An Unbelievable Kindness

I have frequently heard it said that the Law was given as a sort of object lesson, to prove to Israel–and by proxy all mankind–the futility of attempting to earn salvation by keeping the Law. While that isn’t quite correct, it isn’t very far off the mark either.

Paul wrote that the law was given to serve as a witness against us in our sins much as a No Trespassing sign is a Teshuva, Repentance...An unbelievable kindness.witness against the trespasser who cannot claim that he didn’t know he was on private property when it was clearly marked. Despite the clearly marked boundaries of Torah, despite God’s assurance that his laws are not too difficult for us, we all still fail. We are all trespassers, and without God’s grace to forgive us, we would all be condemned to die under the Law by the Law’s own testimony. The real object lesson that demonstrates to us that we cannot be saved by the Law is the destruction of the Temple.

In Paul’s day, he spent a significant amount of time and ink arguing against those who claimed that the new gentile converts could not be saved without undergoing the full ritual conversion of becoming a Jew. Paul continued to keep the Law, circumcising Timothy and sacrificing at the Temple, but he clearly understood that those things were mere shadows of the spiritual reality. He wasn’t alone. Many other Jews understood this, but unfortunately they appear to have been in the minority. The Temple eventually had to be destroyed before God’s grace would be widely accepted.

I recently listened to a 2006 discussion of Yom Kippur and teshuva by Rabbi Meir Schweiger. Addressing the matter of atonement without the Temple, he said:

This is an unbelievable kindness…to allow me the opportunity to once again be in relationship with him.

Perfect obedience to the letter of the law cannot save you, but it can point you in the right direction. Salvation is found in the “unbelievable kindness” of God’s mercy in providing a sacrifice whose blood atones for all who trust in him and commit heart-felt teshuva.

Communitarian Justice

Deuteronomy 16:18 – Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates, which the LORD thy God giveth thee, throughout thy tribes: and they shall judge the people with just judgment.

Anarchy and vigilantism are expressly prohibited by God’s Law. There must be judges and officers in the gates of every community. No criminal case can proceed legitimately without the involvement of the duly elected or appointed judiciary. How exactly these men or women are to be appointed is not specified, however the command is addressed to the community as a whole. Presumably a king or governor could appoint whomever he wills. If he does not, however, the community must still ensure the post is occupied.

There is at least one situation in which a course of action that appears on the surface to be vigilante is appropriate. This option should only be exercised in the most rare and extreme cases.

If the community refuses to appoint officers or cannot agree on which men to appoint, then individuals who already legitimately possess some other claim to authority must sometimes appoint themselves. This is essentially the right of the kinsman redeemer extended to the entire community. There is biblical precedence: Pinchas, who was already a priest, appointed himself an officer of the court when he killed Zimri and Cozbi. Judgment had already been passed and executed on the guilty, but their blood had barely cooled when Zimri blatantly committed the very same crimes. A trial was hardly necessary as all the judges were witnesses to the deed. To stop a plague that was sweeping the camp, Pinchas immediately carried out the sentence already given. Centuries later, Saul was neglecting his responsibilities in enforcing justice in his own lands and defending the border against the Philistines, so David, who had been anointed by Samuel as Saul’s successor, appointed himself judge.

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Our relationships with God, family, and community are inextricably intertwined. The health of one relationship depends on the health of all the others. We truly are a body. Imagine how well the lungs would function if they couldn’t act in concert with the heart or if they couldn’t detect signals from the brain. When one organ refuses to cooperate with others, the whole body suffers and eventually dies.

Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89) describes some of the organs in our body and how they are designed to work together.

Numbers 4:21-49 The Levites and Cohanim are set apart from the rest of the nation for a specific set of functions. Work was further divided among different clans within the Levitical tribe, and no clan was allowed to do the work of another, nor was any other tribe allowed to do the work of the Levites. They were not set apart to do their own thing or to pursue their own interests: “This is the charge of their burden, according to all their service in the tabernacle of the congregation.” Although there were (and are!) many benefits to being a Levite or Cohen, their service is for the benefit of the whole congregation. A good relationship with God required orderly worship and sacrifice and even protection from God. The job of the Levites was to keep that order, to slaughter and present the sacrifices, and to provide a buffer between the people and the raw power of God.

Numbers 5:1-4 As in our own bodies, disease in the community has to be quarantined. Some of the sages have taught that there were varying degrees of separation required for different conditions. Lepers were completely isolated from the rest of the nation, while those with “an issue” were only barred from entering the camp of the Levites, and those defiled by contact with a dead body were not allowed to enter the Tabernacle. Social pathogens (gossipers, sexual deviants, idolaters, drunkards, the violent, etc.) must also be quarantined to varying degrees. God requires that some people be barred from polite company while others are to be separated from life completely. Our relationships with God, with the land, and with each other require an active social immune system.

Numbers 5:5-10 As with almost every passage in Torah, there are layes of meaning here.

  • Sin doesn’t have to mean permanent separation from the rest of the community. God has provided means to bring us back to full health. However, restoration is up to each individual. One cannot be forced to reconcile. Repentance, atonement, restitution, and service are all powerful tools for restoring relationships.
  • We should not usurp the service of another. Although God may delegate authority and service to one person now and to another person tomorrow, that is purely God’s prerogative. Nor can we force another to fulfill their appointment. It is up to each person to give their service or to deny it. “Ever man’s devoted thing shall be his, and whatever any man gives the priest, it shall be his.”

Numbers 5:11-31 A woman is to be set apart by a covenant with her husband. Ideally she would be with one man, and only one man, for her entire life. The repercussions of breaking that covenant go far beyond her own life and even that of her husband. The bonds between her husband, children, community, and God will all suffer for her mistakes. In the trial of the Sotah, the remedy involves being removed from under her husband’s authority and protection and placed directly under the judgment of God. If she is guilty, then she will die, but if she is innocent, then she will be restored to her husband and family.

Numbers 6:1-21 The Nazarite vow is a self-imposed wilderness experience that can serve several purposes. It allows a person to spend extended time in prayer and meditation with God. Or it can be a time of reflection and self evaluation, an attempt to find oneself. Or it can simply help a person feel special by doing something purposeful and different than what everyone else is doing. In every case, however, the Nazarite vow is essentially about the self and not the community. A Nazarite lets his hair go wild, abstains from the very communitarian activity of wine drinking, and cannot even attend to the funeral arrangements of his own family members. When the period of his vow is over, he symbolically anonymizes himself by shaving his head and invites his community together for a feast, as if he has returned from a journey to resume his place among them as one of them without special glory or dispensation.

Numbers 6:22-27 In order for God’s relationship with his people to be complete, the Cohanim are to bless them and “put [his] name upon the children of Israel.” They put God’s name on the people by teaching them Torah, particularly the keeping of God’s Sabbath. In so doing, they cause God’s blessing to be on the people. The implication is that, if they do not teach Torah, if they do not teach the people to keep the Sabbath as God intended, then God’s blessing will be diminished.

Numbers 7:1-3 Being a leader has costs and benefits. More than anything else, it carries responsibility. Leaders are expected to give of themselves and their resources above and beyond what is expected of the rest of the people. “To whom much is given, much will be required.”

Numbers 7:4-88 Each tribe brought identical offerings, indicating that no one tribe was more important to the whole than another. God’s promises to each family and person are just as sure as his promises to every other. No one has a greater claim to anointing than anyone else, even if their particular anointing is different than another’s. Each tribe brought offerings to support the tabernacle (gold, silver, and portions of the animal offerings), to enhance their own relationships with God (the burnt and sin offerings), and to enhance their relationships with their peers (peace offering).

Numbers 7:89 All of Naso is about how sanctification–separation–is a vital part of working together and being in healthy relationships with God and Man. If all of the parts of the body are in working order, then communication with the head is clear and efficient. Notice that if our relationship with God is healthy, then he speaks to us from above the atoning cover (aka mercy seat) and between the cherubim. Imagine a series of lenses through which we see and communicate with God. If any of those lenses are out of alignment, our vision is blurred and communication can be garbled. When all of the lenses are perfectly positioned–each person faithful to their callings and covenants–then we commune with God through the atoning, covering blood of the Messiah and past the gatekeepers of God’s throne room. Our prayers to him and his blessings to us will not be hindered.

Hat tips to Rabbi Meir Schweiger of Pardes Institute of Jerusalem and to Rabbi David Levine of Beth Israel Messianic Synagogue.

Pining for Easter

I can’t remember for certain where I first heard this allegorical story of Christmas–probably on Mark Call‘s radio show–but I have never forgotten its message. It involves a recently married couple. The wife has a sordid past, and her husband gave up nearly everything to help her put it behind her and heal from her many emotional, spiritual, and physical wounds. I have embellished it somewhat from the original. Here, we overhear them discussing his birthday.

W: “Dear, what would you like to do for your birthday this year? Anything you want!”

H: “More than anything else, I’d like to spend some time with you. Let’s go camping for a week where we can really be together.”

W: “But it’s so uncomfortable out there sleeping on the ground. Mosquitoes, flies…yuck! And no air conditioning! I have a better idea. Why don’t we stay home and throw a party? We’ll put up lights and decorations, and we’ll give presents to everyone! I know how much you like the wilderness, so we’ll put a tree up in the living room and make it up all fancy with lights and silver and gold! Oh! Won’t it be beautiful?”

H: “I’m sure it would be, but that’s not what I want. Besides, didn’t you used to do all these things with one of your ex boyfriends?”

W: “I know you didn’t really ask for anything this fancy, but I know you’ll love it. It will give me and all our friends a chance to show you just how much we love you! We’ll even change the date to make sure it’s convenient for everyone. How does December 25th sound?”

H: “That’s your ex boyfriend’s birthday, not mine! Those are the things he wanted you to do!  How could you possibly think I would appreciate that?”

W: “I know, but we already have this tradition. We’ve been doing it every year for so long now. It will be so much easier if we just keep using that same date and holding the same party. We’ll change the name! It’s OK because everyone will know we’re doing it for you now, not for Sol. Nor for old Satty, even if that’s where I got most of my ideas. Nor for Mithras, because hardly anybody remembers him anyway. See? It’s OK because I’m doing it all for you!”

H: “I already told you what I want.”

W: “Thor and I used to have a fire every year on his birthday. Let’s do that too! Oh! One more thing. You’ll love this! Can you dress up like Odin? He looked so cute, and the children will love it!”

H: “I am not Odin!”

It gets worse. Here is another conversation at a later date.

H: “I want you to always remember how much I sacrificed to rescue you from the cruel bondage of your former lovers. I want you to remember how I bled and suffered for you.”

W: “Oh! I will. How could I ever forget? To commemorate what you’ve done for me and to show you how much I love you, I’m going to bake a ham and invite everyone over for dinner.”

H: “You know ham disgusts me! I told you to roast a lamb.”

W: “We’ll color eggs and decorate with cute little bunnies.”

H: “Isn’t that what your ex lesbian lover, the one who murdered your children, used to make you do?”

W: “Well, yes, but that doesn’t matter anymore. I’m doing it all for you, and you know how much I love you. We’ll celebrate this day in your honor every year, and we’ll call it Easter!”

H: “That’s your lover’s name!”

God specifically told us not to adopt the religious customs of pagans. He told us not to join in their feasts. Yet we do it anyway, year after year after year, and we say it’s all good because God knows our hearts. He does indeed. Do you? What would you think of a wife who continued to celebrate the birthdays and deeds of horribly abusive ex lovers while claiming she did it for her husband who told her not to? How pure can your heart be if you still pine after your slavery and fornication?

There’s Obedience and There’s Obedience

From Rabbi Zev Leff’s comments on Devarim:

Failure to see the mitzvot as an expression of the totality of God’s will, and not as just disjointed commands, leads to the distortion of mitzvot themselves. One year I received an urgent call just before Yom Kippur from a woman in my congregation. Her husband had been told by his doctor that he was suffering from a condition which could prove life-threatening if he fasted. Nevertheless he was determined to fast. I spoke to his doctor and consulted another observant doctor to confirm the diagnosis. There was no doubt that fasting would endanger his life.

I called in the man and explained to him that he must eat on Yom Kippur. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Rabbi, you’re a young man and I’m about three times your age, well into my 70s. Since my bar mitzvah I have not eaten on Yom Kippur, and I do not intend to start now.” I replied that I could not force him to eat on Yom Kippur, but that as soon as he left my office, I would instruct the gabbai never to give him another honor in our shul. When he asked why he deserved such treatment for being strict with respect to Yom Kippur, I told him that we are prohibited from honoring idol worshipers.

“What idol worship am I guilty of?” he demanded to know. I explained, “The God of Israel has decreed that you must eat on Yom Kippur. If some other god has commanded you to fast, it is irrelevant to me if you call it Zeus, Kemosh or Yom Kippur – all idols are the same.”

Mount Ebal & the Curse of the Law

Mounts Gerizim and Ebal represent blessings and curses for obeying or disobeying God's Law.

In Deuteronomy 27-28, God told Israel to build a monument on Mt. Ebal and carve on it the words of the Law. Then he told half of them to stand there and pronounce curses for disobedience. The other half were to stand on Mt. Gerizim and pronounce blessings for obedience.

An antinomian might say that the Law was written on Ebal because the Law brings a curse. Superficially that sounds good to someone who has avoided studying Torah, but it falls apart when one remembers that the curses are only for disobedience. The blessings that the other half of Israel pronounced from Gerizim are also included in the Law. It is true that the Law brings a curse, but the Law also brings a blessing.

God’s Law was not present only on Mt. Ebal. It was there on both mountain tops, but where was it on Mt. Gerizim?

Here’s a hint: It wasn’t carved on stone.

God wrote his Law on stone at Sinai because the hearts of Israel were too hard to accept it, but that’s not where he wants it to remain. He has promised that in the New Covenant, his Law will be written on flesh. (See Jeremiah 31.) To those for whom the Law remains only on stone, whose hearts are too hard to receive it, it is most certainly a curse, but to those who internalize it, who invite God to write it on their hearts, who learn to love it, to them the Law is full of blessings.

This is why God told Israel to write the Law on a stone monument on Mt. Ebal: hard hearts and the Law on stone on one hand and the Law written on hearts of flesh on the other.


Update 08/30/2010: In a podcast recorded last year, Grant Luton of Beth Tikkun Messianic Fellowship explained why the altar was built on Mt. Ebal. Yeshua did not come for the hale, but for the sick, for those still under the authority of the Law.

How Quickly We Forget

God's Law prompts us to remember the great miracles He has done for us and our fathers.

There is something wrong with the human mind that we can witness God’s miracles one day and doubt him the next. Our faulty memory fills in the gaps with naturalistic explanations, with gloss and fuzz so that tragedy looms large, but promises fulfilled and prayers answered fade into obscurity.

With the pillar of fire and cloud right there in the camp, the manna appearing every morning, the plague graves still fresh, the Israelites still doubted God’s power to bring them into the Promised Land. When they heard God’s judgment of their lapse (an entire generation to die in the wilderness), they compounded their lack of faith with disobedience (attacking when God said to retreat). The end of fear–as it always is–was death.

Every one of us lives this same pattern of fear and forgetfulness. It is inherent in the fallen human condition. As a partial remedy, God gave us reminders of his actions, promises, and commands: the feast days, sacrifices, tzitziyot, etc. When we wonder what could be the point of those things today, we have only to look in the mirror.

The Law of Sin & Death: Sin Separates Us from God

2 Kings 7:8-9  And when these lepers came to the edge of the camp, they went into a tent and ate and drank, and they carried off silver and gold and clothing and went and hid them. Then they came back and entered another tent and carried off things from it and went and hid them.  (9)  Then they said to one another, “We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news. If we are silent and wait until the morning light, punishment will overtake us. Now therefore come; let us go and tell the king’s household.”

The four lepers had a major windfall. They expected death and found life and riches instead. They could have kept on gathering and stockpiling with no one the wiser, but they remembered their starving brothers and shared their knowledge, bringing life to the entire city.

Romans 6:20-23  For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.  (21)  But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death.  (22)  But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.  (23)  For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Tazria and Metsora (this week’s Torah readings from Leviticus 12-15) are about things that cause separation from God, i.e. spiritual death, among his people. Even if they are already saved, already members of “the king’s household,” they might not know that their actions adulterate their life with death. When we were slaves to sin, we were not bound by any considerations of righteousness. But now that we have been set free from sin, we are bound to obey God, i.e. to do what is righteous.

Therein lies life.

Continuing in sin will only put us in bondage again because sin separates us from our Creator.

We are not set free and given eternal life just to sin, but rather to obey a different master. Continuing in sin will only put us in bondage again because sin separates us from our Creator. Disobedience brings death. Once we know that there is a better way, that there are choices and actions that increase our separation from the world while decreasing our separation from God, like the four lepers in 2 Kings 7, we are bound by love for our neighbors to share that knowledge.

Look for opportunities in your day to share your knowledge of greater life, to tell someone how to reduce the separation engendered by disobedience and to draw closer to our Creator.

Only Let Us Be Called

The Wilderness Tabernacle is a pattern around which we are to build our lives. Messianic Torah study on parsha Terumah

Exodus 25:2,8  Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring me an offering: of every man that giveth it willingly with his heart ye shall take my offering….And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them.

The Tabernacle wasn’t built to look beautiful or to give the priests a place to work or the community a focus, although it might have also done all those things. It was built specifically so that God would be able to dwell among his people. He didn’t tell us exactly how it allows him to do that, only that it does. In order to build it, he asked those Israelites who had a heart to give, to bring a terumah, a lifting up. The rabbis tell us that this refers to something offered up to God off the top, from the very best. God didn’t ask them to bring whatever they felt “led” to bring, but he asked for a very specific list of items. Platinum or lead or solid oak planks wouldn’t do, even if those things might be quite valuable to their owners. They weren’t suitable to the task at hand. God didn’t promise them anything in return. There were no riches in store for those who gave up these costly items, only the satisfaction of their love for God fulfilled.

In many ways, the Tabernacle is a pattern around which we are to build our lives. God has blessed us with many gifts, but there are specific things which he has entrusted to our care that he wants us to return to him so that he may live among us. I can’t tell you what that might be for you. That’s between you and God. However, I can tell you that it isn’t your leftovers. He wants your first and best, your terumah. He doesn’t promise you anything in return except his presence. He asks that you sacrifice your time, your gold, your planks of shittim, or bolts of linen, whatever it is that he has given especially to you so that you can demonstrate your love for him by giving it back.

This is love for your Creator: surrendering your best without asking anything in return.

Faith in God’s Call

Exodus 6:2-9:35
Ezekiel 28:25-29:21
Romans 9:13-26

Exodus 6:29-7:2  YHWH spoke to Moses, saying, I am YHWH. You speak to Pharaoh king of Egypt all that I say to you.  (30)  And Moses said before YHWH, Behold, I am of uncircumcised lips, and how shall Pharaoh listen to me?  (1)  And YHWH said to Moses, See, I have made you a god to Pharaoh. And Aaron your brother shall be your prophet.  (2)  You shall speak all that I command you. And Aaron your brother shall speak to Pharaoh, he will send the sons of Israel out of his land.

When God said, “I am YHWH,” he summed up half the book of Job in a single, short sentence. He said, “I am the God who is, was, and will be. I am the Creator, the Builder, the Founder, and the Destroyer. No one moves or breathes or dies without my knowledge. Nothing is beyond my authority and power.”

God called Moses, the inarticulate, murdering exile, to be the judge of Pharaoh, the most powerful man in his world. And Moses doubted. “But who am I to confront Pharaoh? I’m not a great orator. No one listens to me when I speak.”

Like so many of us, Moses didn’t believe it when God told him who he was. Every one of us have a divinely appointed role, and when we doubt, when we hold back, saying, “I could never do that!” we tell God that we don’t believe in him.

I’m not smart enough.

I have a terrible memory.

I’m not a people person.

I’m afraid.

I’m too shy.

I’m not a leader.

Many others are so much better then me.

It might hurt my business.

I don’t want to offend anyone.

I’m too strange already.

These have been my excuses. To every single one of them, God has the same response: “I am YHWH. Who are you to question me?”

Job 38:2-8  Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?  (3)  Now gird up your loins like a man; for I will ask of you, and you teach Me.  (4)  Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell if you have understanding!  (5)  Who has set its measurements, for you know? Or who has stretched the line on it?  (6)  On what are its bases sunk, or who cast its cornerstone,  (7)  when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?  (8)  Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it broke forth as it came from the womb?

Do not fear. Do not hesitate. Do not doubt.

God knows who you are!