Framing the epic events of this week’s sedra are two objects—the two sets of tablets, the first given before, the second after, the sin of the golden calf. Of the first, we read:
The tablets were the work of G‑d; the writing was the writing of G‑d, engraved on the tablets.
These were perhaps the holiest objects in history: from beginning to end, the work of G‑d. Yet within hours they lay shattered, broken by Moses when he saw the calf and the Israelites dancing around it.
The second tablets, brought down by Moses on the tenth of Tishri, were the result of his prolonged plea to G‑d to forgive the people. This is the historic event that lies behind Yom Kippur (the tenth of Tishri), the day marked in perpetuity as a time of favor, forgiveness and reconciliation between G‑d and the Jewish people. The second tablets were different in one respect. They were not wholly the work of G‑d:
Carve out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke.
Hence the paradox: the first tablets, made by G‑d, did not remain intact. The second tablets, the joint work of G‑d and Moses, did.
-Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
“Two Types of Religious Encounter”
Commentary on Torah Portion Ki Tisa
I don’t know if this seems so mysterious to me, even if I hadn’t read the rest of Rabbi Sacks’ article. I’ve always imagined that many of the acts of God were really committed through a “partnership” between Him and humanity. Certainly (in my opinion) the Bible is less of a document dictated by God into the ears of its passive writers and more of God stirring the spirit within each of the authors, allowing those people to pour out their witness, their drive, their passion onto the rest of us. God didn’t tell Paul word for word what to put in his letters, nor do I suspect that He personally crafted the Psalms or the Proverbs. Humanity must have a stake in what is holy or we can’t be part of it at all.
Hence Moses and God at Sinai with the tablets.
Hence Liu Zhenying, also known as Brother Yun, in China.
My mother had never learned to read or write, but she became the first preacher in our village. She led a small church in our house. Although my mum couldn’t remember much of God’s Word, she always exhorted us to focus on Jesus. As we cried out to him, Jesus helped us in his great mercy. As I look back on those early days, I’m amazed at how God used my mother despite her illiteracy and ignorance. The direction of her heart was totally surrendered to Jesus. Some of today’s great house church leaders in China first met the Lord through my mother’s ministry.
At first, I didn’t really know who Jesus was, but I’d seen him heal my father and liberate our family. I confidently committed myself to the God who had healed my father and saved us. During that time I frequently asked my mother who Jesus truly was. She told me, “Jesus is the Son of God who died on the cross for us, taking our sins and sicknesses. He recorded all his teachings in the Bible.”
I asked if there were any words of Jesus left that I could read for myself. She replied, “No. All his words are gone. There is nothing left of his teaching.” This was during the Cultural Revolution when Bibles could not be found.
-Brother Yun (with Paul Hattaway)
Chapter 2: A Hunger Fulfilled, pg 26
The Heavenly Man: The Remarkable True Story of Chinese Christian Brother Yun
It seems as if God leaves “gaps” in his plan for humanity that only human beings can fill. There would be no stone tablets without Moses, and there would not have been many of “today’s great house church leaders in China” without Brother Yun’s mother. Brother Yun first came to faith at the age of 16 in 1974. As mentioned above, this was during the Communist “Cultural Revolution” and Christianity was illegal in China. If a person were found to be a Christian and particularly to possess a Bible (they were almost non-existent in China in the 1970s), the Bible would be burned and the person imprisoned and tortured, the Government demanding that the Christian renounce his faith. Often prisoners died under torture or through some other means while in captivity. Nevertheless there were courageous souls in China, including in impoverished Henan Province, who knowing next to nothing of who Jesus is and anything that was written in the Bible, still believed, and prayed, and had faith.
I’ve only just started this book, but as I tore into the opening pages, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the early churches that Paul had started and nurtured. In one sense, having visits from Paul and reading his letters for support, the former pagan believers and God-fearers turned disciples seem much better off than 16-year-old Liu Zhenying and his family. His mother had come to faith as a young woman thanks to Christian missionaries, but this was before the Communists came to power. The Christian missionaries…all Christian missionaries had either been put in prison or forced out of China by 1950, so whatever faith and learning Brother Yun’s mother possessed, atrophied and finally died…or almost.
Still the “early church” in the first century may not have experienced too much more of an advantage than the church in China in the mid-1970s. If there was a Jewish synagogue in the community that welcomed or at least tolerated the Gentile disciples of “the Way,” they could sit and hear the Torah and the Prophets being read and taught, daven the traditional prayers, and share some fellowship with the Jewish community. If not, such as with Lydia and the devout women in Philippi (see Acts 16:11-15), the Gentile believers would have to meet together without such support or encouragement and carry on as best they could. Full knowledge of the scriptures would probably not be available, and worship of God would be a matter of what could be remembered from the synagogue. But worship would be much more about the faith and endurance each of the worshipers could summon by the grace and Spirit of God.
