On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai. Having journeyed from Rephidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain, and Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.” Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all that the Lord had commanded him. All the people answered as one, saying, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” And Moses brought back the people’s words to the Lord.
–Exodus 19:1-8 (JPS Tanakh)
Did you ever get angry about what someone did and say, “I would have never done that if I were him!”? Probably most of us have said that one time or another.
I’ve got news for you! You would have done EXACTLY what he did if you were him. If you had his genes, his upbringing, his education and philosophy on life along with his desires and attitudes … you would have done precisely what he did. The proof is … that’s what HE did! The difference is that you are not him and you think that with all that you are, that you would have acted differently. Hopefully, if you were in his situation, you would not do what he did.
What we have here is a failure to judge our fellow human being favorably.
-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Commentary on Torah Portion Yitro
This week’s Torah Portion is kind of a big deal. It’s the parashah where we see the Children of Israel “as one man” receiving the Torah from God! This is the defining moment when Israel truly becomes a nation before God and it also is what, more than any other single event, defines the Jewish people today, in spite of what some people may say about Jews, Judaism, and Israel.
But we have a problem, at least on the surface. The Children of Israel stood before Moses and before God and said as a single group, as a nation, that “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” That response is not only the agreement of all the people who were actually there, but for all of their descendants across the ages as well. Israel said that they would do everything that God had spoken, all of His laws, all of His ordinances, everything.
Did they? Do they?
I won’t go through a lengthy list of quotes from the Tanakh, but the simple answer is “no.” That first generation out of Israel did not enter the Land and take it at the command of God. Forty years of wandering in the wilderness was also forty years of struggling with God as well as Moses and Aaron struggling with God to preserve the People from their own disobedience and grumbling.
Even after Joshua led the next generation to take the Land (and Moses was also disobedient and as a consequence, was not allowed to enter Israel), there were problems. In fact, reading through the Tanakh reveals a significant history of Israel and her Kings, even David and Solomon, disobeying God and failing to do all that the Lord had said.
No, I’m not going out of my way to “Jew bash,” simply stating what we all know. Does that mean the Torah is useless, the Israelites weak and disobedient, and the modern Jewish people are followers of a “dead religion?”
Absolutely not. What it means is that they are human.
I’ve sat in a Bible study in church (not the church I go to now…this was many years ago) and heard a man, a retired Pastor (normally a very nice guy) say point-blank that “we Christians” would never disobey God the way the Israelites did.
Remember what Rabbi Packouz said above?
If we were living in those days, had experienced what they experienced, had lived through slavery, were suddenly thrust into a brand new world, even experienced the amazing, awesome, unimaginable presence of God among us, yes we too would have said and done all the things the Children of Israel did.
Sorry to say.
There is a saying in Pirke Avos 2:5 (“Ethics of the Fathers”), “Hillel says, ‘Don’t judge your fellow human being until you have been in his place.” It is upon us to try to put ourselves in someone else’s situation before passing judgment.
Also in Pirke Avos 4:3, Ben Azai says, “Do not scorn any person, nor be disdainful of any thing for there is no person who does not have his hour and no thing which does not have its place.”
The Torah source for this mitzvah, commandment, is “You shall judge your fellow human being with righteousness” (Leviticus 19:15). This verse obligates us to give someone the benefit of the doubt when we see him performing an action that could be interpreted in his favor.
The Torah also teaches us, “Love your fellow human being as yourself …” (Leviticus 19:18). The Baal Shem Tov used to say, “Love others as yourself. You know that you have many faults, nevertheless, you still love yourself. That is how you should feel toward your friend. Despite his faults, love him” (Likutai Abraham, p. 221).
Setting aside Rabbi Packouz, what can we learn from another “Rav” with whom we Christians might be more familiar?
“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
–Matthew 7:1-5 (ESV)
All week long, I’ve been writing blog post after blog post presenting some rather unusual ideas about the Torah, the instructions to the Israelites from God, and how it is lived out in Judaism and sometimes within Christianity. My friend Boaz Michael says that the weightier matters of the Torah are also taught in church, such as love of kindness, feeding the hungry, compassion for the widow, and so on. Granted when we get into the area of halachah and how the Jewish community will walk before God, things become complicated, but lately, I’ve been encouraged to see halachah as the communal conversation and response of the Jewish people to the Torah and to God. It’s a living, interactive process by which Jews seek to obey God and live their lives before God as Jews. By definition, Christians, who are taught to conceptualize God and the Bible in fundamentally different ways, are going to have a tough time with this (even some Jewish people have a tough time with this).
But do we judge the ancient Israelites, the more recent Jewish population who lived in the days of Jesus, Peter, and Paul, and the modern Jewish community, particularly those in the Messianic space, by our own Gentile Christian standards, given that those standards do not have much of a basis in common with Judaism? Have we walked a mile in the shoes of a Jew?
Even if you are a Christian who has spent a lot of time with the Jewish community, either here in the U.S. or even in Israel, while you may have some insights into Jews and Judaism that many Christians lack, there’s still a long road between living with Jews and being Jewish. Even converts to Judaism will struggle to make up the distance, the lack of a Jewish childhood, the lack of Jewish parents and growing up in a Jewish community.
There’s a lot of judgement and disdain of Jews by Christians, including those in the Hebrew Roots community, but upon what is it based? It is especially surprising and disappointing that a Gentile Christian can say they are “observing Torah,” wear a kippah and tallit katan in their daily lives, daven with a siddur while wearing a tallit gadol and laying tefillin, keep Leviticus 11 “kosher,” and claim to love Israel and the Jewish people, and yet still judge and reject everything it is to be Jewish and to live as a Jew. Sometimes, I think it’s even worse for some of those same Gentiles who style themselves as “academic” or “resource institute” experts to treat the Jewish people as a “thing” or an “object” for study (and it’s easier to throw away an object than a human being), rather than as living, breathing, people.
You don’t have to agree with how Jewish people conceptualize their world, but then again, you don’t have to attempt to live as a Jew either, if that is your opinion.
It’s been a busy and difficult week in this little corner of the blogosphere. I don’t usually spend so much time and effort on a single topic across an entire week, but this theme took over my thoughts and emotions and I had to write (and write and write) about it.
I don’t claim to bear any great wisdom or insights, but writing is what I do when I want to explore and I’m trying to understand. Blog comment contributor “ProclaimLiberty” has suggested that halachah is akin to the Jewish communal conversation with God and the sages. Writing is part of what I do as an individual when I’m trying to talk to God. I just share the conversation (my end of it, anyway) with the Internet.
The Children of Israel failed God because we all fail God! If God’s grace wasn’t with humanity from the very beginning, we never would have survived, and there would be no human population in the world today. God is gracious and we know this, but we cannot even begin to comprehend the extent, scope, and vastness of His graciousness to us all, and especially to Israel, the apple of His eye, His treasured, splendorous people.
The Lord said to Moses: Thus shall you say to the Israelites: You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens…
–Exodus 20:19 (JPS Tanakh)
And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
–Luke 23:34 (ESV)
God speaks to us all but we don’t always understand. It would have been amazing if we could have been there among Israel to actually see and hear God speak from the very heavens, but God gives us enough. And yet we don’t always know what we’re doing, including when we curse rather than bless Israel. We should try to understand Israel and understand God.
The first positive mitzva is, in the words of Rambam, (Maimonides: Mishneh Torah, Yesodei haTorah 1:1.) “To know that there is a First Being, who caused the existence of all beings…The knowledge of this principle is a positive command, as it is said, I am the Eternal your G-d.”
This is a Mitzva relating to mind and intellect. True, every one of Israel believes in G-d with a simple faith, and his heart is whole with G-d; still it is the duty of the mind and intellect to bring this faith to a level of knowledge and comprehension. This is the meaning of “To know that there is a First Being;” the Mitzva specifies comprehension and intellectual grasp, as written in Torah: “Know the G-d of your father and serve Him with a whole heart” (Divrei Hayamim I, 28:9.) and it is also written, “know this day etc.” (Devarim 4:9.)
Monday, Sh’vat 19, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
If we don’t understand Israel perhaps it is because we don’t really understand God, and we should spend some time in Jewish shoes; standing in their place. Failing that, we should seek God’s wisdom and particularly, we should repent and seek His forgiveness.
Erev Shabbat is coming. This would be a good time.