Tag Archives: mitzvah

What Can Non-Jews Learn From Jewish Shabbos Observance?

Shabbat is a time to re-connect with family and friends, a time to bring sanctity and peace into our lives. But the real secret of Shabbat is that we can bring its gifts into the rest of the week. Here are seven lessons Shabbat can teach us that have the power to transform our weekdays.

-Sara Debbie Gutfreund
“No More Monday Blues”

mondayLike a lot of people who have a traditional Monday through Friday work week, I dislike Mondays. It’s tough readjusting from being able to sleep in and having a more relaxed day on Saturday and Sunday to waking up and driving to work while it’s still dark out. So I was intrigued when I read the title of Gutfreund’s article.

Then when I started reading the content, I was confused. How can you leverage Shabbat, a unique day in the Jewish seven-day week, to do away not only with “Monday blues,” but the frustrations of all of the days of the typical work week?

After all, observant Jews refrain from many activities on Shabbat that they freely partake of the other six days of the week. You can’t have Shabbat for the full seven days, can you?

You can click the link above to read Gutfreund’s short article and see how (or if) she makes her point, but the general idea is to take elements or principles from Shabbat observance and apply them to your day-to-day life (well, Jewish day-to-day life since she’s writing to a Jewish audience).

And while we non-Jews don’t have a specific commandment to observe Shabbat (at least in the manner of Jews, depending on how you interpret certain portions of Scripture), it may not be too much of a stretch to say that some of what Gutfreund’s article suggests might have more universal applications.

First things first: If Shabbat is a time to draw closer to our family and to God, we can still do that during the rest of the week, at least at specific moments. Even if we are too busy (travel for work for example), we can still keep the importance of family and God close to our hearts and realize they are the priority…they are why we are working in the first place, so we can devote our resources to them.

Elevate the physical: This is a rather contra-Christian perspective since the Church emphasizes the Spiritual and tends to minimize the physical. On the other hand, we live in a physical world and everything we need in a material sense, comes from the hand of God. We can choose to recognize the presence and provision of God in everything around us any day of the week.

shabbosShare with others: I suppose this should be a no-brainer and certainly not limited to a single day of the week.

Be in the moment: Pay attention to what’s really important in your environment on a moment-by-moment basis. This is pretty hard to do since, during work, you have responsibilities, some important, but others you just think are important. However, we can still take breaks in our routine to re-connect with the presence of God.

Gratitude: Again, this should be a no-brainer and it goes back to the realization that everything we have at any moment issues from the Almighty. How can we not be grateful daily?

Learning: While an observant Jew may have more time for Torah study during Shabbat, many Jews study on a daily basis, when they first get up, on their lunch hour, or in the evening. Since many Christians also understand the value of daily devotionals, this shouldn’t be difficult for religious non-Jews to grasp.

Unity: Of course Gutfreund means Jewish unity, which, as non-Jews, does not include us, but we can take these principles and apply them to a sense of unity we have with all disciples of Yeshua (Jesus). We can also recognize that we can stand in solidarity with Israel and the Jewish people, and particularly Messianic Jews, since we not only share these general principles with them, but also recognize the living revelation of our Rav and anticipate the return of Moshiach.

Some non-Jews in Messiah choose to observe or guard a Saturday Shabbat in one manner or another. While we, by definition, cannot actually fulfill the mitzvah of observing Shabbos the way a Jewish person can, it is still possible to perform many of the practices associated with Shabbat and allow a measure of rest and reconnection to penetrate our lives as well.

jewish prayer shabbosIf my wife observed Shabbat in a more traditional manner in our home, then I would as well, but as the Jewish member of our marriage, she would need to take the lead. I’m very pleased that on most Saturdays, she goes to shul, even though that’s not something she chooses to share with me. I’ve said before that one of the roles of non-Jews is to assist Jewish people in performing greater levels of observance. If my not sharing her worship with her frees her to have more affiliation with local Jewish community and to draw nearer to Hashem on Shabbos, then perhaps that’s a mitzvah that I, as a non-Jew, can uniquely fulfill.

Recently, the discussion on this blog post focused on methods of deriving mitzvot for non-Jews from the Apostolic Scriptures. I don’t know if we could find a commandment directing Gentiles to facilitate greater Torah observance in Jewish friends and family members, but I’m satisfied that I am performing a duty for my spouse in accordance with Hashem’s wishes for Jews to worship on Shabbos.

Non-Jews and the Mitzvot: A Brief Commentary On One Orthodox Jewish Perspective

Moshe also does not need me to clarify for him. Nonetheless, I think his point is unexpected and worth considering, in that he is saying that many mitzvot aren’t inherently valuable, they’re only valuable as part of a particular relationship with Hashem. It’s not that he objects or is bothered by non-Jews doing them, he’s saying that in these areas, the differences between Jews and non-Jews are such that these actions are literally meaningless for them.

-Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein
“Do Non-Jews Get Reward for Mitzvot?”
Torah Musings

Now before anyone flips out, I want to say that I found a link to this article on Facebook, and that “Torah Musings” is an Orthodox Jewish venue, so please take that perspective into consideration. In fact, their About states in part:

Torah Musings is a window into the Orthodox Jewish intellectual’s world, providing sophisticated but popular textual studies, important news stories and associated commentary from the perspective of an Orthodox Judaism that is intellectually open and halakhically conservative.

Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein

Further, the disclaimer at the very bottom of Rabbi Rothstein’s article says:

The opinions and facts here are presented solely by the author. Torah Musings assumes no responsibility for them. Please address religious questions to your rabbi.

Again, please keep in mind that the contents of this write-up, including the portions quoted here on my blog, are crafted within the conceptual and intellectual confines of Orthodox Judaism and are the educated opinions of R. Rothstein specifically.

So don’t lynch me or hang me in effigy just for reporting something I find interesting and, I believe, relevant.

Almost three months ago, in an effort to distance myself from some of the angst we find in certain corners of Messianic Judaism regarding Gentiles, identity, and mitzvot, I wrote and published What’s Yours is Yours. Really, if a Gentile in Jewish space is a problem, I’ll bow out.

Among other related articles, I also subsequently published Should Non-Jews Study the Torah and I concluded “yes,” with the proviso that studying Torah did not make one automatically obligated to perform each and every possible mitzvah described therein.

But having, to the best of my understanding and ability, examined the Messianic Jewish viewpoints (yes, there are more than one) as well as Hebrew Roots’ and Christianity’s opinions on the topic, how can I resist investigating how this Orthodox Jewish Rabbi answers the question he has asked?

As you can see from the above-quoted paragraph, R. Rothstein, in examining the “original responsum, Iggerot Moshe Orach Chayyim 6;2,” states that Moshe’s opinion would be that while we are not forbidden from performing the mitzvot, because many or most of them are directly linked to the (Sinai) covenant relationship Hashem has with the Jewish people, laying tefillin, wearing tzitzit, or building and living in a sukkah are simply meaningless to us relative to actually fulfilling these mitzvot, because non-Jews, even those living as Noahides, are not part of that covenant.

solomon's templeIs that the final word?

R. Rothstein reviewed the opinions of multiple authorities and they all differ somewhat in how strict they rule in this area.

1. Schepansky had noted that Rambam, in his Mishnah Commentary to Terumot 3;9, explained that even though non-Jews are not obligated in giving terumah, they still get reward for doing so, which is why the terumah they designate qualifies as actual terumah.

2. Moshe labels it one of the exceptions, donations to hekdesh (anything having to do with the Temple) and charity, examples he proves from the Talmudic assumption that Balak is rewarded for his sacrifices and Baba Batra 4a’s view that Nevuchadnezzar’s giving charity was effective. Non-Jews are also rewarded for appropriate speech, as Rashi says on Bereshit 19;39, where Lot’s younger daughter was more circumspect about her son’s paternity. Nevuchadnezzar also gets rewarded for the three steps he takes to hear the word of Hashem.

Those are all examples of non-Jews taking intuitively decent and good actions. When it comes to that which the Torah nonintuitively legislates for Jews, such as Shabbat, holidays, tefillin, tzitzit, sukkah, lulav, shofar, kosher, shatnez and anything like that, R. Moshe reverts to his view that these mitzvot only have value as a Jewish response to Hashem’s command.

This suggests that certain mitzvot might actually have meaning when performed by non-Jews, such as making an offering at or donations to the Temple (which currently does not exist), or other actions that any reasonable person would intuitively understand are morally good or right. On the other hand, those mitzvot that we would not intuitively realize are good, such and laying tefillin or donning a tallit gadol when praying, actions that are specifically associated with the Jewish people and their (Sinai) covenant relationship with Hashem, simply mean nothing to Hashem when we perform them, because we non-Jews stand outside the (Sinai) covenant.

Orthodox JewsI know pretty much who is going to object to all this, but please remember that these opinions are coming from an Orthodox Jewish source, so you can’t necessarily hang blame either on me or on any authorities existing within Messianic Judaism.

You’ll need to click the link I provided above to get the full gist of what R. Rothstein has composed, but he does cite other authorities who believe a non-Jew may receive a reward for performing mitzvot voluntarily, although this probably doesn’t include the previously mentioned observances specifically associated with Judaism. Some have even suggested that the non-Jew may receive a greater reward, but this is a minority opinion and possibly considered erroneous by the majority of authorities.

The article concludes:

In that sense, R. Moshe is actually being more lenient towards non-Jews, in that in his view they are not missing out on a good. For R. Moshe, a non-Jew who keeps the Noahides is doing all s/he should do, not just all the Torah happened to let him or her know about. It’s not that they are too benighted to know the wonders of our mitzvot, it’s that those mitzvot don’t apply to them, unless and until they decide to convert.

In other words, it is understood that Gentiles may recognize the beauty of all of the mitzvot once we study Torah and become aware of them, however that recognition goes not make us obligated unless we choose to convert to Judaism.

This is more or less what I’d expect given an Orthodox Jewish perspective, and is actually more liberal than I would have previously imagined.

Now the question is, from the viewpoint of disciples of Rav Yeshua and my understanding of our graciously being allowed to partake in some of the blessings of the New Covenant by Hashem’s mercy and through the symbolic sacrifice of our Rav, does this change anything as far as non-Jewish disciples, the mitzvot, and their significance?

That’s the $64,000 question.

And it’s one that A) I’ve answered before, and B), that I don’t intend to hash out again in this blog post.

rainbowI am writing this “mediation” and providing links to the source material because I find it fascinating that Orthodox Judaism would even pose the question for serious, scholarly debate. If it’s a question that Orthodox Jewish authorities find necessary to ask, given that they see non-Jews as subject only to the covenant Hashem made with Noah (see Genesis 9), how much more so should it be a question within Messianic Judaism, given that Hashem has allowed even the non-Jew to become a disciple of Yeshua by mercy and grace?

