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Shemot: Jewish Survival and the Promise of the Torah

The death of Pharaoh's sonThen the Lord said to Moses, “You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh: he shall let them go because of a greater might; indeed, because of a greater might he shall drive them from his land.”

Exodus 6:1 (JPS Tanakh)

No other people have ever gone into exile and survived for thousands of years to come back to re-establish a national homeland. The return of the Jews from exile to the Land of Israel was nothing short of a miracle!

What does it all mean?

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Commentary on Torah Portion Shemot (Exodus)

If you follow the annual Torah readings as I do, you might be tempted to just blow past all of the miracles of God in the land of Egypt and the liberation of millions of Jewish slaves. After all, you know the story. Even Christians who only occasionally read the “Old Testament” are familiar, at least in general, with Moses and Aaron confronting Pharaoh, King of Egypt to demand the release of the Israelites so they may worship Hashem their God. But Shemot (Exodus) tells a very important story that is highly relevant to all of Jewish history and a story important to every Jew alive today.

It’s a story of survival against all odds, survival in the face of hardship, slavery, and even certain destruction. It’s a story of God’s extraordinary love for the Jewish people and the lengths to which the Almighty will go to rescue them from every type of harm. This doesn’t mean that individual Jewish people won’t have hardships or even that large numbers of Jews won’t suffer, but the Jewish people, Israel will survive and ultimately thrive.

The Lord will make you the head and not the tail, and you only will be above, and you will not be underneath…

Deuteronomy 28:13 (NASB)

This doesn’t mean that Israel will be the head and not the tail just within their own nation, and it doesn’t just mean Israel will be the head in their general region of the earth, it means, in the Messianic Era, when Moshiach returns all the exiles to their land and restores Israel with honor and power, the nation of Israel and the Jewish people will be ascendant over all the other nations of our planet, and Messiah will be King of all.

But what stands in the way of that accomplishment? After all, amazingly, there are Jewish people after thousands of years of concerted effort expended by various nations to exterminate them. Not only do Jewish people survive, but identifiably Jewish culture, religion, literature, art, music, and the Torah have all survived, continuing to set the descendants of the ancient Israelites apart from all the other nations and people groups in our world. God has always preserved them and He will always preserve them.

The Torah tells us, “And Joseph died, and all his brothers, and that entire generation” (Exodus 1:6). Why is it important for us to know that the whole generation has passed on?

The Ohr HaChaim explains that the enslavement of the Israelites by the Egyptians occurred in three stages: First, Joseph died and the Israelites lost their power. Second, the bothers (sic) died. As long as even one of the brothers was alive, the Egyptians still honored them. Third, everyone from that generation died. Until that happened — as long as the members of the first generation were alive — the Egyptians considered them important and were not able to treat them as slaves.

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, the Mirrer Rosh Hayeshiva, commented that there are two aspects here. One is on the side of the Egyptians. They were unable to treat the Jewish people as slaves as long as they considered them important. The other aspect is on the side of the Jewish people themselves. As long as they were considered important and worthy of respect by themselves, the Egyptians were not able to treat them in an inferior manner. Only when they personally considered themselves in a lowly manner could they be subjugated by others.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Based on Growth Through Torah

ShoahThis commentary on this week’s Torah portion also speaks to both Jewish and non-Jewish people in the present. Jewish survival is dependent upon how the Jewish people regard themselves and how the rest of the world regards them. Like Joseph and his brothers and their entire generation, as long as the rest of us understand the relationship between Israel and God and treat the Jewish people accordingly, they will continue to survive, because we can not bear to make “slaves” of such a people who have been lifted high by God. But when we denigrate the Jewish people, as we often have done across history, then we get Shoah, The Holocaust.

It takes great courage to come back and stand out after six million of your people have been starved, tortured, and exterminated. The natural tendency would be to hide, to go underground, to blend in, disappear, fade from history as a people, just in order to not be in a position where you, your children, or your grandchildren will ever again be taken from their homes and put in the camps. As Rabbi Pliskin’s commentary states, it’s not just how the rest of the world treats you, it’s how you consider yourself.