God and man in partnership, meeting somewhere in between life, death, and infinity, bringing the Kingdom of Heaven a little bit closer to earth one day at a time.
The Jewish mystics distinguished between two types of divine-human encounter. They called them it’aruta de-l’eyla and it’aruta de-l’tata, respectively “an awakening from above” and “an awakening from below.” The first is initiated by G‑d, the second by mankind. An “awakening from above” is spectacular, supernatural, an event that bursts through the chains of causality that at other times bind the natural world. An “awakening from below” has no such grandeur. It is a gesture that is human, all too human.
On 1 September 1901, a large ship docked in Shanghai Port. A young single lady from Norway walked off the gangplank onto Chinese soil for the first time. Marie Morsen was one of a new wave of missionaries who, inspired by the martyrdoms of the previous year, had dedicated themselves to full-time missionary service in China.
Monsen stayed in China for more than thirty years. For a time she lived in my county, Nanyang, where she encouraged and trained a small group of Chinese believers that had sprung up.
Marie Monsen was different from most other missionaries. She didn’t seem to be too concerned with making a good impression on the Chinese church leaders. She often told them, “You are all hypocrites! You confess Jesus Christ with your lips while your hearts are not fully committed to him! Repent before it is too late to escape God’s judgment!” She brought fire from the altar of God.
-Yun/Hattaway, pg 19
I’ve spent a good deal of time on my blog lately talking about Jewish identity, Torah obligation, healing the rift between the different shredded bits of flesh that, if put back together, would become the body of Christ, but sometimes it’s just good to “get back to basics.” What if you didn’t know what you know? What if you had never even seen the Bible? What if you only knew just little bits and pieces about who Jesus is and what he’s supposed to mean in your life…and yet you still possessed a dynamic, consuming, passionate faith that could lead you anywhere God called you to go?
So far, that’s what I’m finding in Brother Yun’s book. Maybe that’s what was taking place in the lives of many of the former pagan Gentiles who had come to faith but who, unlike the God-fearing Gentiles, had never spent much time in a synagogue, never seen a Torah scroll, and who had only bits and pieces of information about the foreign “Messiah” who died, not just for the Jews, but for the Greeks, the Romans, and everyone else in the world.
Brother Yun’s story also reminded me of another prisoner.
“[A]fter all of these pressures, after all of the nails they have pressed against my hands and feet, they are only waiting for one thing…for me to deny Christ.”
–Pastor Saeed Abedini
from a letter he wrote as a prisoner in Iran
People are put in prison for their faith and we believers on the blogosphere argue about theological minutiae. Men and women are beaten and tortured just because they’re Christians, and you and I complain at each other about whether or not a Gentile Christian should wear a kippah or pray with a siddur. What we consider “problems” and what we “whine” about on our blogs is nothing. There are real men and women of faith out there who know what it is to encounter God who really don’t care if they get a Shabbat rest as long as they are called to serve the Lord.
I’m not saying that many of the topics of our various debates are not worth the zeros and ones they’re printed with on the web, but I am saying that we tend to take those topics (and ourselves) way too seriously. Rabbi Sacks says:
An “awakening from above” may change nature, but it does not in and of itself change human nature. In it, no human effort has been expended. Those to whom it happens are passive. While it lasts, it is overwhelming; but only while it lasts. Thereafter, people revert to what they were. An “awakening from below,” by contrast, leaves a permanent mark.
Even if God chooses to “awaken us from above,” it probably wouldn’t last. I suspect that’s why we don’t see grand and astonishing miracles performed right before our amazed eyes. Miracles wouldn’t matter. In a day or a week, we’d be complaining about the same old stuff again. Only when we are open to being “awakened from below,” when we become willing partners with God, even a God we know almost nothing about, will we see miracles that will make a difference within us and more…miracles that will make a difference in the world. Am I being too dramatic?
About a week and a half ago, a friend of mine gave me Brother Yun’s book as a gift. In the western countries, we tend to take our faith for granted. We don’t have to fight for it. We’re not persecuted. Going to church isn’t a crime punishable by being sentenced to prison. Having a Bible and reading it in public won’t get us dragged off of the streets by the police and tortured in some government office.
God could accomplish everything He wants to do all by Himself. He needs nothing from us. But if He did it that way, we would have no ownership of Him, His plan, and His purpose in our lives. He acts only for our own sake, not for His. But we too must act, for a passive faith in a vain one. It is said that Messiah will build every part of the next Temple in Holy Jerusalem and construct it…all but the doors. It is said that one who puts up the doors of a house, even if he has built no other part of it, becomes owner of the house. We are expected to pull our weight, to take our part, to help repair our broken world. We are also expected to participate and be involved in what God is building, in raising David’s fallen sukkah.
We will put the doors on the Temple, and then it will be a house of prayer for all the peoples. If we didn’t, it would be God’s house, but we would be strangers in it. We are not called to be strangers, but sons and daughters of the Most High.
Everything can be done with joy. Even remorse can be with joy.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson