Tag Archives: righteousness

Lessons in Spirituality and Righteousness

This week I wish to share with you some thoughts about Spirituality. Spirituality is feeling the presence of the Almighty. Feeling this connection to the Almighty is the greatest pleasure a person can know. It is the pleasure we feel when seeing a magnificent sunset, looking from a mountaintop over the beauty of the Almighty’s creation — or seeing your newborn baby for the first time.

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
from Shabbat Shalom Weekly for
Torah Portion Chayei Sarah
Aish.com

These words were spoken by a well-known contemporary of Jesus, Rabbi Hillel, into which Jesus often engaged in discussion or controversy. However, on this particular subject, I am assuming that there would have been none. The statement is found in Chapter 2, Mishnah 5 when he said that an ignoramus or an uneducated person cannot be righteous. Nor can the bashful person learn (he is too shy to ask questions). Nor can the hot-tempered man teach. Nor can one who occupies himself over much in business grow wise (as he would have no time to study). And, in a place where there are no competent men strive to be a competent person.

A boor cannot be sin-fearing, an ignoramus cannot be pious, a bashful one cannot learn, a short-tempered person cannot teach, nor does anyone who does much business grow wise. In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.

So why would Hillel, some two thousand years ago, declare that an uneducated person cannot be a righteous person?

-Roy B. Blizzard
from Passages in Translation: Pirkei Avot Chapter 2, Mishnah 5
BibleScholars.org

Two seemingly random quotes from distant sources speaking of spirituality and righteousness. Taking them in isolation, it would seem that anyone capable of feeling awe at the works of the Almighty can experience spirituality, but only an educated person can be righteous. Hardly seems fair, does it?

Maybe Rabbi Packouz makes the connection:

How does one develop spirituality? First, learn Torah. How many times have you heard people say, “I just love John Grisham … or Hemingway … or Dickens? But they never met those authors! However, they read their books and intuitively love the author for his writings. Ergo … read the Torah and love the Almighty!

The doorway to spirituality and righteousness is knowing God by studying Torah, and in this instance, I’m going to include the entire Bible as “Torah”.

But apparently, we have a problem as Dr. Blizzard notes:

The answer is that Hillel did not mean that the uneducated lack the desire to do good. It’s just that right actions require knowledge and people lacking knowledge will often not know the proper way to behave.

The point is that study is the key. And, basically, it has been and is being neglected in Christendom. The great Jewish scholar Maimonides taught in the Mishneh Torah written in the 12th century, until what period in life ought one to study Torah? His answer was “until the day of one’s death.”

God’s people should never use the feeble excuse, “well, we just don’t have time”. If God is the most important thing in your life and the Bible is His Word, one can only conclude that you need to make time!

He also cites this:

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.

2 Timothy 2:15 (NASB)

While study is thoroughly ingrained in religious Judaism, it’s something of a chore in many churches. I was fortunate to attend a local Baptist church for two years where regular Bible reading and study was encouraged. It is true that I brought a different perspective to their ranks and one they ultimately could not absorb, but thankfully they continue to study and draw nearer to our God.

Christian CoffeeBut that’s not the case in many modern churches as Dr. Blizzard stated in the above-quoted paragraph. I study because I’m “built” to study. I completely enjoy reading and studying the Bible, so I don’t experience it as difficult or something to be avoided (which isn’t to say I don’t find study challenging). That means I can hardly take credit for my efforts as if I had overcome some personal obstacle or barrier with the goal of bettering myself.

But for a lot of other folks, it seems like there are so many other priorities that get in the way, or at least those people organize their priorities differently (and notice that as I write, I am not also vacuuming the living room carpet or cleaning the master bathroom).

Rabbi Packouz expands on this initial set of statements about the benefits of Torah study, including learning how to perform the mitzvot, which pleases Hashem and allows us to connect to Him in ways that otherwise would be unavailable to us.

Of course, R. Packouz is writing to a Jewish audience, so in order for Gentile Christians to make use of his commentary, we need to adjust it to our identity and our unique role in the redemptive plan of God.

With the permission of the heavenly assembly and with the permission of the earthly assembly, I hereby prepare my mouth to thank, praise, laud, petition, and serve my creator in the words of his people Israel. I cannot declare that Abraham fathered me, nor can I claim to be his offspring according to the flesh. For I am a branch from the stem of the children of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, like a wild olive branch grafted into a cultivated olive tree, in order to sprout forth and produce fruit in the name of all Israel.

-Aaron Eby
“Declaration of Intent for Messianic Gentiles,” p.134
First Steps in Messianic Jewish Prayer

I quoted part of the “declaration” from Aaron’s book to illustrate what I said above, that Gentiles are unique and have a special role to play within the Messianic assembly and among all of the disciples of the Messiah.

Having said that, there are many ways in which Jewish and Gentile roles and practices overlap in the Master’s ekklesia:

  1. Have a constant awareness of our Father, our King, Creator and Sustainer of the universe. As soon you think of the Creator, you immediately connect with Him. Think of Him often.
  2. Feel a sense of awe for the Creator by frequently contemplating the size and complexity of the universe.
  3. Realize that you are created in the image of the Creator and you are His child. When looking in a mirror, say to yourself, “I am a child of the Creator.”
  4. Everything you have in life, you have because it is a gift from the Creator. Be constantly grateful. This gratitude creates love.
  5. The Almighty loves us more than we love ourselves. Frequently say to yourself, “The Almighty loves me even more than I love myself.”
  6. Realize that everything that the Almighty causes to happen in your life, He causes to happen for a positive purpose. Some you will recognize, some you won’t. Frequently repeat, “This, too, is for the good.”
  7. Respect each human being because each human being is created in the Almighty’s image.
  8. When you do an act of kindness, you are emulating the Almighty. Do so frequently.
  9. Every prayer you say, whether formal or in your own words, is an expression of connecting with the Creator.
  10. Make a blessing to thank the Creator before and after eating. This adds a spiritual dimension to the food you eat.

That’s the first ten of the twenty ways R. Packouz lists to connect with the Almighty. Notice that none of them are specific to either Jews or Gentiles (the same goes for the other ten). In fact, you could take that list of twenty ways of connecting with God into any church and I can’t see why any Christian Pastor or layperson would object to them at all, except they might want to substitute “Jesus” for “the Almighty”.

Path of TorahSpirituality and righteousness all center around developing an awareness of God through the wonders in the world around us and specifically by studying the Torah. By studying the Torah however, we can go beyond “mere” awareness of God and begin to grasp who He created us to be and what we are expected to do with the lives we’ve been granted. While we Gentiles are grafted into Israel as a wild branch is grafted into a cultivated tree, that doesn’t make Gentile believers Israel. However, that also doesn’t mean we’re nothing either or that we are separated from God’s unique and chosen nation.