If the Jewish people don’t stand up for themselves as proudly Jewish, the rest of the world won’t respect them, and again, we get Shoah.

Am I contradicting myself? Earlier, I said that Jewish survival is dependent upon God’s great acts, and so this is true. But the Jewish people had to cry out to God, a leader had to be willing to rise up from the people to shepherd them, as Moses did. The Jewish people had to, and still have to willingly accept God, accept the fact that God chose them, that they are still chosen, and to “hear and obey” the Word of God that uniquely signifies their called out status.

When we look at Jewish history, we see a history where the Jewish people have defied the laws of nature and the laws of history! We have survived and impacted this world though we have been thrown out of our land not once, but twice! We have impacted the world perhaps more than any other people in history — the concepts of the value of human life, universal education, justice and equality, the importance of and goal of world peace (as opposed to glorifying war), the importance of a strong stable family as a basis for a moral foundation for society, individual and national responsibility for the world — though we were beaten, killed and exiled from one nation to the next. Though few in number and spread to the four corners of the earth, we survived as a people, never assimilating into anonymity. Even our land, the Land of Israel, defied the laws of nature, only fertile when the Jewish people inhabited it.

Coincidence? Good luck? A roll of the dice? Perhaps — except that each and every phenomenon was prophesied and predicted in the Torah hundreds and thousands of years before the events. Does it make you think that perhaps something is going on here? That perhaps there is a special relationship between the Almighty and the Jewish people?

The Almighty, the Jewish people and the Torah are intertwined. In the past 3,300 years there has been effort after effort — from within as well as from without — to redefine and redirect our people. Each and every one has failed. If you wonder why, then perhaps the time has come to read the Torah and find out. The Torah is not only our heritage, it is the game plan for the Jewish people and the world!

-Rabbi Packouz

rabbi_child_and_sefer_torahPeriodically, my Pastor asks what I think the role of Jewish obedience to Torah is in today’s world (although I think Rabbi Packouz answered that question very well in the above-quoted statement), especially in light of Christ and the Church. Why would a believing Jew continue to observe the mitzvot when (from his point of view) they were clearly eliminated by Jesus and they, like the rest of us, now live by the grace of Christ?

Being “Messianic” doesn’t make a Jew not a Jew. All of the conditions for survival I outlined above still apply to them, just like they apply to any other Jewish person alive today. For a Jewish person to find, recognize, and acknowledge the Messiah is the answer to a prayer and the culmination of a dream.

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Moshiach, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar Yonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.

Matthew 16:15-17 (NASB – adjusted)

I made a few minor changes to the translation above to make it clearer that Simon Bar Yonah was a Jew realizing that his Master, the Rabbi he has been following, is indeed the Moshiach, “the Son of the living God.” Peter didn’t stop being Jewish, immediately start munching on a ham sandwich, burn a Torah scroll, and join the local Baptist church because he became a Christian. He didn’t change into something else besides being Jewish, he received a revelation that at the core, all Jewish people want and need to receive. The revelation of the arrival and presence of Messiah, Son of David, King of Israel, who will save his people, not just from their sins and certainly not from the Torah, but from the centuries and centuries of persecution, pogroms, inquisitions, and genocidal efforts of a hateful and disbelieving world.

Peter recognized Jesus as who he was and is without a New Testament in hand and especially without the last two-thousand years of Christian theology, doctrine, dogma, and history, including the reformation, muddying up the waters to the degree that neither Jew nor Gentile can recognize Jesus as Moshiach any longer.

Peter recognized the Moshiach because he was there, he knew what to look for, not in spite of the Torah but because of it.

It has been prophesied in the Torah that Jews would be exiled from the land and that they would return to the land: “And it shall come to pass when these things shall come upon you, the blessing and the curse that I have placed before you, you will take it to heart amongst all of the nations where God has scattered you; you will return to the Lord your God and you will listen to His voice according to all that I am commanding you today, you and your children with all of your heart and with all of your soul. Then the Almighty will bring back your captivity and have mercy upon you; and He will return and gather you from among all of the nations where he has dispersed you. If your dispersed ones will be even at the ends of the heavens — from there God Almighty will gather you and from there He will take you. And God your Lord will bring you to the land that your fathers inherited and you shall inherit it and He will do good for you and make you more numerous than your forefathers” (Deuteronomy 30:1-5).

-Rabbi Packouz

For a Jew, particularly a Jew in Messiah, the Torah is inescapable. When Paul called the Torah a “tutor” or “child conductor” (Galatians 3:24), we can consider the Torah as a protector, a defender, a preserver of the Jewish people pointing toward the ultimate expression of the Torah. Yes, it “points to Christ” but once a Jewish person has recognized Moshiach and turned to him, it doesn’t mean the “tutor” is useless and tossed aside. It only means that the capstone has been added to the structure to make it solid and permanent. The structure still needs all the pieces. There are many other purposes the Torah fulfills for the Jewish person besides illuminating the image of Messiah. Without the Torah, the Jewish people lose everything it is to be Jewish, to be called out, to be unique among all of God’s Creations.

Rabbi Isaac LichtensteinThis is our mistake in the Church. We demand that when a Jewish person becomes a disciple of Moshiach, they consider Paul’s words as meaning that all of the purposes of Torah have been extinguished and that the Torah is not only useless, but actually a detriment to the believing Jew. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Jewish people such as Paul Philip Levertoff and Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein did not stop being Jewish when they discovered the identity of the Messiah. Especially in Rabbi Lichtenstein’s case, the Torah became more important, more enlightening, not less. Performing each mitzvah was given a new dimension in Messiah.

This is something the rest of us don’t understand. This is something we were not only taught to disregard, but to actually disdain. We’ve been taught to shun and even fear the Law of Moses, but we fail to understand the joy and fulfillment that an observant life can be for a Jew. For a Jew in Messiah, the meaning of a Torah observant life is amplified. Torah and Messiah are complementary, not oxymoronic.

Messiah and Torah preserve and sustain the Jewish people, for both will be present in the age to come. If they didn’t, then how could the gospel of Messiah be good news for the Jews?

Good Shabbos.

The First and Second Shema

Jewish_men_praying2The most obvious difference between the two sections is that the first simply instructs the Jew to pursue his or her relationship with G‑d, without promising reward or threatening punishment. The second section, while enjoining us to do the very same things as the first, informs us of the benefits of doing so (“I will give the rain of your land in its due season . . . and you shall eat and be sated”; “In order that your days be multiplied . . . upon the land”) and warns us of the consequences of transgression (“He will stop up the heavens”; “You will soon perish from the good land”). Other than that, however, the second section seems a repetition of the first, with only minor differences in wording and syntax.

Rashi, in his commentary on these verses, cites several further examples of how the second section introduces a concept or injunction not included in the first.

In the second section, the commandment to love G‑d is given in the plural (“with all your hearts and with all your souls”) rather than the singular (“with all your heart, with all your soul”) employed by the first section. The first section, explains Rashi, is an injunction to the individual, while the second is an injunction to the community. (This difference is repeated throughout the two sections. The Hebrew language distinguishes between second-person singular and second-person plural, as Old English does with “thou” and “you.” The entire first section speaks in second-person singular, the second section in second-person plural.)

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“The Second Chapter of the Shema”
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson

According to this commentary, a Jew is obligated to recite the Shema each morning and each evening of his life. Accepting that, why am I writing about the Shema? For that matter, as a Christian, why am I writing about the Torah and Judaism? Derek Leman recently wrote a blog post emphasizing lengthy and careful Torah study for Christians which I also commented upon. Nothing in the Bible is irrelevant, although some portions cannot be acted upon today by any Jewish person (or anyone else) and some portions can only be acted upon by Jewish people.

I’m also interested in the Torah pursuant to my desire to answer my Pastor’s question what is the purpose of the Torah, especially for Messianic Jews?

Reading Rabbi Tauber’s commentary, I was provided with a few clues about the application of the Shema and thus the Torah in the lives of observant Jewish people.

This isn’t going to be a scientific or academic response. I lack the educational “chops” for such an analysis and frankly, as I write this, I’m pretty tired, not having gotten enough sleep last night. My brain is foggy. Don’t expect a lot. I suppose I should delay in writing this, but the drive inside me has other ideas.

Rabbi Tauber lists many different ways to interpret the first and second sections of the Shema, but I want to focus on the emphasis between the text being directed at the individual Jewish person vs. the Jewish community.

Jewish individual vs. community devotion to God and observance of the mitzvot is a unique concept. Christianity doesn’t really have such a viewpoint. Oh sure, there’s the concept of what we do as individual Christians as opposed to Christian community activity, but it just doesn’t “feel” the same. Christianity doesn’t convey the same cohesive identity that Judaism does. Further, we don’t have a focused set of commandments that delineate the duties of individuals in the church in contrast to the body of believers as a whole.

According to Rabbi Tauber, there is such a thing for Jews and Judaism.

The most obvious difference between the two sections is that the first simply instructs the Jew to pursue his or her relationship with G‑d, without promising reward or threatening punishment.

The directive to the individual Jewish person relative to the Shema and the Torah is an instruction to pursue a relationship with God. Period. No mention of punishments or rewards. Is that supposed to tell us something about how God responds to the virtues or the failures of an individual Jewish person? Maybe not, but keep that in mind.

The second section, while enjoining us to do the very same things as the first, informs us of the benefits of doing so (“I will give the rain of your land in its due season . . . and you shall eat and be sated”; “In order that your days be multiplied . . . upon the land”) and warns us of the consequences of transgression (“He will stop up the heavens”; “You will soon perish from the good land”).

ancient_jerusalemThe second section seems to say more or less the same as the first except that it’s directed at the community of Israel as a whole and that it includes rewards and punishments for obedience or failure to obey (for length, I’m not quoting everything from the article that supports my points, so you’ll need to read the source to “fill in the blanks”).

The story of the Bible does mention individual Jewish people such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and so on, but the grand, overarching epic is really the story of collective Israel. It’s Israel that is blessed by God, or Israel that is sent into exile. Solomon builds the Temple for Israel, or the Temple is destroyed to punish Israel. Individuals play their parts and individuals are blessed or suffer, but it’s really the consequences to the nation, for good or for ill, that are at stake.


In the second section, the commandments to don tefillin, study and teach Torah and affix mezuzot immediately follow the warning that “you will swiftly perish from the good land that G‑d is giving you.” This, says Rashi (citing Sifri), is to teach us that also after you are exiled, you must distinguish yourselves with the mitzvot: put on tefillin, make mezuzot, so that these not be new to you when you return.

Taken on its own, the first section implies a connection to G‑d only through the Torah and its mitzvot as observed in the Holy Land. We need the second section to tell that all this is equally applicable in exile.

The first section describes a relationship whose relevance we can assume only under conditions of closeness to G‑d: when we dwell secure in the land that “G‑d’s eyes are constantly upon,” and when He manifests His presence amongst us in His holy home in Jerusalem. But when He hides His face from us and banishes us like children exiled from their father’s table, our ability to love Him, to comprehend His truth and to implement His will can be questioned. Indeed, we cannot even assume that these precepts are meant to apply to such conditions of spiritual darkness.

Not so the second section. Because the relationship is one of our making, because it stems from within, it becomes ingrained in our very essence. Integrally us, it persists wherever and whenever we persist.

There seems to be differences in application between the first and second section of the Shema based on whether or not Israel, collective Israel, is in exile. To be sure, there is no collective Israel if there isn’t a response from the many, many individual Jewish people, but it’s Israel in exile. Some individual Jews have it better and some worse in the diaspora. Look at the differences in life for Jews in America vs. in the Arab nations or some European countries.

My Pastor lived in Israel for fifteen years and in his experience, when Jews made aliyah, they had one or two responses: either they became more religious or they stopped being religious completely. In Israel, as a Jew, you don’t have anything to prove. Of course you’re Jewish. You made aliyah. You live in Israel.

But the instruction from the Shema for Jews in exile is another thing.

In the second section, the commandments to don tefillin, study and teach Torah and affix mezuzot immediately follow the warning that “you will swiftly perish from the good land that G‑d is giving you.” This, says Rashi (citing Sifri), is to teach us that also after you are exiled, you must distinguish yourselves with the mitzvot: put on tefillin, make mezuzot, so that these not be new to you when you return.

daven-tefillin-siddurWhat has helped the Jewish people survive as the Jewish people throughout each long exile from their Land? For the last nearly two-thousand years, it’s been obedience to the mitzvot; carving out a uniquely Jewish lifestyle that separates them from the peoples of the nations. This may be one of the reasons why halachically Jewish people, particularly those who were born and raised in observant Jewish households, and who have the benefit of a Jewish education, object to non-Jews taking on behaviors reflective of the Jewish sign commandments (wearing tzitzit publicly and so on) and engaging in what one Christian blogger has referred to as Evangelical Jewish Cosplay.

“Messing around” with someone else’s survival mechanism is likely to result in a very strong and unpleasant response.

Which is what we often see in clashes between Jewish Messianic Judaism and Gentile Hebrew Roots. Often non-Jewish people fail to appreciate the collective historical “consciousness” of the Jewish people. I remember sitting in the local Reform synagogue around the time the film The Passion of the Christ (2004) was released. There was tremendous fear in that room about how the local Christian community, not to mention the worldwide Christian community, would respond to that film, particularly in their (our) interactions with Jews.

You wouldn’t imagine that one film would inspire so much anxiety, but historically, after every passion play, there has been a pogrom. It was as if their grandfathers and great-grandfathers and the elders of Israel were whispering in the ears of every Jewish person in shul that morning, telling them of the horrors they had experienced in decades and centuries past. “They’ll watch this film, then something terrible will happen,” they might have been saying to their grandchildren. “I’ve been through this before. I know,” said the plaintive voice.

There’s something woven into the subconscious and in the marrow of every Jew that responds to what has threatened the community of Jews across the ages.

The Torah and the collective lifestyle of Judaism has preserved individual Jews and the Jewish community for untold centuries all over the world. At the core, you can’t really completely separate a Jew from the Torah, anymore than you could take away a person’s eye color or blood type.

There’s a reason why Jews are obligated to recite the Shema twice daily. There’s a reason why there’s a tremendous amount of repetition built into Jewish observance of Torah and of prayer.

If you were to observe large numbers of individual Jewish people in their lives, you would see the scale of religious observance run the gamut from no observance at all as an atheist to an extreme attention to every tiny facet of halachah in Orthodox Jewish life.

That’s the life of an individual Jew as addressed by the first section of the Shema. Individual Jewish people can be observant to one degree or another or completely unobservant. They’re born into covenant, like it or not, but they make choices just like everybody makes choices. An individual Jew may live or die, old or young.

shoahBut collective Jewry has always survived perhaps because, especially at “crunch time,” when the world is doing its best to exterminate all Jews from the face of the earth, Jews rally, the Jewish community unites, they seek distinction and uniqueness, because being Jewish together insures that Judaism will survive, even if some individual Jewish people reject their heritage. Even if individual Jews die Jewish people and Judaism continue.

In Israel, a Jew may not have so much to prove because they are Jewish in the Jewish homeland, but everywhere else, in order to be Jewish, they must not take being Jewish for granted. Every time that’s happened, bad things have resulted.

If you want to see just how “Jewish” a Jewish person is, try to take that Jewishness away from them or claim it for your own as a non-Jew. What God built into the Jewish people from the beginning will erupt. Sometimes, such as when assimilation threatens, that’s not only a good thing, but it’s necessary for survival.

And God intends that Judaism should survive. If you want to know one of the purposes of the Torah and particularly the Shema, that’s a really being one.