You can read other articles Rabbi Rothstein has written for Torah Musings as well as at the Orthodox Union (OU) and The Times of Israel to gain greater insights into his perspectives.

I know this will probably ruffle someone’s feathers, but really, I’m just publishing this as a matter of interest as to how wider Judaism considers a matter that is, from my point of view, highly relevant to non-Jews who are “Judaicly aware” and who are or have been involved in either the Messianic Jewish or Hebrew Roots communities.

Why Judaism is a Religion of Joy

Before discussing how the Baal Shem Tov revolutionized the Jewish view on joy, it must be mentioned that happiness was never foreign to Judaism. As King David declared: “Serve G‑d with joy!” Indeed, the Talmud states that “One should not stand up to pray while dejected…but only while still rejoicing in the performance of a mitzvah.”

The concept of simcha shel mitzvah, the “joy of a mitzvah,” has always been part and parcel of Jewish teachings. After all, can there be a greater privilege than serving the King of kings? As such, mitzvot must be executed with joy.

-Baruch S. Davidson and Naftali Silberberg
“Perpetual Joy:
The Baal Shem Tov’s Revolutionary Approach to Joy”

I’ve been thinking about my role in church lately, as well as the Biblical and historic perspective ancient (and modern) Judaism had (has) regarding “doing” as opposed to “believing.”

It’s not that the Church doesn’t believe in doing good works, but the incredible phobia some Christians have against even appearing as if there’s a connection between salvation and what we do, makes the Church hold their good deeds pretty much at arm’s length, including repentance. Worse, the Church tends to judge all forms of Judaism but particularly Orthodox Judaism, as a “dead works based religion” with no foundation in faith or spirituality.

I suppose there could be some truth to the accusation, particularly if performance takes on a life of its own to the degree that there is no apprehension of God. What’s the point if observance is just a list of arduous duties that impinge on a person’s relationship with God rather than enhancing it? I’ve heard stories of Jews who feel virtually bound and gagged by the Torah commandments, which is how most Christians see “the Law”. Of course, as we see from the quote above, there’s a flip side to a traditional Jewish life.

Every mitzvah should be performed with joy. One aspect of “mitzvah joy” is to do the good deed with all your energy and ability.

For example: Rather than offer a needy person a morsel of food, serve him a hearty meal!

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Do Mitzvahs with Joy

A person who feels joy when performing mitzvahs will forget all his suffering and misfortunes. In comparison to becoming closer to the Almighty, of what import is pettiness and trivialities?

A person who experiences joy in doing good deeds will feel greater joy than a person who finds a large sum of money. Why should a person expend his efforts trying to find happiness in areas where the basis is transient and ultimately meaningless, when he has a far better alternative?

-R. Pliskin
Joy in Mitzvahs Greater than this World

Granted, Rabbi Pliskin’s viewpoint may not represent all Orthodox Jews everywhere, but I consider his perspective, as well as the Baal Shem Tov’s, to be the ideal that Jewish people shoot for or should shoot for. I’ve repeatedly heard people at the church I attend express joyfully how they are so glad we are no longer “under the Law” (even though Gentiles were never “under the Law”) and are free in Christ, as if performing even the slightest commandment from the Bible (such as loving God with all your resources or not considering things like bacon, shrimp, or catfish as food) in obedience to God would be an incredibly difficult thing.

Tell me Christians, if God asked you to do something like, oh, I don’t know, help someone who was beaten by robbers and left for dead, a person who you may not even like, getting them medical attention, and paying for it all out of your own pocket (Luke 10:25-37), would you tell God “no” because that would be “dead works” (and I’ve written about the true meaning of dead works before)?

Hopefully, you’d respond to my question by saying of course you’d obey God’s commandment to love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31).

But it’s a commandment and one rooted in the Law (Torah). Of course they’re all rooted in the Torah, the instructions, the conditions God gave the Israelites at Sinai when He made His covenant with them. Granted, how the Torah is applied to grafted in Gentile disciples of the Master (Jesus) is different than how Torah was and is applied to Jewish people (including Jewish disciples of the Master), but we are still obligated to obey God in all that He desires in our lives.

How can you even question that?

The key to obeying God is joy.

Now this I say, he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

2 Corinthians 9:6-7 (NASB)

Paul’s statement wouldn’t be out-of-place in any Jewish context, ancient or modern, and I think even the Baal Shem Tov would have agreed with him.

Charismatic prayerBut this is a part of scripture that Pastors often preach from when they’re asking for an increase in tithes from their congregations, especially if the church elders have approved of a special project, an expansion of the church building, or if the church’s income is falling behind what they projected in their annual budget.

I agree that anyone who consumes a church’s resources should provide for the church’s income but how many people give tithes or increase their giving out of a sense of obligation, guilt, or even sometimes, intimidation? How many Christians give to their local church and other worthy causes out of sheer joy?

I can’t answer that last question, but hopefully, quite a lot. But my knowledge of human nature tells me that a Pastor who preaches that their congregation should give more when they tithe because of the sense of joy they’ll experience and that tithing will bring them closer to God might not see a resulting increase in congregational giving.

But that’s exactly the approach that should work if Christians obeyed all that God asks of them/us with joy.

Rabbi Joseph Albo, the 15th century author of the classic work Sefer Haikarim, writes: “Joy grants completion to a mitzvah, only through it does the mitzvah achieve its intended objective.” Similarly, Rabbi Elazar Azkari, 16th century Safedian scholar and author of the work Charedim, writes: “The main reward for a mitzvah is for the great joy in it.” “The reward is commensurate to the joy [with which the mitzvah is performed].”

Indeed, the 16th century Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the Arizal, once said that all that he achieved – the fact that the gates of wisdom and divine inspiration were opened for him – was a reward for his observance of mitzvot with tremendous, limitless joy!

-Davidson and Silberberg

But what’s the connection between obedience and joy? We don’t obey the traffic laws because it will increase our joy, we obey laws because we have to and we’ll be punished (by getting a traffic ticket, for instance) if we disobey (and are caught).

One of the most common misconceptions deals with the word “sacrifice.”

We often think of sacrifices in the Temple in terms of buying off an angry deity with lots of blood and guts.

Alas, these pagan ideas show how much our thinking has been influenced by other cultures. God is not lacking anything and does not need our sacrifices — animal or any other kind.The offerings that were brought in the Temple, like all the commandments, were not done for God. They were done for us.

In fact, the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, comes from the root korav meaning to “come close,” specifically, to come close to God. The offering was meant to bring someone who was far near once again.

To understand something of the intense, elevating experience that bringing an offering must have been, let’s take a look at a typical offering: the peace offering.

-Rabbi Shmuel Silinsky
Understanding the Sacrifices

Most Christians and even a lot of Jews, think of the ancient Temple sacrifices as bloody, horrible, messes that they’re glad don’t happen anymore. Many Christians and even many Jews don’t believe a third Temple will ever be built and are relieved that God never again will require anyone to offer animal sacrifices in Jerusalem. But if you click the link I provided and read all of Rabbi Silinsky’s commentary, you’ll see they are missing the point.

TempleWe Christians (most of us) also miss the point about joyfully performing the mitzvot and even actively looking for ways to perform a mitzvah. Could you imagine a Christian waking up one morning and the first thing that popped into his or her head was, “I can’t wait to find ways to serve my Lord today!”

OK, there probably are some Christians like that out there, but I suspect they aren’t all that common. I know that the first thing I think of in the morning is my getting my first cup of coffee.

Well, that’s not quite true.

I gratefully thank you living and existing King for returning my soul to me with compassion. Abundant is your faithfulness.

Modeh Ani

That’s the first blessing an observant Jew will recite upon awaking in the morning. I memorized it (in English) and when I first wake up, even before throwing the covers off and getting out of bed, this is what I say.

Since coming to the conclusion a few years back, that Torah observance looks differently when performed by a Gentile than by a Jew (it’s a complicated topic), I severely scaled back on any behaviors that could appear “Jewish” (not that my observance was really, authentically Jewish). I didn’t do so because I think Torah observance is bad or that the mitzvot are a burden, but out of respect and honor to those special chosen people of God who received the Torah of Moses at Sinai, the Jewish people. Of course, being married to a Jewish wife was quite a motivator as well, since in no way do I desire to diminish or demean what it is for her to be a Jew.

But even if the rest of my day turns to doggie-doo, the very first thought I have is of God and being grateful to Him. Am I always truly grateful each morning? That is, do I feel a sensation, an emotional experience of gratitude? No, not always, and probably not most of the time. My brain is still foggy moments after I wake up. On the other hand, I do realize that I’m alive and that it’s because of God.

The last thing I think about before turning off the light and going to sleep is also of God.

A song of ascents. Praiseworthy is each person who fears Hashem, who walks in His paths. When you eat the labor of your hands, you are praiseworthy and it is well with you. Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the inner chambers of your home, your children like olive shoots surrounding your table. Behold! For so shall be blessed the man who fears God. May Hashem bless you from Zion, and may you gaze upon the goodness of Jerusalem all the days of your life. And may you see children born to your children, peace upon Israel!

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

Master of the universe, Who reigned before any form was created, At the time when His will brought all into being — then as ‘King’ was His Name proclaimed. After all has ceased to be, He, the Awesome one, will reign alone. It is He Who was, He Who is, and He Who shall remain, in splendor. He is One — there is no second to compare to Him, to declare as His equal. Without beginning, without conclusion — He is the power and dominion. He is my God, my living Redeemer, Rock of my pain in time of distress. He is my banner, and refuge for me, the portion in my cup on the day I call. Into His hand I shall entrust my spirit when I go to sleep — and I shall awaken! With my spirit shall my body remain, Hashem is with me, I shall not fear.

Bedtime Shema

bedtimeshemaThis is only part of the full Bedtime Shema. I recite only this portion because, as a Gentile, I want my observance to not precisely mirror the performance of the mitzvah by a Jew. I must also admit that by this time of night, my brain isn’t working so well, and I have a difficult time concentrating on anything, including God, as I should, so a shorter form of this blessing seems more suitable. And yet I take comfort that as I surrender my consciousness, I’m also surrendering to God.

From a Jewish point of view, between the Modeh Ani and the Bedtime Shema blessings, is a world of opportunity to serve God by performing as many of the mitzvot as can be encountered in a single day and as Hashem offers them in their lives.

Lebisch: Rabbi! May I ask you a question?

