Torah is the life blood of the Jewish people. Our enemies have always known that when we Jews stop learning Torah, our assimilation is inevitable. Without knowledge there is no commitment. One cannot love what he does not know. A person cannot do or understand what he has never learned.
-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly for Shavuot” Aish.com
Of late, I have distanced myself from more formal expressions of Messianic Judaism, and so I decided to revisit the question “What should Shavuot mean to me?” I reviewed my previous comments on the matter. Things have changed even more since then.
In his commentary, Rabbi Packouz continued:
A Jew is commanded to learn Torah day and night and to teach it to his children. If a Jew wants his family to be Jewish and his children to marry other Jews, then he must integrate a Torah study program into his life and implement the teachings into his home and his being. One can tell his children anything, but only if they see their parents learning and doing mitzvot, will they inherit the love for being Jewish. Remember: a parent only owes his child three things — example, example, example.
Well, that’s for a Jew. The Torah wasn’t given to the nations at Sinai and we didn’t inherit it either at Acts 2 or Acts 15. We have, by inference, received the promise of the Holy Spirit and Acts 10 does record non-Jews receiving such a Spirit, so the Pentecost event should have some significance for us.
But there’s a disconnect between people of the nations receiving the Spirit and other of the New Covenant blessings solely by the grace and mercy of God, and the Children of Israel receiving the Torah as the conditions of the Sinai Covenant.
So we non-Jewish disciples of our Rav should be cautious as to how much of Shavuot we claim, since it doesn’t belong to us. While I enjoy reading Rabbi Packouz and the other Aish rabbis, I’m distinctly aware that they are writing solely for a Jewish audience. It’s just that they can’t block any non-Jew who happens to visit their site.
As I was reading R. Packouz, a pop-up appeared inviting me to chat with an Aish.com Rabbi. I don’t know what I’d say and I’m sure he’d be in the same bind, hence I minimized the window.
I did come across another Aish article written by Rabbi Moshe Greene called The Yiddish Speaking Latino Cop. I won’t quote from it, but I encourage you to read it, as the article describes how a non-Jewish retired police officer named Donny became so close to a great chassidic leader, that he “picked up” Yiddish, and perhaps much more.
Ultimately, the story is about encouraging Jewish unity, not the role of a non-Jew in that process. That said, it was Donny who asked Rabbi Greene a pointed question that resulted in his writing about the encounter for Shavuot.
But unlike Donny, we might not find ourselves in a unique position to have those insights and experiences that might actually cause a Rabbi to think in a new direction. However, as R. Greene mentioned (though regarding only Jews), we all can participate in the process of Tikkun Olam, or making the world a better place.
Perhaps for the Gentile, Shavuot is less about the Torah, the Sinai Covenant, the Festival, and the traditions, than it is a reminder that as possessors of the Spirit of God and in the name of our Rav, we too can do our part to make the world just a little bit better.
Rabbi Chayim Shmuelevitz used to comment on this that just as those who support Torah study financially have the merit of the Torah study of those they support, so too anyone who influences another person to study Torah shares in the merit of that person…
…Parents who influence and enable their children to study Torah have this merit, as do wives who enable their husbands to study Torah.
NOTE: It was brought to my attention that the previous incarnation of this blog post contained erroneous information. I have re-edited the text, images, and links to remove those errors.
Yes, I know this is midrash. I have an interesting relationship with midrash. I think of it as not so much literal fact or even a hidden spiritual truth, but rather as metaphor, a way to communicate something about people and their relationship to each other and to God.
As I write this, it’s Sunday morning and the first full day of Shavuot. Yesterday, my wife went to synagogue for Shabbat services and last night she returned for a study on the Book of Ruth, which is a traditional study for Jews on Shavuot. Not long from now, she’s leaving for shul again to help with the food preparations for the Shavuot gathering (all this will be over by the time you read these words).
As I mentioned a few days ago as well as on other occasions including this one, it is not only important to me as a general principle to encourage Jewish return to Torah study and observance, it’s important to me personally as a husband.
Rabbi Pliskin, citing Rabbi Shmuelevitz, commented that parents who encourage their children to study Torah, and wives who encourage their husbands to study Torah receive the merit of studying Torah themselves, even if they never actually do so in any regard.
Yes, that’s midrash. We don’t really know through Biblical exegesis (at least those of us who lack a traditional religious Jewish education) how God views these “merits,” or if they represent some objective reality. However, I prefer to take this metaphor as an encouragement.
Of course, Rabbi Pliskin is writing to a Jewish audience and is not presupposing a non-Jewish husband married to a Jewish wife, but I believe there is some merit, even if it only exists inside my heart, in me encouraging and supporting my wife in Torah study and observance, even in the smallest degree. No, it’s not that God expects or requires me to observe Torah in the manner of the Jewish people, but I do think He expects and requires all non-Jewish disciples of the Master to recognize that we only receive the blessings of the New Covenant, such as the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the promise of the resurrection, through the merit of Israel. After all, the New Covenant was made only with Israel and it is only through the mercy of God and the faithfulness of Messiah that we Gentiles can receive any of those blessings at all.
In return, what shall we do? Claim the Torah for ourselves as if we too stood at Sinai (which we didn’t)? Only the Jewish people can make that assertion. However, we can do the next best thing. We can encourage, support, and promote the Jewish return to Torah study and observance since it is the Jewish heritage and inheritance.
For nearly twenty centuries, Christianity has made a concerted effort to separate Jews from Torah, Talmud, and synagogue. Today, even the most enlightened churches continue to believe that the only way to “save” a Jew (or anyone else) is to have them exit Judaism and surrender any vestige of Torah study and observance, and instead to take on the traditions of the Gentile Christian Church.
But the Biblical record is clear that God has repeatedly urged the Jewish people, from Moses to Paul and beyond, to observe and obey His Torah, and when they don’t, the consequence is exile or worse.
Mistakenly, for the past two-thousand years, the Church has promoted and encouraged the Jewish people to disobey God, further exacerbating Jewish exile. By God’s grace, He has overridden our futile efforts to further damage the Jewish people and Judaism by re-establishing national Israel and beginning to return His people to their Land, all in preparation for the time of the Messiah and the completion of the New Covenant promises.
He has also drawn some few of we Gentiles to a greater knowledge of the Torah and specifically our esteemed and valued role as supporters of the Jewish people and their return to the mitzvot.
Hashem said to Moses, “Go to the people and sanctify them today and tomorrow, and they shall wash their clothing. Let them be prepared for the third day, for on the third day Hashem shall descend in the sight of the entire people on Mount Sinai.”
As Moses obeyed Hashem in directing the nation of Israel to be sanctified before God in preparation to receive the Torah, we Gentiles can take our cue from this lesson and, not direct, but rather clear the path for Jewish return to the Torah.
I’m in a rather unique position as a Yeshua-believing Gentile husband being married to a non-believing Jewish wife. I have a built-in opportunity to support her involvement in Jewish community and in Torah study and observance. Many of you don’t have that specific opportunity, but I believe many of you have others of which you can take advantage.
I believe that individual Christians and the Church as a whole has the opportunity to change its narrative from being anti-Torah and anti-Judaism to just the opposite. No, I’m not encouraging Gentile believers to take up the Torah as such, but they/you/we can start preaching and teaching the extreme value of Jewish Torah observance in God’s plan of global redemption. We’ve tried to take God’s gift of the Torah away from the Jewish people for untold centuries. It’s time we repented of this sin and made amends. It’s time we got out of Judaism’s way, including Messianic Judaism.
Without the Jewish Messiah King and without a Torah observant Israel, there are no blessings to radiate out to the nations. Ironically and tragically, by Christianity’s efforts to separate the Jewish people from Torah, we have been cutting ourselves off from the Savior of the World, the Church’s beloved Jesus.
According to Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman, it was on the festival of Sukkot each year when seventy oxen were sacrificed for the sake of the seventy nations of the world, that is, the global population of non-Jews:
Thus our Sages taught, “You find that during the Festival [Succot], Israel offers seventy oxen for the seventy nations. Israel says: Master of the Universe, behold we offer You seventy oxen in their behalf, and they should have loved us. Instead, in the place of my love, they hate me (Psalms 109).” Further, they remarked: “If the nations of the world would have known the value of the Temple for them, they would have surrounded it with a fortress in order to protect it. For it was of greater value to them than for Israel [instead, they destroyed it]” (Bamidbar Rabba 1).
If it is true that the ancient Roman armies, in destroying the Temple, were destroying Israel’s ability to offer atonement for the Gentiles before God, how much more so has the Christian Church, in striving to separate the Jewish people from Torah, been destroying the New Covenant salvation offered to us by Messiah, by Christ?
We can change this. There’s still time. Do what I do for I believe what I’m doing is right. If nothing else, at least get out of the way of Jewish people, both those in Messiah and otherwise, in returning to the Torah. If you have Jews in your church, encourage them to light the Shabbos candles, listen to podcasts on Torah study, read fine commentaries on Torah such as those published by Rabbi Pliskin. Encourage them to become more observant as Jews.
Most importantly, if they are willing, encourage them in learning of how Jewish Torah observance and devotion to Messiah not only go hand in hand, but are absolutely necessary to fulfill and complete the redemptive plan of God for all Israel, and through Israel, the entire world. Then we Gentiles may be able to say that we have earned, however metaphorically, the merit of Torah study and observance, not by doing so ourselves, but by being part of the Messianic plan to return the Jewish people to their Torah and their Land.
I attended synagogue services on the holiday of Shavuot morning, and we spent a half-hour reading the Book of Ruth. Is there any special connection between Ruth and Shavuot?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
The Torah and prophetic reading on Yom Tov always relate to a deeper theme of the day.
In this case, Ruth is the ancestor of King David, who was born on Shavuot, and died on Shavuot.
Another reason is because Ruth is the quintessential Jewish convert, and on the very first Shavuot – when the Torah was given at Mount Sinai – each Israelite essentially became a “Jew by Choice.” That’s why the Talmud and Code of Jewish Law use the Sinai experience as a basis for determining the requirements of all future converts:
1) Mikveh – All converts must immerse in a Mikveh (ritual bath), as the Israelites did at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:14, 24:8).
2) Milah – Male converts must undergo circumcision, as the Israelites did before leaving Egypt (Exodus 12:48 and Joshua 5:5).
3) Mitzvot – All converts must accept to observe all 613 mitzvot of the Torah, as the Israelites did at Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:3).
Interestingly, the Torah intimates that the souls of eventual converts were also present at Sinai, as the verse says: “I am making [the covenant] both with those here today before the Lord our God, and also with those not here today.” (Deut. 29:13)
From “Ruth and Shavuot”
the Aish Ask the Rabbi column Aish.com
In my recent review of the Mark Nanos essay “The Question of Conceptualization: Qualifying Paul’s Position on Circumcision in Dialogue with Josephus’s Advisors to King Izates” as found in the book Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (Kindle Edition), citing Nanos, I commented that the Apostle Paul was very much against the non-Jewish disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) converting to Judaism, frankly, because it was unnecessary. In Messiah, Gentiles have an equal communal status with the Jewish disciples, the same indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and the same promise of the resurrection.
The other major reason that Paul discouraged Gentiles from converting is that it would undermine God’s promise to Abraham that he would be the father to many nations. If we all converted to Judaism as a means of accessing a covenant relationship with God, then God’s promise that not just the Jewish people but all peoples would bow to Him, would be null and void. And as I hope you realize, it’s impossible to thwart the plans and promises of Hashem, God of Israel.
So is there any good reason for a Gentile in Messiah to convert to Judaism? There must be, because some few such converts exist (I have no statistics as to exactly how many there are or where they can be found and only personally know of one such person).
I also know that some critics of Messianic Judaism in the Hebrew Roots space believe that the practice of conversion is not presupposed in the Torah and thus is unbiblical, not to be recognized by those Gentiles who believe the Torah applies equally to all, Jew and Gentile alike.
However, as we see above, the Jewish people certainly do believe there is a precedent in the Torah that allows for ritual conversion of Gentiles, bringing them into Israel as (Jewish) children of Abraham.
Neither Christianity nor any branch of Judaism believes that Gentiles must convert to Judaism and indeed, Christianity sees converting non-believers to themselves is the desirable outcome, not becoming a member of the tribes, so to speak.
I also mentioned before that both in the late Second Temple period and today, those of us, that is, non-Jews who have some sort of connection with Judaism in general and Messianic Judaism in particular, often suffer from an identity crisis. More than once, the dissonance of who I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to do given my rather unique outlook on the Bible, has stirred a great desire in me to “throw in the towel” and stop associating with religious people altogether, both face-to-face and over the web.
It’s not an easy life.
Some non-Jews entering Messianic community have shot out the other end, so to speak, and converted to (usually Orthodox) Judaism as a way to end that dissonance and secure a religiously and socially acceptable identity within Judaism. To do so however, they had to surrender all fealty to Yeshua as Messiah and King, thus, from Christianity’s point of view, becoming apostates.
I believe, both in ancient and modern times, that God gave the Jewish people the ability to be “gatekeepers” into their realm. Nanos spoke of a “chronometrical gospel”, that is, a time-related good news event or set of events, a good news that entered our world heralding the advent of the New Covenant promises with the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Master, the Messiah.
Prior to Yeshua, there was a mechanism in place whereby Gentiles who were drawn to the God of Israel could undergo a ritual allowing them to join Israel and thereafter be considered indistinguishable from the born Israelite. It was the only real option for such Gentiles, apart from the status of God-Fearers who had no covenant status relative to God (unless you count the Noahide covenant).
The process of conversion seemed to morph over time and was likely different in some manner to the process we see Ruth undergoing to convert to Judaism and become the eventual ancestor to King David and ultimately, Yeshua.
No one should question the authenticity of David’s let alone Yeshua’s Judaism because a convert was their ancestor.
But as I said before, if converting to Judaism were the only way for Gentiles to apprehend the blessings of the New Covenant (let alone Sinai), then as I said above, God’s promise to Abraham would fail.
So through Messiah, another avenue was created, one that does not require we convert and become Israel. We are permitted now to come alongside Israel, not being them but being at the same table with them, partaking in the same blessings without being responsible for the same obligations. This makes it possible for the whole world to come to God, to be blessed by God, to attain the companionship of the Holy Spirit of God, and to receive the promise of a life in the world to come, all without conversion and all while remaining fully Gentile citizens of the nations.
Being culturally Jewish, without belief in God, is compared to a cut flower. While it still retains much of its vitality, the flower has been cut off from its source of nutrition, and within a short time will wither and die. The ideals which have kept the Jewish people alive and thriving over the millennia – despite all odds – can only be transmitted with the framework that the Torah provides.
I’ve mentioned in this blog post and several others including this one, that we “Messianic Gentiles” actually have a very specific duty, that of encouraging and supporting Jews in Messiah (any Jew we may encounter, actually) to return to Torah and to more fully observe the mitzvot.
Without Jewish devotion to Torah, as the Aish Rabbi states, what God has preserved in the Jewish people will eventually fade…and without Israel, we Gentiles have no hope, because 100% of the promised blessings we receive God made with Israel, not us!
That’s why Yeshua is the King to the Jews first and only after, the King of the nations of the world. Whether the realization is comfortable or not, Israel is the gatekeeper, it guards all the doors, it holds all the keys, all through God’s covenants with Israel, and all through the person of Israel’s King, King Messiah, Son of David.
There may well be some valid reasons for Gentiles converting to Judaism, but they are all minimized within the Messianic Jewish realm simply because, as Paul pointed out repeatedly, it’s not necessary in order for a Gentile to have an authentic relationship with God. Particularly for the Gentile but also for the Jewish people, the cornerstone, the lynchpin to that relationship is Messiah. He opened the door that let the Gentiles into a full relationship with God, and he brought the very beginnings of what will someday be the completion of God’s New Covenant promises to Israel, and only through Israel, to the world.
We non-Jews should not dismiss or denigrate converts to Judaism, regardless of which branch they convert into, but we should rest assured that it is not a requirement either. This may be confusing relative to Gentile identity in Messianic community (which is why I suspect such Gentiles either covert to Judaism, return to the Gentile Church, or just give up on religion completely), but what Jews and Gentiles don’t yet understand about the non-Jew’s role and function among Israel, is well understood by God.
If I, as a non-Jew who studies within a Messianic Jewish framework, am never accepted as who I am, either by Gentiles or Jews, I can take comfort that in the privacy of my prayers and studies, I am still accepted by God. I can be a disciple and a Goy. I can be who I am. I don’t have to become someone else or pretend to possess another’s responsibilities to stand in the presence of the Almighty.
All her ways are ways of pleasantness. And her paths are peace. She is a tree to those who lay hold of her: Those who hold her fast are called blessed.
The Sinai Ethic was originally presented by Rabbi Russ Resnik, executive director of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC), during the annual First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) Shavu’ot Conference at Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, Wisconsin. Shavu’ot, the anniversary of the giving of the Torah and the pouring out of the Spirit, is a holy and deeply spiritual time that provides a reverent connection with the people of God who heard the words of the LORD spoken from the fire at Mount Sinai. These teachings, given in three sessions during the festival, focus on the moral and ethical mandates that the giving of the Torah established for the Jewish people and all nations.
-from the back cover of the CD for the audio teaching, “The Sinai Ethic”
Session One: On the Way to Sinai
I received this packet of two audio CDs containing the three sessions that make up Rabbi Resnik’s “The Sinai Ethic” presentation some time ago, but until now, I haven’t had the opportunity to listen to any of them, let alone write a review. So on a warm and pleasant Sunday afternoon, having completed the construction of my humble sukkah on my back patio, I set about to listen to the first of the three lectures.
I don’t know what I expected, but whatever it was, this wasn’t it.
Actually, it took me awhile to figure out what R. Resnik was getting to, that is, the actual topic and point of his presentation. I suppose it would have helped if I paid attention to the overall theme of this year’s FFOZ Shavuot conference, but since I didn’t attend, it really wasn’t on the forefront of my thoughts.
Rabbi Resnik started out with a familiar topic, the Shabbat. In Exodus 20, he states the commandment is to “remember the Shabbat”, but in Deuteronomy’s repeat of the Ten Commandments, it shifts to “observe the Shabbat”. Of course one must remember in order to keep and observe, or perhaps it’s the other way around. The point is that “remembering” isn’t a matter of holding an idea in your thoughts, but in re-enacting an event. It’s what Shavuot does when Jews are called up to the bema to read the Torah portions, just as the ancient Israelites went up to Mount Sinai to hear the Torah and receive it.
I want to make sure I insert this next part because it’s the cornerstone of Resnik’s talk. He quotes a Rabbi who lived sometime around 400 CE and who said (I’m paraphrasing):
All that is written in the Torah is for the sake of peace.
That’s a nice sentiment, but there is plenty recorded in the Torah that doesn’t sound very peaceful. The taking of the Land of Canaan, for example, was anything but peaceful. In fact, it was war.
Speaking of re-enacting…
Say, therefore, to the sons of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.’
–Exodus 6:6-7 (NASB)
There are four promises in these verses that are re-enacted during the Passover seder with the four cups. God’s promises to take the children of Israel out of Egypt, free them from bondage, redeem Israel, and take them for His people as their God.
But there’s a fifth promise spoken of in verse eight:
I will bring you to the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession; I am the Lord.’”
God will fulfill the promise He made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the promise of the Land of Canaan, and give the Israelites possession of it.
There are two important things to remember here about the Israelites and the Land:
The Promise of the Land
Possession of the Land
In Genesis 12:1-3 and again in Genesis 15:1-16, we see God making this promise to Abraham and acting out its confirmation. This promise is totally without condition. Abraham and his descendants through Isaac and Jacob don’t have to do anything at all for this promise to be given to them, the promise that their descendants will one day possess the Land. Nothing can take this promise away.
But here’s where the “Sinai Ethic” comes in:
Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.
The promise is unconditional, but taking possession isn’t. The Israelites couldn’t take possession on a whim. Certainly Abraham couldn’t possess any part of the Land, even though technically, he held the deed. In fact, after Sarah dies, he must buy the cave of Machpelah and the surrounding field for a hefty price in order to bury his wife.
Abraham and his descendants received the promise of the Land, but they couldn’t take possession until the iniquity of the inhabitants in current possession reached a certain threshold that triggered God’s judgment upon them.
But that’s not the only condition. In fact, the entire giving of the Torah at Sinai was not only the list of conditions the Children of Israel had to obey to hold up their end of the covenant, it was the conditions for taking possession of the Land. And while the promise isn’t conditional, taking and keeping possession is.
What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise.
Resnik says the context of this verse has to do with the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles, but the underlying principle has to do with promises and possession. The fact that God made the Sinai Covenant with Israel in no way made void or invalidated the promise He made with Abraham. A subsequent covenant or event never nullifies a previous covenant or a promise of God.
(As an aside, going back to the context of the above-quoted verse, I could interpret this, based on the principle, to mean that the giving of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles in no way undermines or reverses God’s covenant promises to Israel, either the Sinai or the New Covenant, but that’s not what Resnik was driving at, so I digress)
Resnik applied this principle to our day-to-day lives as individual believers. The world doesn’t like committed religious believers and Resnik says some of that is our fault. We have become arrogant. We say we have the promises, and forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection, and at least some of us talk and walk around like we’re “too cool for school” (my words, not Resnik’s). The technical term in religious circles is “Triumphalism.”
Yes, the promises we have received as believers are true and they are real, but we haven’t taken possession of them yet. The resurrection has yet to come, just as Abraham had the promises but did not have possession. Like him, we need to learn to walk humbly before God and man, living out our faith day by day in obedience.
“Then it shall come about when the Lord your God brings you into the land which He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you, great and splendid cities which you did not build, and houses full of all good things which you did not fill, and hewn cisterns which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant, and you eat and are satisfied, then watch yourself, that you do not forget the Lord who brought you from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall fear only the Lord your God; and you shall worship Him and swear by His name.”
Taking and then keeping possession of the Land required obedience to God’s commandments. When the Israelites obeyed God, they lived well in the Land. When they didn’t, the promise of the Land was still intact, but typically the Israelites went into exile and (temporarily) lost possession of the Land. In some ways, the exile isn’t really over today because Messiah hasn’t returned, many Jews still live outside Israel, and national Israel has enmity with her neighbors (and probably the rest of the world).
Which brings us back to that Rabbinic quote about peace, the Torah, and the Sinai Ethic.
Resnik quoted a modern Orthodox Jewish scholar (I tried looking up what I thought his name was on Google but got nothing). As near as I was able to write it down, in part, this Orthodox scholar said he preaches “love of the Land with a high degree of non-violence.”
The gist of this scholar’s statement and Resnik’s agreement to it is that we shouldn’t be too caught up with political and military power for holding onto the modern state of Israel, particularly when it violates peace in the region and around the world. The Jewish people should be prepared to once again lose possession of the Land for the sake of upholding peace, because we know, as the Orthodox Jewish scholar knows, that when Messiah comes (returns), the Jewish people will get back possession of the Land based on the promises anyway.
That was a lot for me to swallow, but let me continue.
It’s not through politics or armies that the promises are fulfilled, but through returning to God in deep teshuvah and being obedient in all His ways. Resnik was careful to point out that we do indeed have a part to play in all this. He’s not advocating total pacifism and immediate surrender to Israel’s enemies, he apparently just wants to put everything in its proper context in that God is the one who will ultimately cause His promises to come to pass.
Remember, Messiah is called Sar Shalom, the Prince of Peace.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…
To be “sons of God” in this case is to reflect the nature of God. Resnik explained to his listeners that Yeshua wasn’t preaching some pie-in-the-sky ideal, but how to live out practical life in that place and time. Israel was occupied by the brutal Roman empire, and yet the Master preached not only loving your neighbors, your fellow Jews, but even the harsh persecutors, those who pursue you, all for the sake of peace. Jesus wasn’t leading a revolution, even if his disciples and the common people who believed he was the Messiah wanted him to.
At the end of his first of three lectures, this is where Rabbi Resnik left us with the Sinai Ethic.
What Do I Think?
Like I said above, this was totally unexpected. I thought there would be some other focus (though I didn’t imagine what it would be) than the juxtaposition of possession of the Land of Israel by the Jewish people, and the potential for losing possession, all for the sake of the higher value of peace.
One thing I do know is that Messiah will return as a conquering King in the spirit of David, not a “meek and mild lamb”. During his first appearance as the “Word made flesh,” he didn’t put up a fight, even for his own life, but indeed, was led to the slaughter, so to speak, all for the sake of bringing atonement, not only to the Jewish people, but to the world.
That’s not how he’s going to come back.
Of course, since he’s not here yet, Resnik may have a point, but Israel has been through too many wars and won most of them against all odds (and I believe through the providence of God) for me to believe that current Jewish possession of the Land is entirely by human effort. I believe God is already playing a part, a big one, in Jewish people living in Israel today.
I’m not Jewish and I’ve never even been to Israel, but something just sticks in my throat when I even think about the Jews, under any circumstances, rolling over and giving the Land to Abbas and his cronies. “Peace” in the Arab world is something of an illusion. When the Arabs don’t have Jews to fight, they fight each other. I know that probably sounds racist, but that’s the history of the Arab peoples across the long centuries. In fact, Dennis Prager late last month, published an article which highlights my point called What the Arab World Produces.
But since “The Sinai Ethic” is made up of all three sessions, with this being just the first one, I could be jumping to a hasty conclusion. Ecclesiastes 3:8 says there’s a time for war and a time for peace. God has commanded war for the sake of His people Israel on numerous occasions. The ancient Israelites took the Land originally by force of arms at the command of Hashem, Master of Heaven’s Armies, so it’s not like the Torah only teaches peace and self-sacrifice. Yes, it does teach those things, but as a former instructor of mine once said, “Once in action, watch the timing.”
I’ll listen to and review the second of the three sessions by the by which should add some dimension to what “the Sinai Ethic” means.
Yesterday, I attended a class called “The Laws of Shavuot.” Being relatively new to Judaism, I expected a class similar to those before Passover or Sukkot. Many technical laws. Lots of “do”s and “do not”s.
To my surprise, other than going to synagogue to hear the reading of the Ten Commandments, there are very few laws unique to Shavuot. Unlike Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there are no lengthy prayers. And unlike Sukkot and Passover, we can eat whatever we like, as well as wherever we like. Sure there are the customs related to flowers, blintzes, and cheesecakes, but hey, it’s a piece of (cheese)cake compared to the other holidays.
Am I missing something here? Shouldn’t the holiday on which we received the many laws of the Torah have some laws of its own?
I suppose I should write something about Shavuot. The festival begins at sundown this Tuesday, June 3rd and continues through sundown on Thursday, June 5th. It’s the only one of the Jewish moadim (appointed times) that has a direct corollary in the Christian religious calendar since the Church observes the Pentecost event (Acts 2:1-13), however, while Christians consider Pentecost a one time occurrence, Shavuot, from a Jewish perspective, is an annually recurring celebration.
As the person writing to the Chabad “Ask the Rabbi” column observes, unlike the other Jewish festivals, Shavuot doesn’t seem to have much in the way of customs or commandments associated with it. Of course, neither does the typical observance of Pentecost in churches. In fact, growing up in a Lutheran church, I didn’t even know Pentecost was an event. I only thought we celebrated Christmas and Easter. The same was true when I actually (finally) came to faith (as a child, I never understood I was supposed to do something like “accept Christ into my heart,” so I couldn’t be considered a Christian in those days) in a Nazarene church when in my early forties.
I guess I should correct a point I made above. Shavuot celebrates a one time event also, the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Yet, the Bible commands the Jewish people to observe the moadim in perpetuity, while Church custom added the “observance” of the giving of the Holy Spirit outside of the Biblical canon.
For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus so that he would not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hurrying to be in Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost.
–Acts 20:16 (NASB)
In the church I attend, both in the sermons on this verse and in Sunday school class, it is imagined that Paul’s primary motivation to get to Jerusalem in a hurry has to do with the significance of the Pentecost event, the giving of the Holy Spirit, which the Pastor refers to as “the birthday of the Church”. And while Pastor does acknowledge that Paul, as an observant Jew (though he believes that in this “transitional period”, Torah observance was on its way to extinction among the Jewish ekklesia), would also be motivated to return to Jerusalem to celebrate Shavuot in accordance to the commandment, my Sunday school teacher is all but blind to the “Jewishness” of Paul and focuses exclusively on Pentecost as the apostle’s overriding concern.
More’s the pity. The Church wholly misunderstands Paul and has led the rest of the world, including ancient and modern Judaism, to misunderstand him, too. We also tend to miss why Shavuot would have been so special to Paul as a Jew and especially as the apostle to the Gentiles in the diaspora.
Torah is the life blood of the Jewish people. Our enemies have always known that when we Jews stop learning Torah, our assimilation is inevitable. Without knowledge there is no commitment. One cannot love what he does not know. A person cannot do or understand what he has never learned.
He, of all people, should have known the vital importance of Torah study and observance for Jews, Jesus-believers or otherwise, in order to maintain Jewish identity and covenant integrity. After all, he declared himself…
…a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God…
–Acts 22:3 (NASB)
Also, on many occasions after his initial arrest, he proclaimed his innocence, including in Rome:
Paul called together those who were the leading men of the Jews, and when they came together, he began saying to them, “Brethren, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans.”
–Acts 28:17 (NASB)
The Torah was always close to Paul and in spite of how the Church has distorted Paul’s teachings and his reputation and taught the Jewish people to distrust if not actively despise Paul, the meaning of Shavuot must have been heavily upon him during his last visit to Jerusalem.
What is it supposed to mean to Jews today? What is Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar’s answer to the question of why Shavuot is so “easy”?
Here’s what R. Cotlar says the answer isn’t:
The Torah is often seen as a “bandage” solution. The world is essentially a dark and scary jungle filled with all sorts of unhealthy foods, relationships and forms of recreation. So the Torah keeps us out of trouble.
Essentially, this perspective is saying that there was always a world, stuff, and us. The Torah? That came later on. It wasn’t until 2,448 years after creation that G‑d decided to work on the glitches, or at least provide us a way to maneuver around them.
With this approach, the Torah is an imposed set of laws—one that clashes with the world around us.
Now here’s the correct response:
The Torah is G‑d’s own wisdom. It existed long before there was a world. But G‑d wasn’t happy with this wisdom staying in the spiritual realms. He wanted a physical world where this wisdom would be studied and its commandments observed. To make things challenging, He planted obstacles and distractions, but these are merely masks that conceal the world’s true purpose: An activity center for Torah and mitzvahs, a place where every word can be transformed into Torah, every gadget used for holiness, every dollar turned into a mitzvah.
And because this was the intent from the very beginning, it’s Torah—not the craziness on the outside—that is the world’s true genetic makeup. We need the Torah merely to reveal what the world always was meant to be: a home for G‑d.
The celebration of the giving of the Torah seems so “ordinary” because the Torah represents what is supposed to be “normal life” for the Jewish people, it’s a reflection of what God’s intent for Creation was always supposed to be. R. Cotlar even calls the Torah the “very DNA of the world.”
Each year on Shavuot, when we re-experience Sinai, we show our appreciation for Torah through normal eating and celebrating—without any special rules. For the Torah does not introduce a new reality, but rather sheds light, purpose and sanctity into everything that is already here now. Even cheesecake.
What should Shavuot or “Pentecost” if you will, mean to Christians today? In most churches, not much. Even those churches that observe some sort of Pentecost celebration rarely, if ever, even give lip service to Shavuot. Until I started studying within a Hebrew Roots context, I had no idea what so many “out-of-town” Jews were doing in Jerusalem when the Pentecost event happened. I had no idea that Jews from all over the civilized world would be flooding into Jerusalem to observe Shavuot and to offer sacrifices at the Temple.
Although I won’t have the opportunity this time around, for the previous two years, I’ve seen first hand what Shavuot should mean to Jews and Gentiles celebrating together in response to the ancient mitzvot and through the revelation of Messiah. This year, First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) is holding it’s annual National Shavuot Conference at Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, Wisconsin from May 30th through June 5th. Messianic Jews and Gentiles from all over the U.S. and some from other nations, are currently gathering together for a time of worship, fellowship, and celebration in Messiah, perhaps not entirely unlike that early Jesus-believing “Synagogue of the Way” in ancient Syrian Antioch.
A Jew is commanded to learn Torah day and night and to teach it to his children. If a Jew wants his family to be Jewish and his children to marry other Jews, then he must integrate a Torah study program into his life and implement the teachings into his home and his being. One can tell his children anything, but only if they see their parents learning and doing mitzvot, will they inherit the love for being Jewish.
But if this is what the Torah, and by extension Shavuot, means to the Jews, what does it mean to those of us from “all the nations (who) will grasp the garment of a Jew, saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you” (Zechariah 8:23)? Do the Jews celebrate the giving of Torah while the Gentiles celebrate the giving of the Spirit?
We can see the application of celebrating the Spirit to both the Messianic Jews and the believing Gentiles, but what about the Torah?
Last year at the Shavuot conference, during the Shabbat and Shavuot Torah services, I was reluctant to participate because of this very question. I had embraced Boaz Michael’s vision of the Tent of David and was attempting to integrate into “church life.” Would I damage that effort by not only participating in but thoroughly enjoying celebrating Shavuot within a wholly Jewish context?
I’m afraid my identity and affiliation confusion made me seem “inhibited” and I lost the sense of closeness I felt toward people the year before. I only started to “get into it” at the very end but by then it was too late. And when returning home, almost before the plane landed back in Boise, I thought I shouldn’t go back the following year. I felt like I embarrassed myself in front of many of the people I respect, people who I consider friends but who now seem distant.
In the past year, I find I don’t really fit in at church though I’ve tried to remain devoted to my mission. I seem to be making a mess of all of my relationships on both sides of the aisle. I’ve been reconsidering my purpose in church, but I’m rapidly running out of options and ideas except maybe continuing to attend while keeping my head down and my mouth shut.
My wife surprised me a few weeks ago. Actually, it was on the day she called me arrogant for thinking I had a purpose to change anyone or anything in any Christian church. She asked me why I wasn’t going to this year’s Shavuot conference.
I was more than surprised by her asking. I didn’t even realize she was aware that another conference was coming up. I told her the truth. First off, we always have a “discussion” about the financial cost of my attending, even though I’ve received generous support in the past. I also mentioned (again) the relative level of embarrassment I cause her in the local Jewish community, not only as a church-going Christian, but as a “Messianic” and one who periodically associates with “Messianic Jews.”
But she’s worried about my “fellowship,” which she brings up from time to time (again, to my surprise), and she said that for those people in the Jewish community who she’s closest to, my being a Christian probably doesn’t make a difference one way or the other. It’s not as if I interact with any of her Jewish friends, or at least I haven’t for many years.
Shavuot is a time of community. I suppose you could say that of any of the moadim, but on Shavuot, God forged the nation of Israel at Sinai, He created a Covenant relationship with Israel and delivered, through Moses, the conditions of that relationship, the Torah, which gives joy and is a tree of life to all those who cling to her. We grafted in Gentiles, by clinging to the garments of the Jewish people through faith, apprehend salvation and some of the covenant blessings. Through faith in Messiah who leads us to the Father, we can sit at the same table as the Jews in Messiah as equal co-participants, and be blessed as well as be a blessing as the crowning jewels of the nations.
This Sunday (today, as you read this), I expect to be in Church listening to a sermon on Acts 21 and 22 and discussing Paul’s initial defense against the charges leveled against him by some Jewish agitators, largely due to his close association with Gentiles, both in the diaspora and in Jerusalem.
Yet Paul fought tremendous opposition to his return to Jerusalem, and many of his closest friends and advisors thought it was a mistake for him to enter the Holy City. Nevertheless, he went, for he was traveling not of his own accord but in response to God’s will. He knew it would be the last time he would see Jerusalem and that he was quite likely to die. His dedication to the Torah, to the Temple, and to the Jewish people was brought into question and many believed him to be a traitor, but he was responding to a higher purpose, not higher than Temple and Torah, but higher than criticism, insult, and even threats of death.
What should Shavuot mean? It should mean choosing (or being chosen, if speaking of the Jewish people) a way of life that isn’t comfortable and for some, isn’t even safe. It’s recognizing that God comes bearing gifts, but those gifts aren’t always easy to carry. Actually, the yoke of the Master is light, but in my case, I find the burden of my human character flaws to be an unwieldy weight that I stagger under and yet cannot release.
Shavuot means accepting what God gives in obedience and realizing your life isn’t your own anymore. It never was of course, but the illusion of “self-ownership” is swept away. Shavuot may be a time of fellowship, but can also bring near the realization that your “ekklesia” may be nowhere nearby, and in the stillness and quiet, you, or rather I, turn to the One who has taken my life and the One to whom I willingly surrender it.
As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore. So Jesus said to the twelve, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life.”
–John 6:66-68 (NASB)
Shavuot is a reminder to accept whatever comes from the hand of God, whether bitter or sweet.
But I have been persuaded by Professor Edward Greenstein to read this story existentially rather than critically. The death of Aaron’s sons was not the result of a miscue in the prescribed choreography of the Tabernacle. Their fate conveys the far deeper and more unsettling truth that no amount of elaborate, awesome, and precisely executed ritual should ever leave us with the illusion that we have brought God under human control. The very moment the Tabernacle comes into service, Israel is taught the sober lesson that God’s will remains free and inscrutable, God’s wisdom unfathomable. The religion of the Torah is not a set of magical techniques to get God to do our bidding, but rather a quest to invest our lives with meaning. To rein in the erratic and destructive passions of the earth’s most intelligent animal, that is the Torah’s desperate mission.
So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground. Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard.
–Genesis 4:3-5 (NASB)
I’ve read a couple of different commentaries on the death of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-3) recently. Both said that the “strange” or “alien fire” they offered was fire of their own making. These commentaries said that when God first ignited the fire upon the altar, only that fire was to be used in making offerings to God. A rather simple explanation for a question that has stumped scholars for thousands of years.
No, we can’t make a sacrifice to God of any sort that somehow brings Him under our control or provides Him with something He lacks. Nothing we make, say, or do will manipulate God into behaving or performing in a manner differently than is His intention.
Like prayer, we don’t turn to God with anything that will change Him. The purpose of the sacrifices, the mitzvot, and prayer is to change us.
Likewise the cup that was given to the world’s greatest tzaddik.
And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and began to pray, saying, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.”
–Luke 22:41-42 (NASB)
It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour, because the sun was obscured; and the veil of the temple was torn in two. And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” Having said this, He breathed His last.
–Luke 23:44-46 (NASB)
As I write this, I just read a commentary about Passover and atonement which said in part:
“Suffering and pain may be imposed on a tzaddik (righteous person) as an atonement for his entire generation. This tzaddik must then accept this suffering with love for the benefit of his generation, just as he accepts the suffering imposed upon him for his own sake. In doing so, he benefits his generation by atoning for it, and at the same time is himself elevated to a very great degree. Such suffering also includes cases where a tzaddik suffers because his entire generation deserves great punishments, bordering on annihilation, but is spared via the tzaddik’s suffering. In atoning for his generation through his suffering, this tzaddik saves these people in this world and also greatly benefits them in the World-to-Come. In addition, there is a special higher type of suffering that comes to a tzaddik who is even greater and more highly perfected than the ones discussed above. This suffering comes to provide the help necessary to bring about the chain of events leading to the ultimate perfection of mankind as a whole. … Beyond that, the merit and power of these tzaddikim is also increased because of such suffering, and this gives them even greater ability to rectify the damage of others. They can therefore not only rectify their own generation, but can also correct all the spiritual damage done FROM THE BEGINNING, FROM THE TIME OF THE VERY FIRST SINNERS.” (emphasis mine) .. (Derech Hashem, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, translation by Aryeh Kaplan Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 1977, pp 123-125)
If you are a Christian and unfamiliar with Jewish texts, this may seem strange or even startling to you. If you are Jewish and not a believer, this will seem like a gross misappropriation of the writings of the sages, bent in an unintended direction for a mistaken purpose.
I’ve written about just such an interpretation before, both in The Death of the Tzaddik and The Sacrifice at Golgotha. God is not pleased by unauthorized offerings, strange fires, and certainly not by human sacrifice, which we Christians sometimes are mistakenly accused of condoning.
And yet, sometimes God does ask that we put our soul on the altar so to speak, not because human struggle and suffering is His desire, but because we need to learn that as servants of the Most High God, our lives are subject to Him, not to what we want. By offering sacrifices, whether it be a lamb, a prayer, or our time and energy in performing deeds of kindness and charity, we aren’t giving to God something that changes Him, but we are doing what changes us in the manner God desires us to change.
And even that desire of God’s is not for His sake but for our own.
At the last second, God terminated the Akedah or the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22) to spare the life of Isaac and to spare Abraham the death of his only son, the son of inheritance, the son who would carry forward all of the promises God made to Abraham, so they might be sent into the future with Isaac’s son Jacob, with Jacob’s twelve sons, with the tribes they would found, and with all of Israel, today’s Jewish people.
And because God wasn’t asking Abraham for a human sacrifice on the altar by killing his son, He was changing Abraham and changing Isaac, and the result of those changes reverberate down through history in both Judaism and Christianity.
To rein in the erratic and destructive passions of the earth’s most intelligent animal, that is the Torah’s desperate mission.
I might have worded that sentence a little differently, but it’s a sound statement. The Word of God exists to change us, mold us, refine us (like a precious metal in fire if necessary) so that we might become a more spiritually pure product over time.
The Midrash tells us that the Jewish people had the same problem in Egypt. Only 1/5 of the Jewish people were on a high enough spiritual level to leave Egypt — and they were on the 49th level of Tuma, spiritual degradation — and were within a hair’s breadth of being destroyed.
Yet, what is amazing is that in the next 49 days they raised themselves to the spiritual level to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai! Each day we climbed one step higher in spirituality and holiness. Many people study one of the “48 Ways to Wisdom” (Ethics of the Fathers, 6:6 — found in the back of most siddurim, Jewish prayer books) each day in the Sephirat HaOmer period between Pesach and Shavuot — which will be explained below — as a means to personal and spiritual growth. This is a propitious time for perfecting one’s character!
Some of those terms may seem a little odd to some of you but the principle behind them should be clear. We want to change. We want to be a little better tomorrow than we were yesterday. But even as believers and devout disciples of the Master, that’s easier said than done, at least for me (especially for me). Rabbi Packouz suggests Rabbi Noah Weinberg’s series 48 Ways to Wisdom, working through one “way” each day between the start of Passover and the arrival of Shavuot.
Jesus didn’t die just to be a human sacrifice since God abhors the desecration of human life. But if a great tzaddik can atone for the sins of his generation, how much more does the death of the greatest of all tzaddikim atone for the sins of the world, across the vast panorama of human existence?
But there’s nothing we can offer God that changes God. Every sacrifice, every lamb, every bull, every prayer, every mitzvah, and the death of the tzaddik, the Master, exists to change each of us and to bring us a little closer to God. Empty sacrifices are less than useless however. What we do is important but why we do it is crucial. Simply giving a can of soup to a hungry person feeds that hungry person, which is good, and it may temporarily elevate ourselves, at least in our own eyes, which may not be bad either. But if the act doesn’t reveal a little bit more about God to us, and if we don’t become just a little more dedicated and compassionate as God’s servants because of it, then all we’ve done was given one small meal to one single person.
And they’ll be hungry again in a few hours. So much for our “sacrifice.”
It only really, really matters on a vast and even cosmic scale, if it brings us to a greater realization of who is above us:
“Consider three things and you will not come to sin: Know what is above you: an eye that sees and an ear that hears, and all your deeds are recorded in the Book.”
-Pirkei Avot 2:1
Jesus will have died for nothing if we don’t follow him as a result, if we aren’t changed by the crucifixion and resurrection, if his act of inaugurating the era of the New Covenant did not begin to turn our heart of stone into a heart of flesh.
Run to do good. Shun evil. Pray for God to soften you, to change you, to refine you.
Examine me, O Lord, and try me; test my mind and my heart.
For Your lovingkindness is before my eyes, And I have walked in Your truth.
–Psalm 26:2-3 (NASB)
Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.
–Acts 20:28 (NASB)
Please don’t think me vain if I start by praying for myself. It has been all too easy for me to rest for an extended period of time on a spiritual plateau and it’s all too difficult for me to overcome inertia and begin moving again. Going up means I have to overcome gravity, but going down is not the direction I want to take. Like a boat without oars in a river, standing still is just another way of going backward.
Our love of God is not to collapse even when our soul is shattered.