s query by relating what we know as “the Parable of the Good Samaritan.” In other words, Jesus defines a neighbor not just as one’s fellow Jew, but even as someone who you don’t like very well, someone who isn’t even Jewish.

Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.”

Luke 10:36-37 (NASB)

Ah, mercy. I’ve had a lot to say on mercy lately. Mainly because of a few people in the blogosphere who lead with their sense of “justice” while dumping mercy into the gutter.

sad-childJesus is saying that the second of the two greatest commandments, a mitzvah upon which all of the other Torah mitzvot depend, is loving any other human being, showing that person the exact same compassion that we ourselves would want to be shown. Since the second commandment is considered equal to the first, one cannot love God if that person does not show mercy to his fellow human being, any fellow human being. It doesn’t matter if that’s a fellow Jew or not (assuming you’re Jewish) or a fellow believer or not (assuming that you’re a believer). The Golden Rule, the second of the two greatest commandments, must apply to everyone you encounter, regardless of who they are. Otherwise, your love of and faith in God, as well as your much vaunted observance of Torah, means absolutely nothing.

This is also the third and final clue:

Clue 3: The Golden Rule applies universally.

Toby says that the Golden Rule is also a foretaste of the Messianic Era, an age of universal love and peace, when everyone will treat each other with compassion, kindness, and mercy. These are the ethical principles of the Messianic Age, and we can apprehend some of that age now if we just embrace the Golden Rule and live it out.

What Did I Learn?

I surprised myself in that I have been urging my own small audience on my blog to observe the Golden Rule without even realizing it. In spite of how I’m sometimes criticized for leaning a bit more toward mercy than justice in my messages, according to this FFOZ TV teaching, I seem to be on the right track. But what does that say for those out there in the Church and the Hebrew Roots movements, and all their variations, who lean more toward justice, a lot more, and barely give mercy a passing nod?

According to Jesus, both love of God and mercy toward your neighbor, who can be and in fact is everybody, is required in order to acquire eternal life, a place in the world to come, otherwise known as salvation. This is the viewpoint of the Bible that conflicts with the standard Christian version, which says all you have to do is believe in order to be saved. No behavior is required.

According to Ismar Schorsch in his book Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries, in one commentary on Torah Portion Vayeitze (“No Aversion to Wealth,” pg 108):

The Torah is indifferent to the nature of the afterlife, offering but slight comfort to the individual victim of oppression. What it does unflinchingly is to rail against those who pervert the principles and practices that enhance human life.

I get a very “Old Testament” feel from the teachings of Messiah as presented in this episode of FFOZ TV, The Golden Rule. Jesus is saying that our relationship with God, the true meaning of our faith and trust, isn’t what we think, and it’s not a warm and fuzzy feeling. Rather, it’s what we do. The nature and character of our love of God is directly reflected in how we treat other human beings, not just people who are like us, but also those who are unlike us, even those who are opposed to us.

For instance, how a believer, whether he thinks of himself as “Christian,” “Hebrew Roots follower,” or “Messianic,” speaks of and treats someone he considers an apostate, tells us more about that believer than it ever will tell us about the apostate.

No matter how much you tell yourself that you are “right” because you are quoting scripture, stating facts, stating truth, and upholding justice, if you also do not have the same mercy that the Samaritan had for the man who had been victimized by robbers, you have nothing at all from God.

A review and a cautionary tale from today’s “morning meditation.”

Vayetzei: The Mosaic of God

Jacobs_LadderJacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely, God is present in this place and I did not know!”

Genesis 28:16

What was the source of Jacob’s surprise? Jacob realized that he can relate to God even during sleep.

The Talmud (Berachos 63a) says that there is a brief passage upon which the entire body of Torah is dependent: “In all your ways know God” (Proverbs 3:6). Rambam and countless other commentaries refer to this statement, saying that one should serve God not only with the actual performance of mitzvos, but with all of one’s daily activities.

Dvar Torah for Vayetzei
based on Twerski on Chumash by Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
quoted by Rabbi Kalman Packouz at Aish.com

Yesterday, I quoted another Aish source, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, who suggests we should act the way we want to be. This was in part, to support how in serving God, we need to bring both a sense of justice and mercy to the table, so to speak. We need not to be severely biased in one direction or the other, though according to some areas of Jewish thinking, even God created the world with a very slight leaning toward mercy.

In his commentary on Torah Portion Vayetzei, Rabbi Packouz presents an interesting and related challenge.

What is true spirituality? My beloved friend, Rabbi Avraham Goldhar, who has a revolutionary approach to helping kids get better grades with less study time in both secular and Jewish studies, came up with the following paradigm of attributes to clarify the definition of spirituality.

  1. Emotion — Intellect
  2. Kindness — Justice
  3. Community — Solitude
  4. God — Nature
  5. Serenity — Challenge

Put a check mark by one attribute from each pair that you think is more spiritual.

Now, if you want to try something interesting, put an “x” mark by each attribute that you associate with the Jewish people.

Here’s the point Rabbi Packouz is making, a point that dovetails nicely with what I was saying in yesterday’s morning meditation:

What is fascinating is that most people associate spirituality with emotion, kindness, solitude, nature and serenity … and the Jewish people with intellect, justice, community, God and challenge. The reason is that we have an Eastern notion of spirituality — an all encompassing emotional bliss connecting with the universe. The Jewish approach to spirituality is based on fulfilling a purpose, to fix the world (tikun olom)– which requires intellect, justice, community, God and challenge.

For the Jew, intellect is to be channeled into emotion — emotions can’t rule you; you must do the right thing. Justice provides for a world of kindness. A society has to be willing to identify rights and wrongs and stand up to evil. If not, one can attempt to do kindness, but end up enabling evil. Community provides you with an understanding of who you are – a member of a people – even when you are alone, you are still part of something more. Realizing that there is a Creator and having a relationship with the Creator makes the natural much more profound. This world is a veiled reality with the Creator behind it. People can only receive serenity when they live up to their challenges; otherwise, they are tormented in their pursuit of serenity by not living up to their potential.

mosaicYou cannot lead with any one side of the equation, so to speak. You can’t even lead with just a few different but specific attributes. And yet people in religion do this all the time, usually to the detriment of the faith. In reading Rabbi Packouz, I get the impression, at least in the ideal, that Judaism strikes the desirable balance between emotion and intellect, between mercy and justice. Of course, the idea that the universe was created by God with these two elements is also a Jewish idea.

Don’t get me wrong, this probably isn’t literal and factual in terms of the process of Creation, but as a metaphor, it tells an important tale, one that we need to learn in order to truly serve God.

Rabbi Twerski ends his Dvar Torah like this:

A person should eat and sleep with the intent that food and rest are essential to have a healthy body, which enables one to do the mitzvos properly. Someone who is weak and exhausted cannot concentrate on Torah study or do mitzvos properly.

One engages in work and business to provide the needs for one’s family, and to acquire the means to do the mitzvos. Money is necessary to give tzedakah, to purchase tefillin and tzitzis, to build a succah, to pay for an esrog and for matzoh, to pay tuition and fulfill all of the mitzvos. If one partakes of world goods for the purpose of being able to serve God properly, then all of one’s actions become part and parcel of Torah and mitzvos.

If I may take a few liberties here, I’ll add that we should use every aspect of who we are in the service of God, not just a few. It is true that each of us has talents or areas where we excel. For some, it’s compassion, and so they serve God by being compassionate helpers. For some it’s intellect, and so they serve God as teachers and as students, always learning and passing on what they’ve learned.

And now you see why we need to work in a body. No one of us has the capacity to serve God in all areas. If we imagine that we do, then everyone around us will get a limited and probably inaccurate image of who God is, what God does, and what God expects of human beings. If all we know of God is from someone who is exceptionally merciful, we may think of God as loving and permissive in the extreme, but having few behavioral expectations, limits, or discipline, like some sort of “cosmic teddy bear.” If all we know of God is from someone who is exceptionally just, we may think of God as harsh, cruel, rule-bound, inflexible, and blind.

Look back at the numbered list I posted above. God possesses all of those qualities. He exists along all points of all continuums, from emotion to intellect, from kindness to justice, from community to solitude. There is no place where God does not exist, and there is no person God cannot comprehend.

But no human being lives with the same infinite set of perceptions and qualities as God. We are limited. We are finite. We have biases. We lean in one direction or another. No one of us gives anyone else an accurate picture of the attributes of God. That’s why we need to operate in a body. That’s why we need community, either physical or (if an approprite physical community of faith is not accessible) virtual. Because only together, as a body, can we balance and guide each other. It takes all of us, like the bits and pieces that make up a mosaic, to be the image of God.

alone-desertSometimes you’ll encounter someone, a person of faith, perhaps a leader, Pastor, teacher, or writer, and they gather a great deal of attention to themselves. When you encounter this person, remember that he or she is only one person. If that person is not tempered, guided, and corrected by a balanced community (plenty of “religious leaders” exist in an unbalanced community, made up of only people who think and feel just like they do), and I don’t care how powerful they are or believe themselves to be, then that person, all by himself or herself, cannot possibly represent God in all that God is.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that he or she can be such a “holistic” representative, even if that person thinks of themselves that way. Alone, a person is just one, and only God is complete as One. It takes a “village,” not only to raise a child, but to be a community in the image of God.

I shall praise God among a multitude.

Psalms 26:12

While the prayer and performance of a mitzvah are always praiseworthy, it is especially meritorious when an entire community participates in it, as the Sages teach, “The prayer of a multitude is never turned away.”

-from Devarim Rabbah 2

Good Shabbos.