I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.

John 15:5

Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him.

John 13:16

We see here that disciples of the Master are “grafted in” to him as a branch is grafted into a vine. That however doesn’t make any one of us Yeshua (Jesus), because he also teaches that we “sent ones” are not greater than the one who sent us. We are servants of the Master and slaves to the Most High.

But if we are grafted into the vine of Messiah and are not Messiah, to extend the metaphor, we are also grafted into Israel and are not Israel. In fact, without the benefit of the covenant promises God made with national Israel and the Jewish people, we Gentiles would have no status or relationship to God at all. We are grafted in only by God’s abundant mercy to mankind, and by our faith in the accomplished works of our Master, the mediator of the New Covenant.

The rest of the “declaration of intent for Messianic Gentiles” goes thus:

Father in Heaven, I will rejoice in you alone, for you have sanctified me and drawn me near to you, and you have made me a son of Abraham through your King Messiah. For the sake of our Master Yeshua, in his merit and virtues, may the sayings of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be joined to the prayers of all Israel, and may they be favorable before you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

Although you are reading this on Sunday morning or later, I’m writing it near lunch time on Friday. My personal Shabbos Project will begin in a few hours and I hope to improve upon last week’s experience (and I no doubt will be writing about “Shabbat Observance 2.0” subsequently).

We all discover ourselves by the light of Torah, but what is illuminated is different for each of us. This is sometimes the difference between being a Jewish or Gentile disciple of the Master, but there are also many other distinctions.

Although by necessity, I’ll be observing Shabbat alone, I know that it is designed to be celebrated in community. But there are ways in which we seek God that sometimes require that only the person and the Almighty be present. The Master sought to be alone often to pray, and yet he was also part of the larger community of Israel. When Paul became the Master’s emissary to the Gentiles, he was faced with the challenge of integrating Gentiles into Jewish communal and religious space, and that challenge remained before him for the rest of his life.

Shabbat candlesWhile I agree that community is a vital part of a life of faith, it is only half of that life. The Master indeed said we were to love our neighbors as ourselves but the prerequisite for doing so was to love the Almighty with all of our heart, spirit, and resources. Holiness, spirituality, and righteous living begin with one person studying the Torah, praying, and developing a growing awareness of God in the world around that person. Sometimes those experiences can be shared, but in the case of we “Messianic Gentiles,” often they cannot be, except “remotely” via the Internet.

But there’s nothing remote about God or the Torah. His inspired Word and His Created world are before each of us. Today they are before me and tonight, as I write this, so will the Shabbat. May the blessings of my mouth and the meditations of my heart always be pleasing before Hashem, my rock and my redeemer, and may I always be a faithful servant to my Master, Messiah Yeshua.

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Relative Righteousness

‘This is the story of Noah. Noah was in his generations a man righteous and wholehearted.’

What is the implication of ‘his generations’? Rabbi Yochanan said, “Only in his generations, but not in others.”

Reish Lakish said, “If in his generations, then certainly in other generations.”

-Tractate Sanhedrin 108a

Rabbi Yochanan acted in accordance with the noble precept “judge every person positively.” If the text lends itself to both laudatory and pejorative readings, then certainly a man described by the Torah as ‘a man righteous and wholehearted’ should be given the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, the Torah itself deprecates Noah for not having tried to influence others, in contrast to our father Abraham, about whom the Torah testifies ‘and the souls they had acquired (lit., “had made”) in Charan.’ The Rabbis explain: “He (Abraham) brought them under the wings of the Holy Presence, Abraham converting the men and Sarah the women. The Torah reckons this as if they had made them” (Tractate Sanhedrin 99b). Except for his immediate family, Noah “made” not a single soul and seemed uninterested in the fate of contemporary humanity.

-Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel
Chapter 1: A Tzaddik in His Generations, p.95
Translated by Kadish Goldberg
Jews, Judaism, & Genesis: Living in His Image According to the Torah

I’ve read this criticism before. There’s more than a hint of “superiority” in attributing higher or better motives to Abraham, the first Hebrew, than to Noah who was a Gentile, at least on the surface. Of course, if Rabbi Yochanan is correct, then Noah really did forsake even the attempt to inspire anyone in his generation besides his family to repent of their sins and thus be saved of the coming destruction of the flood.

On the other hand, how can Reish Lakish possibly be right, since there is evidence showing that Abraham but not Noah had disciples who were devoted to the One God?

If, however, we assume that the leader is forged by his generation, the picture is reversed. Noah’s stature surpasses that of Abraham. Abraham functioned in a society amenable to moral improvement, wherein one could “make souls.” Noah lived in a totally corrupt society, yet remained unblemished by its immoral influences.

-Amiel, p.96

This doesn’t tell us if Noah tried to save anyone, but it does suggest that he would have universally failed, given the abject corrupt nature of the society around him.

All this is conjecture, of course, but have you ever wondered if the world we live in today is more like Noah’s or Abraham’s?

“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone. For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so will the coming of the Son of Man be.”

Matthew 24:36-39 (NASB)

We can see that Jesus (Yeshua) is drawing a comparison between the days of Noah and the days of Messiah’s eventual return. In both cases, the general public didn’t have a clue that their time had come and that a revolutionary act of God was imminent. People will still be carrying on “business as usual” right up until the end.

stained glass jesusBut we can’t necessarily extend the comparison to include relative levels of corruption. After all, in the current age, people do respond to Christian missionary efforts and become disciples of Jesus and even some Jews and Gentiles have come to the realization of the revelation of the Jewish Messiah as the Jewish Messiah rather than the Goyishe King, if you’ll pardon my making a distinction.

Beyond the presumed difference in behavior in Noah and Abraham that Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish represent, there’s the idea that God will continue to offer redemption should a generation be open to it, and withdraw that option should that generation be totally cold to God. Does God ever give up on an entire people group?

As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age. Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.”

It came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying,

“To your descendants I have given this land,
From the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates: the Kenite and the Kenizzite and the Kadmonite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Rephaim and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Girgashite and the Jebusite.”

Genesis 15:15-21

Although God promises the Land of Canaan as a permanent inheritance to Abraham’s descendants, they would not be allowed to take possession of that Land until the current inhabitants had become so corrupt that they were (presumably) unable to be redeemed. This seems to indicate some sort of spiritual or moral “cut off point,” a state that once entered into can never be reversed.

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and have sacrificed to it and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.”

Exodus 32:7-10

It seems like Israel had crossed that “line in the sand” or at least was standing right on top of it. If Moses hadn’t pleaded with God for Israel (Exodus 32:11-14), then the inheritors of the Land would only have come from the tribe of Levi, that is, the descendants of Moses.

That last point is debatable however, and God could have been testing Moses the way He tested Abraham at the Akedah (Gen. 22:1–19).

The famous “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:18-20) as Christianity calls it, was Messiah’s directive to his Jewish Apostles to do what had never been done before; make disciples of the people of the nations without requiring them to undergo the proselyte rite and convert to Judaism. It may have been (and I’m extending the previously mentioned midrash about Noah and Abraham) that like the people of Noah’s generation, the Gentiles were considered unable to be redeemed unless they converted and joined Israel and Jewish people “lock, stock, and barrel,” so to speak. If a Gentile were permitted entry into the ekklesia of Messiah and to remain a Gentile, was such a thing even possible?

Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.

Acts 15:1-2

Peter's visionMany Jews didn’t seem to think so, not because they were mean-spirited or had anything against Gentiles as such, but because it seemed like a spiritual and covenantal impossibility. Even Peter, if he hadn’t experienced his vision (Acts 10:9-16),would never have understood that it was possible for Gentiles to be redeemed.

And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.

Acts 10:28

See? The vision was a metaphor, not a literal reality. It was never about food. It was about people.

Opening his mouth, Peter said:

“I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.”

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God.

Acts 10:34-35, 44-46

Obviously, those late Second Temple period Jews who thought Gentiles could not be brought to God on equal terms and yet remain Gentiles were wrong, but it took a lot of convincing. In fact, Luke’s Book of Acts and many of Paul’s epistles testify to how eagerly thousands upon thousands of Gentiles accepted the discipleship of Yeshua upon themselves, receiving the Spirit and the promise of the resurrection.

But what about we believers today? Oh yes, Christians sometimes go door-to-door passing out religious tracts, send missionaries to far away lands to preach the word of the Gospel, and otherwise proselytize the people around them, but do we ever give up on individuals or, Heaven forbid, entire groups of people?

For Easter one year, the church where I first became a believer many years ago, created a video project. They went to Portland and deliberately approached people who seemed extraordinarily (from these Christians’ point of view) unlikely to accept Christ or even to know much about him. The people they captured on video tape seemed to be what I believe were/are called punk rockers, people, with spiked, multi-colored hair and a proliferation of body piercings; people who didn’t look at all like the “clean-cut” Christians from that church in Boise, Idaho, who typically were socially and politically conservative, and most of whom were educated professionals.

When we screened some of the raw video prior to editing, a lot of people around me in the audience were laughing and making fun of the answers the “subjects” gave in response to the Christian interviewer’s questions about Jesus and Easter.

I was disgusted.

If that had happened today, I certainly would have spoken up, but way back then, I was considered what is called a “baby Christian,” someone new to the faith. I had very little experience as a Christian and didn’t know how or even if this was to be considered normal for a believer. All I knew was that a year from that point, none of the people in that Church would know if anyone they had spoken to in Portland might have made a confession of faith and become a brother or sister in Christ. They’d just written these folks off. More’s the pity.

Who are we? Are we worthy to be called by His Name?

Well, no one is worthy, but by our behavior, by our attitude toward individuals or entire groups or “types” of people, do be sanctify or desecrate the Name of God?

unworthyI can’t tell you about Noah’s righteousness relative to Abraham’s with any certainty, or for that matter, in relation to Moses, but I can tell you that the next time you see another believer operating with a “holier than thou” attitude (or the next time you operate with that attitude), chances are, the second you started making fun of someone else or denigrating them for some flaw or problem they possess, you ceased to have any claim to any righteousness you thought you had.

…as it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one…

Romans 3:10

So what’s the cure for this sickness of self-righteousness?

Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent…each of you…”

Acts 2:37-38

Peter said other things, but I’m assuming that it is as believers we need to repent of how we judge others, not as those who still need to be baptized by the merit of Moshiach. But then again, if we are capable of acts of cruelty or even just indifference to whole populations of people because they don’t look, talk, or act like us, maybe we are not really disciples of the Master at all.

“And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.'”

Matthew 7:23

Reflections on Romans 6

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

Romans 6:1-4 (NASB)

I realized the other day that I haven’t written one of these “reflections” in a while and thought I should get back to it. Chapter 6 is fairly short so hopefully this will be a short blog post as well (but don’t count on it).

Remember, these “reflections” are just that…a set of impressions I received and took notes on as I was reading Paul’s Epistle to the Romans in a single sitting. I’m not taking a look at the Greek or doing anything in-depth. Take this for what it’s worth.

Since Paul wasn’t creating chapters and verses in this letter, it’s not really fair for me to “review” the Epistle this way, but if I didn’t, I’d have to write one really long blog post, which also wouldn’t be fair (to my poor aching fingers or to you, my readers). So here we are. Paul is continuing the thought he was pursuing at the end (for us) of the previous chapter:

So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Romans 5:18-21 (NASB)

This is the comparison and contrast between Adam, the first man, and Jesus (Yeshua) the “antidote” for Adam’s bringing sin into the world. As sin increased, God’s grace increased in proportion to the sin. So then Paul asks (Romans 6:1-2), “Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be!” Even though grace increases as sin increases, this is hardly a reason to continue sinning.

Then Paul gives his reasoning. We were baptized into the death of Messiah and so as he died for our sins, we died to sin.

For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.

Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Romans 6:5-11 (NASB)

When we became baptized into the name of the Messiah, we entered a unity with him via an oath of fealty, but it seems something even closer. We became united with him in dying, in this case to our old, pagan natures, and resurrected, both as the promise of the physical resurrection of the faithful to come, but also in terms of a change of our natures.

“But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

Jeremiah 31:33-34 (NASB)

Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.

Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NASB)

new heartThis is classic New Covenant language describing how God will circumcise the Jewish heart, write His Torah upon it, and give Israel a new Spirit, all of which will enable the Jewish people to perfectly obey God’s commands and to observe His mitzvot flawlessly.

This, of course, does not happen until the resurrection of the faithful from the dead, so just as Jesus was resurrected in a perfected body, so too will we be resurrected into perfection, not only of our bodies, but our spirits so that we too will be without sin, not only having our past sins completely atoned for, but not sinning in the Messianic Age.

Paul directly ties Messiah’s resurrection into our own resurrected states so our bodies will never die again and in the realization that we are dead, but only to sin.

However, the Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 passages are specifically addressed to Jewish Israel and not to the peoples of the rest of the nations, but Paul is writing to a Gentile audience in his epistle. How do we reconcile this apparent inconsistency? How can Paul apply the writing of Torah on the hearts of Gentiles?

On yesterday’s morning meditation, ProclaimLiberty commented giving part of the answer:

Now that I have addressed the notion of “Torah on the heart” as a covenantal anticipation and partial fulfillment as promised to Jews, how may we envision it having an impact also on non-Jews who attach themselves to the Jewish Messiah? They do not become members of Israel or participants in the covenant per se, and they are not legally obligated by the Torah covenant. Therefore, something must become available to them because of their increasingly close proximity to the knowledge of Torah and its impact on those who actually are members of the covenant. In one other recent post, I invoked the analogy of gentiles entering the Temple’s “court of the gentiles” in order to offer sacrifices in accordance with Torah stipulations for gentiles doing so. I compared the symbolic sacrifice of Rav Yeshua to such sacrifices, but offered in the heavenly sanctuary by Rav Yeshua as a mediating Melchitzedekian priest. Such symbolism reflects the ratification of continual repentance, after which the forgiven offerer learns to walk in newness of life in accordance with HaShem’s guidance (e.g., the aspects of Torah that apply to him or her). In another recent post I addressed the notion of a gentile ‘Hasid and the appropriate reflections of Torah that may be applicable — in which a gentile might become thoroughly immersed in order to experience the same sort of spiritual intimacy with HaShem, and enter into the perceptive environment of the kingdom of heaven in its metaphorical sense in anticipation of its future physical realization. Thus non-Jews would experience spirituality from outside and alongside the covenant in the same manner as intended for Jews inside the covenant.

Sorry for the large block of text but that’s a direct quote.

bedtime-shemaYou can click on the link to see his entire comment, which includes an interesting perspective on Gentiles reciting the Shema. What I get out of it is a way to look at how Gentiles are included in the New Covenant blessings, also being given a new heart and new spirit with the Torah written with us even though the nations aren’t directly addressed in the New Covenant and accounting for variability in application of the Torah to Jewish and Gentiles co-participants.

But that hasn’t happened yet…or has it?

Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Romans 6:11 (NASB)

Paul is saying to his Gentile readers that they are to be “dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” right now (as he was writing his letter). That’s not in the future Messianic Era but rather in the present for his audience. But how could Paul expect them to be dead to sin if their hearts were not yet changed and they hadn’t been given a new spirit yet?

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.

Acts 10:44-45 (NASB)

OK, so did the Jews and Gentiles have the spirit or not? Clearly they had the spirit but as D.T. Lancaster has said in different sermons in his Holy Epistle to the Hebrews series, the spirit we see given to the Gentiles in Acts 10 and to the Jews in Acts 2 is a pledge or down payment, a mere foretaste of the full filling of the Holy Spirit we will be given when the New Covenant times completely enter our world with Messiah (also see 2 Corinthians 3:3 and Ephesians 1:13-14).

Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge.

2 Corinthians 5:5 (NASB)

The Greek word translated above as “pledge” can also be rendered “down payment,” “deposit,” or “guarantee.” The idea is that we have the spirit, but it’s not nearly as much as we are going to have. It’s like putting a down payment down on a car. You get the use of the car without paying the full price, but with the idea that your down payment is your pledge that you will pay the full amount when it comes due.

So we have a portion of the spirit and perhaps the finger of God is beginning to write the Law on our hearts, but it’s not to the degree that all of the promises are within our grasp yet…we just know by what we have now, we can be assured that the rest will be coming.

Rising IncenseBut even though “the goods” haven’t arrived yet, we are expected to live, to the best of our abilities, as if we have already received everything we were promised. I guess this is the part where the person who gives the down payment on the full amount gets to drive the car right away. God can expect us to behave as if the Law were already within us (as it applies to different populations) even though it isn’t yet. That’s the point of verses 12 through 14 in the current chapter.

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.

Romans 6:15-18 (NASB)

So if we are no longer to consider ourselves slaves to sin, we are to consider ourselves slaves to righteousness. After all, we are always slaves to something, it’s just a matter of choosing our Master.

But it looks like Paul might build some “wiggle room” into this system:

I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.

Romans 6:19 (NASB)

Paul speaks of “human terms” and “weakness of your flesh” seemingly indicating that we aren’t really “there” yet in terms of the ability to be sinless. He’s also presenting us with a choice given our weaknesses, to chose to present our “members as slaves to lawlessness or slaves to righteousness”. I guess the implication is that prior to becoming disciples of the Master, we really didn’t have a choice. We were slaves to lawlessness being without the Law (or rather slaves to a different law as we’ll see below), that is the Law that leads to sanctification.

But there’s another law to consider:

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 6:20-23 (NASB)

Under the law of sin and death we were free from righteousness, but now under the Law of Righteousness, we are free from sin.

“The wages of sin is death” is the Law of Sin which Paul periodically contrasts with the Law of Righteousness (Torah). If you didn’t know that, then every time Paul writes “law” it would be easy to assume that he’s always talking about the Torah. That, I think, is why many Christians take a dim view of “the Law” since they’ve been taught that the Law brings increased transgression (see Romans 5:20). That’s also why reading the Bible and getting “impressions” or “reflections” as I’m doing is a little dangerous, especially given the various English translations, because Paul’s meaning isn’t always plainly written on the surface of the Bible’s pages. Sometimes you have to dig for what he’s really saying.

brand-new-daySo at the end of this chapter, we’re left in an interesting place. We are baptized into the name of our Master and therefore in unity with him on a very intimate level. Just as he was resurrected into a perfected body, we are to consider ourselves also resurrected as a new person free from sin and a slave to righteousness. The trick is that we have only been given a down payment on the full amount of God’s promises and it’s only that full amount of His Word and Spirit that will truly perfect us.

Nevertheless, we are expected to behave as if we have already received the full gift, even though we must constantly struggle to present ourselves for righteousness and to disdain acts of sin and lawlessness.

One question, in verse 10 when it says “He (Jesus) died to sin once for all,” how could he die to sin if he lived a completely sinless life?

FFOZ TV Review: Seek First the Kingdom

ffoz_14mainEpisode 14: For Christians, nothing should be more important than seeking first the kingdom. Episode fourteen will take a deeper look at what it means to “Seek first the kingdom of God” from a Jewish perspective. Viewers will learn that the kingdom of God is the Messianic Era. To seek first the kingdom is to obey the teachings of Jesus and do the will of God while always leaning on God’s grace. The Sermon on the Mount is the long answer to what it means to seek to enter his kingdom.

-from the Introduction to FFOZ TV: The Promise of What is to Come
Episode 14: Seek First the Kingdom

The Lesson: The Mystery of Seeking First the Kingdom of God

What is it to seek first the Kingdom of God? We’ve learned from previous episodes of this program, that the Kingdom of God is actually the Messianic Era, not “going to Heaven.” It’s the Kingdom that Jesus will establish upon his second advent into our world, where he will rule and reign over Israel as her King, and as King of all the nations of the Earth.

But let’s take a closer look at an important saying of the Master from Matthew 6:31-34 using the Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels translation to begin to address this mystery:

Therefore, do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For the Gentiles request all of these. Does your Father who is in heaven not know that you need all these? But seek first the kingdom of God and his tzedakah, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry for itself. It is sufficient for trouble to come at its time.

As always, First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) teacher and author Toby Janicki tells his audience that we may be led into error if we do not look at these scriptures from the original linguistic, historical, and cultural context, the context of the audience for whom Matthew wrote his gospel, the context of the audience of Jesus and his Sermon on the Mount. This is the lynchpin that holds together FFOZ’s interpretation of the New Testament and folds it into the overall Jewish context of the entire Bible.

Toby says that Jesus is telling us we are not to focus on our immediate, material needs, but rather to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. Toby summarizes the Kingdom using material presented in previous episodes:

  • The Kingdom of God is Messiah’s rule over the earth upon his second coming.
  • The exiles of Israel, the Jewish people, will be regathered to their nation.
  • God will defeat all of Israel’s enemies.
  • Messiah establishes a rule of peace over all the Earth.
  • The Torah will go forth from Zion.
  • Everyone will be filled with the Knowledge of God through the Holy Spirit.

I immediately thought of my conversation with my Pastor last week. Part of our discussion included a quick summary of the Book of Revelation, and I noticed that Toby didn’t touch on the “rapture of the Church” to Heaven with Jesus for the seven years of tribulation. I suppose that will be a topic for another time, although previously, Toby mentioned that “the Church” would be raptured with Jesus to Jerusalem. I suppose that means “the Church” won’t be “off planet” for the seven years of woe and judgment, but that’s a topic for another time.

Toby said that the Sermon of the Mount is the overall context for today’s lesson and that Matthew 5:20 is the key to understanding the Sermon. It functions like a thesis statement, and not correctly understanding this single verse will lead to misunderstanding the entire sermon.

I found this terrifically compelling, because Pastor and I got “hung up” on this very verse last week. I was presenting my understanding of the terms “abolish” and “fulfill” we encounter in Matthew 5:17-19 based on the previous episode of the show: The Torah is Not Canceled (see my review of that episode for more details).

However, verse 20, as I mentioned, was a problem:

For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

ffoz_tv14tobyThe context of verses 17-19 discuss the Torah and how Messiah did not come to disobey (abolish) the Torah, but to obey (fulfill) it. Pastor says that “fulfill” can’t possibly mean “obey” in context because of verse 20. No amount of obedience of the mitzvot can lead to saving righteousness. The only answer I had to give was that Jesus was contrasting Torah obedience with faith, essentially saying that the scribes and Pharisees were depending on what they did to save them, and, as important as obedience is relative to Jews and the Torah, it’s only faith that saves. I was trying to pull a rabbit out of my hat, so to speak, thinking “theologically” on the fly.

So I was hoping that Toby was going to offer a link from verse 20 back to verses 17-19 and give me a more “fleshed out” explanation. What ultimately happened was unexpected.

Toby forged a direct connection between Matthew 5:20 and Matthew 6:33

For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:20

But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Matthew 6:33

As I’ve said in the past, it would be helpful to know the source for making such connections in the Bible. A bibliography for each episode would enhance my ability to understand. But we have arrived at our first clue:

Clue 1: Make it your top priority to enter the Messianic Era.

But there’s another part to all of this. While we can grasp the meaning of the Kingdom of Heaven, what does “righteousness” mean in these contexts? Seek first the Kingdom of Heaven and his righteousness. You might think you know what “righteousness” is, but remember, this show is all about presenting familiar parts of the Bible as seen through the historical, cultural, and linguistic lens of first century Judaism. What does “righteousness” look like when you put those glasses on?

To learn the answer, the scene shifts to FFOZ teacher and translator Aaron Eby in Israel. Aaron teaches us (and I apologize for the poor spelling of the transliterations) that “righteousness” can be mapped back to two Hebrew words: “Tzeddik” and “Tzadakah”. “Tzeddik” gives us the sense of “justice,” “correctness,” “equitability,” and “uprightness.” It’s an abstract concept and is more about being righteous. “Tzadakah,” on the other hand, is a more “hands on” term, according to Aaron. It’s more about doing right things, doing the correct thing, and doing righteousness rather than being righteous.

It will be righteousness for us if we are careful to observe all this commandment before the Lord our God, just as He commanded us. (emph. mine)

Deuteronomy 6:25 (NASB)

Aaron explains that the word “righteousness” or “tzedakah” used in this verse speaks of doing the correct thing, which here is performing particular Torah mitzvot. The concept of righteousness and doing right are completely fused. One cannot be righteous without doing righteousness. This should remind most Christians of the following:

But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

James 2:18-24 (NASB)

ffoz_tv14aaronOver time, the meaning of the word “tzedakah” has changed. It is commonly thought of today as specifically giving to charity, but Aaron says that it did not lose its previous meaning in taking on a more modern way of being understood. The underlying concept of the word is doing kindness to others, kind treatment of others. When God shows us His righteousness, he is being kind to us. When we show others righteousness, we are doing good things for them. Although Aaron and Toby didn’t say this specifically, I think we can link tzedakah back to being a tzeddik (a righteous one). You cannot be righteous without doing righteousness. Let’s look at Matthew 5:20 again.

For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. (emph. mine)

So, given all that we’ve learned up to this point, are Aaron and Toby telling us that entering the Messianic Era, the Kingdom of God, is dependent on how much kindness we do for other human beings? But how can we be more “righteous” than the scribes and the Pharisees, who set the bar pretty high?

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.

Matthew 23:23 (NASB)

While the scribes and the Pharisees were all about doing “righteousness,” that is, acts of kindness and justice (the two can’t be separated in our understanding of tzedakah) toward others, still, they had problems, and these were problems Jesus brought to light. They were hypocritical (or some of them were). They taught righteousness but didn’t do righteousness. This is why Jesus told his disciples to do what the Pharisees taught but not to emulate their actual behavior (Matthew 23:1-3). There was nothing wrong with the teaching of righteousness of the Pharisees, but in many cases, they didn’t “walk the walk”. Jesus seems to be telling his disciples (and us) that our righteous deeds must exceed those of the Pharisees if we are to enter into the Kingdom of God.