Rabbi: Certainly, Lebisch!

Lebisch: Is there a proper blessing… for the Tsar?

Rabbi: A blessing for the Tsar? Of course! May God bless and keep the Tsar… far away from us!

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

I didn’t remember that dialog correctly. In my memory, I had the Rabbi respond, “My son, there is a blessing for everything,” and then he gave his humorous blessing about the Tzar.

But particularly in Orthodox Judaism, there is a blessing for everything. Just look at the table of contents of a siddur (Jewish prayer book). There are as many variations of the siddurim (plural for siddur) in Judaism as there are hymnals in Christianity. I just found an Ashkenaz online siddur at Chai Lifeline so you can have a look at the different blessings right now. And in a pinch, if a Jew did not have his or her siddur present but did have a device that could hit the Internet, they could still daven.

In the Church, we can choose to believe that all religious Jews are bound to a sterile, dead, spiritless set of archaic and meaningless laws that are designed to enslave them and that come straight from Satan and the pit of Hell. But that’s not the truth. It wasn’t true in the days when Jesus walked in Judea, it wasn’t true when Paul brought scores of Gentiles to faith in the Jewish Messiah, and it isn’t true today.

I can’t speak for every observant Jewish person and judge the intent of their hearts when performing the mitzvot anymore than I can speak for every Christian and judge their hearts when going to church, praying, visiting sick people in the hospital, and doing all those things they believe make up a good Christian life. Maybe some Jews pass up a BLT sandwich out of obligation rather than in joyful obedience to God, and maybe some Christians visit a sick relative in the hospital out of obligation rather than joyful obedience to Jesus.

But that doesn’t mean Judaism or Christianity are bad or worthless just because not all Jews or Christians don’t live up to the ideals set before them…before us by God. And when we do find a Jew or Christian who does live up to that ideal, a true tzaddik or saint, then it’s an amazing inspiration for the rest of us to try harder and do better at being the sort of person God designed us to be.

The animal has actually become a korban, a way of helping its owner to come closer to God. Eating this meal is now a very spiritual experience. It is being raised from the level of animal to that of human, by actually becoming a part of the consumer and by being the vehicle for the entire process.

One can easily see how a meal like this can be a focal point of holiday observance.

-R. Silinsky

Until Messiah comes and rebuilds the Temple, no animal sacrifices will be offered in Jerusalem. For the past nearly two-thousand years, Jews have considered prayer, Torah study, and performance of the mitzvot, as many as can be observed without a Temple, without a priesthood, and without a Sanhedrin, especially outside of Israel, as the substitutes for the sacrifices.

Christians believe that the crucifixion of Jesus substituted for all of the sacrifices rendering them obsolete and meaningless, right along with the rest of the Torah and observant Judaism.

the-joy-of-torahThe Church cannot imagine that anyone, Jew or Christian, can actually draw closer to God through any sort of action since behavioral obedience to God in any fashion is considered “dead works.”

But how can you ignore a life driven by the desire to serve God by serving other human beings? How can you deny a life motivated each day by looking forward to serving God in as many ways as you can, and even going out of your way to find opportunities to do good just for the sake of doing good?

I know calling joy a reward makes performance of the mitzvot seem self-serving rather than God-serving, but the joy isn’t in the doing, but the drawing nearer to God. Sure, we can pray, “God, please come nearer to me,” but why not demonstrate your desire by actually doing what God wants you to do? The “sacrifice of praise?” Sure. But we can praise God not just with our lips, but with our hearts, and our hands, and our feet, and our strength, and our compassion.

This people honors me with their lips but their heart is far away from me.

Matthew 15:8 (NASB) quoting Isaiah 29:13

Anyone, Jew or Christian, can lifelessly go through the motions of obedience to God. That doesn’t invalidate either observant Judaism or Christianity. That doesn’t invalidate the intent of God for our lives. You can’t point to a Jew and say their less than stellar performance of the mitzvot, or even their complaints about said-observance, are proof that Judaism, including Messianic Judaism, is not God’s desired response of a Jewish life, anymore than you could invalidate Christianity based on the life of a lackluster Christian (and plenty of atheists try to invalidate Christianity by judging such Christians).

Praise God with your lips, just make sure your praise is backed up with your heart’s desire and the joy of serving your Master and His creations, all of humankind. Then you will draw nearer to God through His teachings.

The Torah of Hashem is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of Hashem is trustworthy, making the simple one wise; the orders of Hashem are upright, gladdening the heart; the command of Hashem is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of Hashem is pure, enduring forever; the judgments of Hashem are true, altogether righteous. They are more desirable than gold, than even much fine gold; and sweeter than honey, and drippings from the combs. Also, when Your servant is scrupulous in them, in observing them there is great reward. Who can discern mistakes? Cleanse me from unperceived faults. Also from intentional sins, restrain Your servant; let them not rule over me, then I shall be perfect; and I will be cleansed of great transgression. May the expressions of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart find favor before You, Hashem, my Rock and my Redeemer.

Psalm 19:8-15 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

For more, see Why the Torah is the Tree of Life.

Imperfect and Perfect

praying_at_masadaGod appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am Almighty God. Walk before Me and be perfect.”

Genesis 17:1

If a human being cannot be perfect, why did God demand perfection of Abraham?

The entire context of the verse indicates both the definition of this perfection and the way in which it can be achieved. It is obvious that no human being can aspire to equal God’s degree of perfection. What man can achieve is to live according to God’s teachings and thereby live up to his own human potential; more than man’s personal maximum is not possible or expected. Thus, God did not say simply, “Be perfect”; He said, “Walk before Me + and thereby you will be perfect.” When a person tries to live according to the Divine teachings, that constitutes human perfection, although one is technically never perfect.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that the Hebrew word for “walk” in the above verse is not telech but heshalech which implies, “Go your way in spite of opposition, not making your progress dependent on external circumstances, but being led from within yourself: Let your movement proceed from your own free-willed decisions.”

The picture is now complete; human perfection can be achieved by making a free-willed choice to live according to the Divine teaching.

Today I shall…

…try to realize that although I cannot be absolutely without flaw, I can be perfect if I make free-will decisions to obey the Divine will.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day – Cheshvan 6”

This brings to mind something my Pastor and I periodically discuss. Perhaps I’d better preface this with scripture:

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.

James 2:10 (NASB)

No one keeps the Law (Torah) perfectly. No one can. So when I insist that Jewish people, including Messianic Jewish people, remain obligated to the mitzvot, he counters with James 2:10. No one can keep the law perfectly, therefore, no one can keep the law. It’s like he’s saying, “if no one can keep the law perfectly, why bother trying to keep it at all?”

Jesus once said that if a man looks at a woman with lust in his heart, it’s as if he had physically committed adultery with her (Matthew 5:28). And yet, probably most men at one time or another in their lives have found themselves looking at a beautiful woman and having lustful thoughts, even momentarily. Does that mean such men, having failed once (or more than once), should throw their marriage vows to the winds and start having physical “relations” with every woman who strikes their fancy?

praying-apostleI should hope not. As people of faith, we should strive to live out our lives in as close an approximation to the perfection of our Master as we can, all the while knowing we will never behave in a perfect manner. We try to better ourselves, we pray for God’s help in bettering us, but even if we come closer to our Master’s example, we’ll never match it.

Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’

John 15:20 (NASB)

I don’t think “perfection” is what Jesus had in mind when he made that statement, but it seems to fit today’s example. Just because we can’t be perfect like our Master doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

Putting all this back into the original context, and summoning Rabbi Twerski’s example, just because an observant Jewish person cannot perform all of the mitzvot perfectly (and may not perform some of the mitzvot at all) doesn’t mean that they should abandon their obligation to the Torah of Moses as a way to draw closer to God, or to surrender the lifestyle God gave to the Jewish people which uniquely identifies them as Jewish.

My understanding of one of the purposes of performing the mitzvot is to help a Jewish person continually be reminded that they are Jewish. You wouldn’t think remembering this would be much of a chore, but consider how rampant assimilation of Jews is in our society today. The mainstream culture works very hard at getting everyone to fit in, blend in, assimilate to the will of the world’s “marketing department,” and never, ever to be different or distinct in any way whatsoever.

So being an observant Jew is a lot of work. It would be much easier to assimilate. It would be much easier to be able to go to any restaurant in town and to order anything on the menu. It would be much easier to drive, cook, shop, play golf, and surf the Internet on Shabbat. It would be much easier not to have to study Torah, study Mishnah, study Hebrew (and in some cases Yiddish). It would be much easier to set aside the fixed times of prayer every day, easier to not don tzitzit, easier to not lay tefillin.

But being born into the covenant as all Jewish people are, it is incumbent upon each Jew to live as a Jew. God gave people, including Jewish people, free will, so a Jewish person can choose to observe the mitzvot or not (or choose which of the mitzvot to observe and which ones to ignore), but sooner or later, God will get around to reminding each Jewish person that they are indeed Jewish. The reminders are not always pleasant or easy to endure.

rabbi-prayingI’ve said before that only faith justifies one before God, not observing the mitzvot. It’s not what we do but why we do it and who we do it for that matters. If our thoughts and behavior are not focused on God and responding to God’s will, no matter how well we do something and no matter who we may show kindness to, it begins and ends with us. There is no connection to eternity.

But faith and justification are only the beginning of the journey. Once we have grasped onto “God’s fringes” tightly, we must respond to grace and faith by living life as God wills. For a Jew, that means Torah observance. How to observe the Torah, which of the mitzvot to start with, which tradition to employ in the observance (for instance, there’s more than one way to lay tefillin and to tie tzitzit) is a question and I don’t have the answer. But that doesn’t mean the Jewish person ceases in being obligated to try. Who is to say that the Ashkenazi way to tie tzitzit is any better or worse than the Sephardic tradition? Perhaps both are pleasing to God.

If a Jewish person were to wait around for iron-clad confirmation of exactly which way to do a particular mitzvah, they could wait around until Messiah comes (or returns).

It’s like my current frustration with the politicians in Washington over their lack of action in solving the debt ceiling crisis. I want to scream at them, “Just do something!” The Nike company’s well-known slogan of “Just Do It!” comes to mind.

Rabbi Twerski said that even though he knows he cannot be without flaw, still he does his best to walk in the way of his fathers and of God. He also said something peculiar:

Although I cannot be absolutely without flaw, I can be perfect if I make free-will decisions to obey the Divine will.

How can performing the mitzvot make one perfect simply by exercising free-will in obeying God?

Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:48 (NASB)

Jesus can’t possibly expect literal perfection from his disciples since none of us are perfect. Nothing we can do will ever be perfect. No thought we possess, even our faith is never perfect, so where does this expectation come from?