Let’s refactor the two scriptures that Toby says are key to our understanding of today’s mystery:

For I say to you that unless your good deeds surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:20 (NASB)

But seek first His kingdom and His good deeds, and all these things will be added to you.

Matthew 6:33 (NASB)

Returning to Toby in the studio, we have arrived at our second clue:

Clue 2: Righteousness = Acts of the Law; Good Deeds of God’s Torah.

Toby says that if Jesus has to give this instruction, it begs the question of whether or not some disciples of the Master will not enter the Messianic Era. He offers the following as an answer:

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’

Matthew 7:21-23 (NASB)

charity-tzedakahToby’s coming really close to saying that all disciples of Jesus who do not practice the Torah mitzvot, or at least those that command acts of kindness and charity to others, will not enter into the Messianic Era. In other words, they “practice lawlessness.” However, Toby was quick to point out that this isn’t a matter of salvation. Even if you do no acts of kindness, you can still be saved by the grace of Jesus Christ through faith (though if you have faith, then why aren’t you performing tzadakah?). But this brings up a critical question. How can you be saved but not enter the Messianic Age? Where will you be if you’re not there?

Oh, and this is the third and final clue:

Clue 3: Not everyone will enter the Messianic Era.

Toby again tells us that not entering the Kingdom and not performing acts of kindness and charity to others does not negate the free gift of grace through Christ. But the Messianic Era is a span of historical time in which all those resurrected and all those who are born in it are in that Era. How can you not enter a span of history unless you’re dead…but if you’re saved, you’re not dead?

What Did I Learn?

Linking last week’s review to today’s, let’s have another look at a key passage of scripture:

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

“For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:17-20 (NASB)

Here I see that, at least from FFOZ’s point of view, my response on verse 20 was wrong. Putting all this in one basket, the FFOZ perspective is that Jesus, having been criticized and accused of not living out and teaching the Torah correctly by the scribes and Pharisees, uses this opportunity to clarify his position. He has not come to abolish (disobey) the Torah, but rather to fulfill (obey) the Torah. Any Jew (his intended audience in this context was Jewish) who annuls even the least of the mitzvot (in contrast to Jesus who says he doesn’t) will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven (the Messianic Age). Anyone who keeps and teaches the Torah mitzvot will be called great in the Kingdom (and since Jesus was the only person who kept the mitzvot perfectly, this implies that he will be the very greatest in the Kingdom).

(I should note at this point, that Aaron chose to interpret the term “righteousness” we see in Matthew 5 and 6 as “tzedakah” rather than “tzeddik.” If it could be either/or, it would be helpful to understand on what basis “tzedakah” was selected over “tzeddik” … on the other hand, as I mentioned above, can we really separate these two words … can one be a tzeddik without performing tzedakah?)

Continuing to address his audience and building on what he’s just said, Jesus instructs that unless their good deeds according to the performance of the Torah mitzvot, exceed those of the scribes and Pharisees (who later Jesus accuses of teaching well but not performing well), then they will not merit entering the Kingdom of Heaven (the Messianic Age).

On the one hand, a person who annuls the least of the mitzvot and teaches others to annul them will be in the Kingdom of Heaven but will be least there, and on the other hand, unless a person’s performance of the mitzvot related to good deeds does not exceed the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees, they will not enter the Kingdom at all, not even as the least.

I think this needs some clarification. I know my Pastor would not likely be convinced by this argument. For him, righteousness is a state of being (being a tzeddik, which no one achieves without faith in Christ) that no person can earn regardless of what they do. He would call this “salvation by works,” even though Toby is saying that it’s actually admission into the Messianic Kingdom for the already saved. Salvation isn’t earned but admission to the Messianic Kingdom apparently is.

waiting-for-mannaI will admit to being confused by this one for the reasons I’ve already stated. However, like other episodes of this program, complete ideas are expressed not in one episode, but in connecting many episodes together to form the total message. Hopefully, that’s what’s happening here.

FFOZ President and Founder Boaz Michael, as always, came on camera at the very end of the episode to announce that next week’s show would address “the Lord’s Prayer.” Maybe the part that says, thy Kingdom come, they will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven” will be used to help clarify today’s commentary on the Mystery of Seeking First the Kingdom of God.

I will review another episode next week.

Who is Righteous?

goodly-tents-of-jacobHow goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel. As for me, through Your abundant kindness, I will enter Your House. I will prostrate myself toward Your Holy Sanctuary in awe of You. O HASHEM, I love the house where you dwell and the place where your glory resides. I will prostrate myself and bow, I will kneel before HASHEM my Maker. As for me, may my prayer to You HASHEM come at an opportune time; O God, in Your abundant kindness, answer me with the truth of Your salvation.

“Mah Tovu (How Good)”
-from the Siddur

This is the beginning of the Shacharit or morning prayers, said by Jewish people around the world at the beginning of each day.

I have a sad confession to make. I don’t pray in the morning very often. The first hour or so after I get up is dedicated to a cup of coffee, a glass of water, and slowly waking up in front of my computer. Oh sure, I recite the Modeh Ani upon awakening, but that takes only a few seconds and I’m still in bed when I make the blessing.

However, this morning my son wasn’t feeling well and frankly, neither was I, so we decided to skip the 5 a.m. visit to the gym. I could have noodled around on the web or even read a book, but I decided to pray.

I began with extemporaneous prayer and my mind scattered all over the place. I kept trying to focus it back, but that would last only a few seconds. I can certainly see the benefits of hitbodeut since it actually encourages “talking” to God as one talks passionately to a close companion, but for that, I’d need to be completely alone (I don’t want to wake my wife and daughter).

Then I remembered my siddur. I opened it up to the Shacharis/Morning Services section and began to read. And I began to pray.

I know that I previously expressed some hesitation and even trepidation at attending the recent First Fruits of Zion Shavuot Conference. I wondered if I really belonged in a “Jewish” worship context anymore (or if I ever did). I wondered why it didn’t feel like “home” anymore.

But praying, even somewhat briefly, with the siddur this morning did feel like home. I limited my prayers, trying to avoid those that overtly identified the person praying as Jewish, but I feel as if the pattern and rhythm of the siddur is almost calling to me.

After Mah Tovu, I prayed Adon Olam (all this is in English and I’m softly reciting, not singing), skipped the blessings of the Torah, and continued with the liturgy up to the Akeidah portion.

It’s not very long, actually.

But why don’t I do this every morning? I can’t say I don’t have the time, because I can find the time.

Then I was reminded of something else that happened at the conference.

I won’t go into too many details, but one person giving a presentation referenced another individual present and called him a tzadik. This was because the person being referenced is scrupulous in all the prayers, rituals, and traditions of observant Judaism. He refrains from all inappropriate forms of work on the Shabbat and festivals, observes each time of prayer, davening in Hebrew, and otherwise is diligently mindful of his duty to Hashem…

…even though he’s not Jewish.

That last part’s important because it brings up the question of whether or not observing Jewish religious practices makes a non-Jew more holy, more righteous, more “tzadik-like.” Particularly as a non-Jewish person involved in the Messianic Jewish movement, however tangentially, do the Jews and Gentiles in that movement consider me a failure for not following Jewish religious observances?

After a wave of guilt passed over me, I realized that some of the most righteous men I know are Christians who probably don’t pray one word in Hebrew. I’ve come to develop a great admiration particularly for a few of the men at the church I attend. I’ve learned some things about one specific individual that he’d never tell me himself, but that are completely consistent with how I experience him.

israel_prayingIf he were Jewish, I’d probably call him a tzadik. But what makes him such isn’t his “Jewish” observance, because as far as I know, he has none. What makes him such is that he is devoted to God in all of his ways, not only in prayer and worship, but in everything that he does.

How a life of righteousness looks, at least superficially, may be different depending on whether or not you’re a Christian or a Jew, but at the core, living a life that is pleasing to God should be the same regardless of who you are.

Jews pray and Christians pray. I remember my Pastor said that there were times in Israel when he was traveling with Jewish men. They would daven shacharit in a minyan and he would sit off to one side and silently pray, not intruding on them, but observing the holy time nonetheless. They all honored God and each other with their prayers and their devotion.

Jews give to charity and Christians give to charity. Jews visit the sick and Christians visit the sick. Jews feed the hungry and Christians feed the hungry. Jews gather together regularly to worship God and Christians gather together regularly to worship God.

Do you see what I’m getting at?

A “tzadik” isn’t just a Jewish righteous person, it’s any righteous person. Granted, the term itself is Jewish, but the concept behind it can be applied to any individual who seeks the will of God and then does the will of God.

I guess a Christian would use the word “saint” but I’m not quite sure it is an equivalent term exactly.

But the words used matter less than the life that’s lived. While in the example I cited above from the conference, one person acknowledged that another was a tzadik, but the recognition matters less than the life that’s lived, even if it is lived in obscurity so that no one knows.

But God knows.

God knows everything about the righteous and the unrighteous.

…as it is written:

“There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God.”

Romans 3:10-11 (NRSV)

There is no one who is righteous just because of who he is or what he does. Paul goes on in the same chapter to say that we are only righteous by faith. It is by faith that we seek God at all. It is by faith that we pray.

Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski writes an online “column” for Aish.com called Growing Each Day in which he begins with a quote from the Bible, Talmud, the Siddur, or some similar text. He then writes a brief commentary and finishes by applying the principle to his own life (and by inference, his readers are invited to apply it to their lives in order to “grow each day.”

Adapting his model to today’s “extra meditation:”

Today I shall…

…seek God each morning by turning to Him in prayer, so that my life will begin to conform to His will.

Good Shabbos.

110 days.

Unpopular Righteousness

unpopularThe ascent of the soul occurs three times daily, during the three times of davening. This is particularly true of the souls of tzadikim who “go from strength to strength.” It is certain that at all times and in every sacred place they may be, they offer invocation and prayer on behalf of those who are bound to them and to their instructions, and who observe their instructions. They offer prayer in particular for their disciples and disciples’ disciples, that G-d be their aid, materially and spiritually.

-Today’s Day
Hayom Yom: Iyar29, 44th day of the omer
Compiled and arranged by the Lubavitcher Rebbe,
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, in 5703 (1943)
from the talks and letters of the sixth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory.
Chabad.org

There is no free individual, except for he who occupies himself with the Torah.

-Ethics of the Fathers, 6:2

I had a great idea for a blog post last night before I went to bed. It communicated what I thought we all should be talking about with each other, not only on our blogs, but face-to-face, in our emails, in our phone calls, in every way possible…the communication and communion of holiness.

But then I went to sleep, and when I woke up, it was gone. I’m disappointed because the drive to write it is still within me. But now, I can’t give it expression.

This morning (as I write this), I read Derek Leman’s blog post What is Popular on a Messianic Blog?. I try to steer away from being identified as a “messianic blog” because it limits the audience I attract and fails to communicate that the message of Messiah is for all people, not just “messianics,” and for that matter, not just for “Christians.” The message of the love of God for humanity is for…humanity.

But Derek has a point.

Hands down, and no surprise, the winner of the numbers game is controversy. My leading blog post of the past year was an expose I did on Jim Staley, a Two House and Hebrew roots teaching pastor in Missouri, called “The Messianic Wall of Weird, #2.” And when Ralph Messer wrapped a pastor in a Torah scroll, told the pastor he was royalty in God’s eyes, and promised this bizarre misuse of a sacred object in Jewish life would restore this pastor from his problems, that blog post got a ton of readers (“Ralph Messer is Not a Messianic Jewish Rabbi”). A few critiques of Tim Hegg I have written have drawn many readers, but also lost me many readers, as some fans of Tim Hegg did not appreciate the criticism I threw his way. Of course, we should not be surprised that controversy is popular.

Controversy (especially if negative and more so if tied to a popular figure or current event).

My response to Derek’s missive was to compare this sort of “popularity” to a car accident with horrible human injuries, or NASCAR, where the attraction is the “hope” that there’ll be a massive pile up of cars traveling at high rates of speed, visions of body parts flying about the landscape fairly dancing in the minds of the fans.

OK, that’s probably a little harsh and I don’t doubt I owe an apology to many NASCAR fans out there.

But I also think I’m correct in that what draws a large, vocal audience tends not to be topics of substance but topics of controversy, especially if it’s ugly and there’s an opportunity to “spill blood,” in a virtual sense.

rock_starBut now I’m the one straying into the realm of controversy. See how tempting it is?

Tim at Onesimus Files posted a link to a highly “popular” blog post called When Rock-Star Preachers Spew a False Gospel published at Charisma News. The topic of “rock star preachers” is of interest to me because of my recent comments on “Biblical sufficiency” related to Part 1 and Part 2 of my commentary on John F. MacArthur (no, MacArthur’s not a “rock star preacher,” quite the opposite).

Drama is like blood in the water and we are all sharks looking for the next feeding frenzy.

But is that the way God wants us to be?

The Chofetz Chaim writes that because we are so involved in worldly matters, we lose our sensitivity to the great amount of joy we can potentially experience when performing a mitzvah (good deed). He offers the analogy of a man who was granted an audience with a powerful ruler. Imagine that the ruler is greatly impressed with the man, and has the conversation recorded in his personal diary. What a thrill! Upon returning home, the man’s face would glow with elation as he retells his experience to all his friends and neighbors. Even if he’d previously been worried over personal problems, he’d quickly forget them! Over the next years, whenever he’d meet others at some gathering, his successful meeting with the ruler would invariably be the topic of conversation.

Says the Chofetz Chaim: If this is the joy of someone who found favor with a mortal (who will eventually die and whose glory is short-lived), all the more so should we feel joy when we doing something which finds favor with the eternal Creator of the universe. Even afterward, when recalling the good deed, we will feel a glow of pleasure. In fact, the Torah (Deut. 28:47) stresses that we should feel more joy in serving the Almighty than from all other pleasures that exist.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #813: Being in the Almighty’s Favor”
Aish.com

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.

John 13:34

We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.

1 Thessalonians 5:12-24

I suppose I could be criticized for choosing specifically optimistic and encouraging examples of scripture to place here, but then again, if you value the Word of God at all, you shouldn’t ignore them, either.

kindnessWhy do we do good? For the benefit of those around us. This is what God desires. However there is another motive. Each mitzvah we perform, each morsel of food or drink we give to a homeless person, each child’s skinned knee we put a band-aid on and kiss, each smile we give to a person we’re visiting in the hospital, not only helps the lonely and injured and not only helps the loneliness and injury within us, but it brings us closer to God.

We do good because only God is good (Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19). Only God is One (Deut. 6:4). Only by loving God can we love anyone else in the way God designed us to love (Matthew 22:34-40).

I could quote at length from the comments section of some “religious blogs” the transactions of believers who do not seem to be loving each other at all. Occasionally, I try to introduce the voice of reason and yes, of love, but I don’t know if it does any good. On the other hand, it’s difficult to ignore some of these venues. There are people out there who feel they have been badly hurt (and some of them really have) by a “church experience,” and in reaction, they say harsh things about all Christians in churches (and sometimes about Jewish people in synagogues). Reading some of their material is like watching someone terribly injured and bleeding while trapped in the wreckage of a disastrous car accident (and I’ve written about this before). It’s horrible to look at but I can’t turn away. I want desperately to help, but I don’t know how to get them out of the ghastly mess.

(I should say that I wrote this particular blog post several days before my controversial missive but this one was scheduled to be published while I was away from home.)

What do you do when someone is hurt, has been hurt for a long, long time, and yet doesn’t want to be helped? What do you do with people who totally identify with being hurt, who are defined by being hurt, by being victims, and yet don’t want to let go of the pain, even when they know that if they did finally, finally let go, they would be much better human beings…the people God intended them to be?

Is there “power” in playing the victim role? Absolutely. Look back to what I said before about “popular” blogs. Controversy, pain, “blood in the water,” arguments about who is a “true believer” and who is an “apostate” rule the religious web. Everything else, righteousness, holiness, goodness, devotion…all that stuff is boring. Who wants to read it? No one.

Well, that may be an exaggeration, probably a gross exaggeration. I suspect a “silent majority” of people do read about righteousness, holiness, goodness, and devotion, and absorb it into their beings like a starving child voraciously consumes a glass of milk. It’s just that most of them don’t talk about it, don’t comment on blogs, don’t demand to hear more, don’t speak out dynamically, don’t become impassioned, at least in any way we can see in the blogosphere.

As you’re reading this, I’m at First Fruits of Zion’s Shavuot Conference at Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, Wisconsin. Through the miracle of scheduling blog posts, I can write this “last week” and have it become visible on the web Wednesday morning. I hadn’t intended to have new “mediations” be published while away from home, but as I said above, something is driving me to write about what we never talk about, or at least what is never “popular” to talk about.

doing_goodIt could be argued that something is only popular if it produces positive results within its audience and controversy rarely does that. Certainly the common definitions for the word “popular” include “regarded with favor, approval, or affection.” Can controversy be regarded with “affection?” On the other hand, look at what’s “popular” in our world today. Consider the TV shows with the highest ratings. What about movies, music, celebrities? Are these popular things and people always examples of righteousness, holiness, goodness, and devotion, or are they mere reflections of the moral state of our society? I suggest we try to do what is “unpopular.” As people of faith, we must go against the general grain if it violates what we are taught by our Master and Teacher.

The commentary for Pirkei Avot 6:2 states:

Why the roundabout, “negative” wording of the mishnah? Why not simply say “True freedom is attained through Torah”?

Man is a finite being, and everything he possesses and is capable of achieving is likewise finite in scope and extent. It would, therefore, follow that there is no such thing as a free human being. Not only do the proud, the envious, the ignorant and the greedy live in their own prison, but even the most emotionally stable and content individual, blessed with the most plentiful resources and leading the most uninhibited of lives, is still subservient to his own inherent limitations.

Thus, our mishnah opens with the statement, “There is no free individual.” But one who occupies himself with Torah, subordinating his mind and self to the wisdom and will of the Almighty, transcends this most basic nature of every created thing.

Torah defies the unbridgeable gap between the finite and the infinite. It is the wisdom and will of G-d, articulated in terms that the human being can comprehend, relate to and implement in his life. One who submits to the servitude of a life devoted to Torah experiences the freedom that eludes the most “independent” of men.

We also learn something important from Paul:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Colossians 3:12-17

white-pigeon-kotelToday, I’m attending a conference dedicated to the gifts of the Holy Spirit. One of those gifts as I see it, is fellowship and community within the body of Jewish and Gentile believers. One might even say that I am participating in “echad” or a sense of “oneness” within the body of Messiah, though it contains many dissimilar parts.

We are commanded to love one another. I think that means we should love each other even if we don’t always like each other. I know I’m not always likeable, but I pray that God finds me always loveable, through His abundant grace and mercy. And if He can love me, He can love anyone. That means I should love anyone, too.

And showing love, more than any act of superficiality or ceremony is what it is to be righteous and holy to God. May the injured find healing in Him.

A person with humility is able to accept misfortunes and suffering. The arrogant person, however, is not able to tolerate these events.

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin

“To become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them.”

-Charles-Louis de Montesquieu

133 days.