The road to perfection is infinitely long, and no matter how far we walk down that road, we are always at the starting line. God has to reach out to us to cover the distance we are incapable of traveling. All we can do is to turn to God in teshuvah and to do our best (which will never be good enough) in faith and love, and let God’s grace bridge the gap between lowly man and a Heavenly God.

In the performance of the Torah mitzvot, all a Jewish person can do is that…turn to God in faith and love, imperfectly attempting to do His will by living as a Jew, and letting God’s grace make the imperfect into the perfect.

jews_praying_togetherThe blood of goats and bulls never saved, but faith and grace saved. Davening Shacharit while wearing a tallit katan and laying tefillin doesn’t save, but faith and grace will save. However, in ancient times, God required (not requested, required) the Israelites to sacrifice goats and bulls, and even to this day, God requires (not requests, requires) Jewish people to observe the mitzvot, which includes davening Shacharit while wearing a tallit katan and laying tefillin.

It doesn’t save. It never did. And Jewish people won’t be perfect at all of the mitzvot all of the time. But they are still obeying the will of God in the best way they know how…just like the rest of us, just like Christians in the Church. We’re all doing what we can do. God will take care of what we can’t do. We just need to realize that when we’re tempted to judge others.

People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

-Popular idiom

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7:1-5 (NASB)

It does not become a Christian to criticize a Jew for not being perfect in the performance of the Torah mitzvot when there is no Christian, even under the full grace of Jesus, who lives a perfect life in Christ.

By the way, this is my one thousandth “morning meditation.”

The Boy in the Sukkah

Sukkah in the rainIn a sense, Sukkos itself is about getting our priorities straight. Here we just finished with the Days of Judgement, hopefully with Hashem’s blessings for a year of prosperity and success. Yet the first thing we do with our new-found blessings is to leave our comfortable homes for the temporary shade of the Sukkah. We thereby acknowledge that there can be no greater “success” in life that to do what Hashem really desires, even when it’s not what’s most comfortable. Sometimes we shake with the Esrog and sometimes we shake with the horse – the main thing is to strive to understand what Hashem wants of us in a given situation, not what we want or what makes us feel good. As the pasuk says (Mishlei/Proverbs 3:6), “In all your ways know Him; He will straighten your paths.”

-Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffman
“Sukkos: Shaking Up Our Priorities”

My four-and-a-half year old grandson keeps calling me from my Sukkah. Actually, he keeps phoning me from my Sukkah, calling me at work. OK, he’s only done it twice, and he had Bubbe’s (my wife’s) help doing it.

The first time was actually a day or so before the festival began. He and Bubbe were lunching in the Sukkah and he called me to invite me over. Unfortunately, I couldn’t leave my job right then, but agreed to join him later that afternoon. The second time was a few days later, still at the same time of day. He wanted to know why “Uncle Mikey” (one of my sons) wasn’t answering his phone. I explained that “Uncle Mikey” was probably in school (university) and couldn’t answer the phone.

The kid really wants more company in my Sukkah. And that’s a good thing.

This is the season of joy for Jewish people. The days of judgment have passed and there is great celebration in or rather outside many Jewish homes, eating, and singing, and dancing, all for the sake of the Torah and Hashem.

As I write this (on Friday before Shabbos), I have yet to take a meal in my own Sukkah (Note: On Shabbos I started taking my meals in the Sukkah). I almost did last night, but my wife and I had a conversation on a serious subject while making dinner and, both being distracted, we sat down at the kitchen table for our meal and were eating before I realized we’d missed eating in the Sukkah together.

I thought about breakfast or at least coffee this morning in the Sukkah, but it was still dark outside and after coming back from the gym, my son (in this case, David) and I were in a rush to get ready for work.

As Rabbi Hoffman suggests, I need to get my priorities straight. Obviously, my grandson already has his up to snuff, since he’s eating every day in the Sukkah and trying to invite others to do the same.

landonAnd I’m pretty sure that at his age, he doesn’t really grasp Sukkot yet.

But who knows?

It’s Friday before Shabbos, but you won’t read this until Monday morning (or later). I’m hoping I can get all the kids over on Sunday for a meal. Everyone has different schedules so it isn’t easy to gather together in our home regularly. But just once this week, it would be nice to eat with the family in the Sukkah (Note: As it turned out, everyone had plans away from our home on Sunday, including my wife…ah, maybe next year).

It is said in Machzor of Succos, “I welcome to my table the saintly guests, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David.” It is said in the Siddur, “I am hereby ready and prepared to fulfill the positive commandment…” It is said in Isaiah 11:6 “And a little boy will lead them.”

And so, we should follow.

Getting Dressed One Mitzvah at a Time

helping-with-tefillinSo I walk into a random office and ask a guy to put on tefillin. Perhaps just to get rid of me, he agrees. I strap him up, help him read Shema, shake his hand and leave. In and out in 3 minutes.

I’m at a circumcision. During the inevitable ten-minute delay waiting for the baby to be sent down to the ceremony, I persuade the nervous father to put on tefillin. I explain to him the connection between circumcision and tefillin, which are both referred to in the Torah as a sign of our connection to G‑d, and he confides to me that this is the first time he’s worn tefillin since his bar mitzvah.

But what have we gained from guilt-tripping a guy into tefillin? It’s just a one off, with no guarantee of any followup. Is he any more religious, committed or switched on than before I started nudging him?

-Rabbi Elisha Greenbaum
“What’s the Point of a One-Time Mitzvah?”

This sort of article makes a lot more sense to Jews than to Christians since we in the church focus more on faith than activity. This isn’t universally true, but it’s all too common.

I’ve been following the conversation over at Judah Himango’s blog and he has a point in echoing James the Just in saying “faith without works is dead.” (James 2:17)

But can you approach a “lukewarm” Christian and inspire him or her by “guilting” them into a single act of Christian compassion? Even Rabbi Greenbaum asks if “guilting” a Jewish person into a “one-off mitzvah” is worth it. Would it do any good to twist a believer’s arm to donate a can of soup to the food bank or give ten dollars to help a kid go to summer camp? Once the “motivation” is gone, won’t any further “good deeds” go with it?

This question was once posed to the Lubavitcher Rebbe by a not-yet-religious individual. The Rebbe had compared adding extra mitzvahs into one’s daily routine to wearing a tie, which adds beauty and splendor to one’s whole ensemble. In response, the man asked what seems to be an ingenious question. He pointed out that the Rebbe’s analogy would hold true only for someone already wearing clothing; however, were a naked person to don a tie, rather than looking better, he’d look completely ridiculous.

The Rebbe agreed that a naked man wearing a tie might indeed look silly, but contended the very act of putting a tie would probably wake him up to the fact that he’s naked in the first place. Sometimes the incongruity of being simultaneously underdressed but over-accessorized can lead you to rush off to cover yourself up.

I can’t help but be reminded of this:

When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings.

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. Then the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” And He said, “Who told you that you were naked?

Genesis 3:6-11 (NASB)

tie-no-shirtWhat shows us that we are naked? We might never notice except when we put on an article of clothing, an accessory of some sort perhaps, and realize the rest of the outfit is missing. I think it’s that way for a lot of people who profess a sort of faith, both Christian and Jewish. We show up at our houses of worship, socialize, go to the obligatory classes, give charity, eat and drink together, but all that can be accomplished without the slightest awareness of God. Even if we are doing good deeds, are we performing such actions just because it’s expected in our social context? Are we doing so only because it makes us look like good people?

I agree that a life of faith as merely an internal state isn’t going to do much good to anyone, even ourselves. But faith and deeds must go together. Sometimes deeds happen without faith, even among religious people because we treat religion like a social club.

No, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the company of others, but in the end, if that’s the only reason you go to church or synagogue, and if the only reason you give to charity is to impress your friends, then you’re doing everything in vain. The primary reason to congregate among our fellows is to experience an encounter with God. Then out of that encounter, everything else we do including charity and good deeds makes a great deal more sense.

If we’re religious for poor reasons, then being compelled into a “one-off mitzvah,” even as a Christian, can expose our nakedness. We’re forced to look in the mirror and realize that all we are wearing are the Emperor’s New Clothes, which is to say, nothing at all.

Making this illustration may be somewhat easier for a Jewish population than a Christian one since the mitzvot that define Jewish identity are more documented and apparent. Christianity does not have a “Law” as such, since most church-goers have been taught by tradition that grace has replaced behavioral expectations.

But it can still be done because most of Torah actually applies to the church, too. Christians are all too familiar with Torah, we just don’t call it that.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Carry ten dollars in ones in your wallet. Give one dollar each to the next ten homeless people you see on the street (I’ve actually seen this done). If you don’t encounter many homeless people throughout the course of your week, it’s OK. Just keep giving until the money’s gone. Then repeat periodically.
  2. Go to your local supermarket and buy some canned goods, then drive to your local foodbank or where food is being collected for the poor (your church may even have a donation site). Deposit canned goods in donation bin. Then repeat periodically.
  3. Carry jumper cables in your car and, when you encounter someone who has a dead car battery, volunteer to help out. (if you pay attention to your environment, this opportunity happens more often than you might imagine).
  4. Google a phrase such as “how to do good deeds.” Click on one of the links returned such as 21 ways to do a good deed. Read and follow the instructions.

helping-the-poorAre you feeling more dressed yet?

Of course, as I said, none of this is as effective as it could be if you’re doing it for the right reasons. I don’t recommend that you tell anyone about your project. That way, you can avoid the temptation to brag about yourself. I do recommend that you tell God about it (not that He doesn’t know) by praying for your heart to be softened by your performance of these mitzvot. Although doing good deeds helps those you are helping, the person who really benefits is you, the good deed doer. For in giving to others, you are not only learning how to love your fellow human beings, but God as well, which is another mitzvah.

Aside for the intrinsic standalone value that each mitzvah has, mitzvah observance can also be contagious. Agreeing to opt in, even just once, can have far-reaching effects. There have been untold thousands of Jews who have made permanent changes in their lives for the better, just because they agreed to try it once.

Now that you’ve put on the tie, you might want to follow up with a pair of pants and a shirt.

From my father’s sichot: When Mashiach will come (speedily in our time, amein), then we shall really long for the days of the exile. Then we will truly feel distress at our having neglected working at avoda; then will we indeed feel the deep pain caused by our lack of avoda. These days of exile are the days of avoda, to prepare ourselves for the coming of Mashiach, speedily in our time, amein.

“Today’s Day”
Wednesday, Menachem Av 3, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan