Torah Tuesdays: Should Messianic Jews Concern Themselves With Obeying Torah?

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What does it mean to be a Jewish community? What are some of the reasons given for Jewish people keeping the commandments of HaShem?  What does this week’s parasha [Behar] say about the benefits of keeping these commandments? Does keeping these commandments have anything to do wIth us as Messianic Jews? Let’s look at these questions.

From God’’s point of view, the Jewish people are meant to be a community.  God gives a number of commandments in this chapter and elsewhere that serve to remind the Israelites of their special bond with each other.  Some of these commandments bother us, but that is in part due to the fact that we do not understand what God was getting at, and in part due to the fact that we 21st century Americans know little if anything about family, affinity, bondedness, loyalty, and community.  These are foreign terms to us and certainly not our native language.

Yes, some of these commandments bother us, such as these:

If any who are dependent on you become so impoverished that they sell themselves to you, you shall not make them serve as slaves.  They shall remain with you as hired or bound laborers.  They shall serve with you until the year of Jubilee.  Then they and their children with them shall be free from your authority; they shall go back to their own family and return to their ancestral property.  For they are my servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt;  they shall not be sold as slaves are sold.  You shall not rule over them with harshness, but shall fear your God.  As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves.  You may also acuire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property.  You may keep them as a possession for your cildren after you, for them to inherit as property.  These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness [Lev 25:39-46]

Another passage likewise highlights the special treatment reserved for fellow Israelites:

When you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from you neighbor, you shall not cheat one another. . . . You shall not cheat one another, but you shall fear your God;  for I am the LORD your God [Lev 25:14, 17].

It seems clear that the “one anothers” mentioned in this verse are fellow Israelites.

They should not have needed such a reminder.  After all, are they not all descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?  Are they not all descendants of those people who left Egypt under the shadow of Hashem’s outstretched arm, and who wonderfully, miraculously, unbelievably escaped through the Red Sea?  Are these not one people and do they not know that in a special way they belong to God and in a special way they belong with each other?

images-3It seems they did need this reminder.  Apparently it was too easy for them to forget that they had a special relationship with one another.  And that is part of the reason God draws a distinction between the Israelite and the non-Israelite in these laws—to remind the people to remember and to never forget that they are one people with a common heritage, a covenant relationship with the God of their fathers, a common responsibility, and a common destiny.

Some of you out there in cyberland are likely still disturbed about this and I can’t say I blame you, but unless I miss my guess, there are some aspects of this situation you are not seeing.  Let me suggest two.

First, the danger was that Israelites would start treating each other in a totally ungodly and selfish fashion, imitating the ways of the Egypt they had left behind and the Canaan to which they had come.  This would be a terribly immoral thing and a blot on the reputation of HaShem: that his people would fail to show any family loyalty, and hesed to one another

Secondly, let me ask you a question.  Suppose you were looking to acquire a roommate, and you came to me for advice. Each of these parties sent you a brief letter.   The letter for person #1 said, “I love everybody and try to treat everyone the same.”  Person #2 said, “I am strongly loyal to my family, and am known for my dedication to my parents and relatives.”  Which person is more likely to treat you well?  Chances are it is person #2, because those who say they love everyone are usually just generally courteous, but superficial.  On the other hand, those who have learned the meaning of kindness in their own family context are more likely to be then extend that kindness to others.

Similarly, HaShem is here training Israel to have a proper sense of family respect to parents, brothers and sisters, and fellow Israelites, for only those who are conscious of their web of relationship and who have learned to practice loyal love in that context can ever be expected to extend that hesed to others.

He is seeking to remind them not to descend into selfishness and godlessness, into the kind of “me-firstness” which treats others, even one’s own family members and extended family as merely a means to one’s own ends.

The Jewish people were and are supposed to be an example of righteousness to the other nations.  This requires of us that we learn to recognize our relatedness to other Jews and to look out for them as a foundation for our regard for others.

I saw this exemplified in a  T.V. documentary about the founding of the State of Israel.  Israel was in a Catch 22 position.  Before Israel was a state, it were forbidden by international law to acquire armaments of any kind.  But the powers the be knew that as soon as they did declare statehood, they would be attacked by nine surrounding Arab Nations.  They were in a terrible position.

Somewhere, somehow they managed to scrounge up a very few pathetic planes. But who would fly them?  Israel had not existed yet; none of their people had any experience with war-time aviation. The call went out, often through a chain of phone calls to US Air Force or Royal Air Force veterans with Jewish surnames.  And little by little, or should I say, “yid’l by yid’l” a few Jews were found who were prepared to break the international embargo, and go to Palestine, to be in place for the founding of the State of Israel, so they could fly and fight on behalf of the new-born state.  I learned in that documentary that for the first two years of statehood, the official language of the Israeli Airforce was English, because practically all their flyers and personnel were Americans or British men.  These were people who instinctively acted out of a sense of K’lal Yisrael, the Unity of the People of Israel—even before that people had a state.

One modern writer put it this way:

Our sense of shared history and shared destiny helps define Klal Yisrael. We share language, literature, art, and culture. We, as Klal Yisrael, share mutual responsibility and mutual benefits. Jews feel a bond with other Jews, wherever they live in the world. Kol Yisrael arevim ze baze–All Israel is responsible for one another.

Throughout the generations this responsibility has taken many shapes. Jews have supported each other worldwide through financial donations, gifts of clothing, housing, arranging for jobs, and providing other resources as needed. The collective oneness of all Jews, in both reality and in desire, is called Klal Yisrael, the community of Israel.

This quotation seems to reduce Klal Israel to the level of social contract—an agreement Jews have with each other.  But in Scripture, the ground of this mutual responsibility is HaShem who formed Israel for His glory, who redeemed Israel in his mercy, who chooses Israel for his purpose and who loves israel in covenant faithfulness.  It is God who called us to Himself and to one another in everlasting relationship.  We can either honor this relationship of dishonor it: but we cannot avoid it.

We need to cultivate a sense of our connectedness to our families and to other Jews, for without that, we cannot but treat our nuclear  family, other Jews, and all people with a mixture of indifference and contempt.

From the vantage point of Torah, not only is Israel one people.  She is also meant to be a community where God dwells in the midst in all of His holiness and power. “They will be my people; I will be their God; and I will dwell in the midst of them.”

With the One True God dwelling in the midst of this holy, set apart people, it is clear that we are to be a community that conforms to a certain way of life grounded in God’s commandments, statutes and ordinances.   For if God is in the midst of us, we must separate ourselves from that which is unclean and live carefully as a Kingdom of Priests to the Holy One.

This obedience has nothing to do with “getting saved,” with what some theologians have termed “works righteousness”:  salvation is already ours through the saving acts of God.

Rather commandment-keeping is for a variety of purposes:

  • Demonstrating that we are that chosen, holy nation with whom God made certain covenants whom he delivered out of Egypt,
  • Demonstrating our obedience to the command that we so live as to be an example to the nations.

One author puts it this way:

The laws of holiness are addressed not to selected individuals but to the entire community of Israel.  Instead of attempting to produce a selected group of pure individuals, the laws aim at producing a holy people, a holy nation, who collectively will be a royal priesthood, a rich treasure belonging to God (see Exod 19:5-6).  The demonstration of this consecration to God is to be displayed by the whole nation in every walk and area of life;  family life, community affairs, farming, commerce, and worship of God.

 

  • Demonstrating that we have respect for His holy presence.
  • For us the benefit of keeping these commandments is richness of life, for God has promised blessing to those who honor Him in this way.

In this week’s Torah passage we read this in Lev 25:18-19:

You shall observe my statues, and faithfully keep my ordinances, so that you may live on the land securely. The land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and live on it securely.

Leviticus 18:1-5 embodies the same thought. About these verses, Walter Kaiser has this to say:

Unknown. . . According to the doings of the land of Egypt, where you used to live you shall not do  and according to the doings of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you, you shall not do;  neither shall you live by their statues.”  Instead, israel is to do God’s decrees and statutes, and to keep them in mind while going about the business of living (v. 5).  The accent falls on an approved life-style as opposed to forms of living that Israel had seen in Egypt and, apparently, would soon see demonstrated in Canaan.

Men and women will fare much better if they will follow God’s laws.  This chapter is addressed to those who claim the LORD as their God. . .  Keeping the law will not lead to eternal life, as some have mistakenly thought this verse teaches, but it will lead to an abundant life… .

It is God’s intent that when Jewish communities live in obedience to God’s commands, they should experience richness of life.The productivity of the land and Israel’s secure possession of it when they are walking in obedience serves to remind us that God has attached his blessing to a certain way of life.  If we live together in that way, we will experience richness and productivity—in a word, blessing.  If we fail to live that way, we will just experience a corresponding impoverishment of life.

The other night, while mentoring two good friends, I suggested a list of reasons why we Jews should keep God’s commandments, and some perspectives on the enterprise. Here is what I said:

  1. The Torah way of life is the decorum or the etiquette God gae to Israel as a Kingdom of Priests showing us how we should or must behave in His presence.
  2. The premise of the Bible is that God saved all Jews from certain destruction in Egypt. Therefore, we obey him because we owe him.
  3. The close you are to God the more restrictions—this is why the High Priest’s life choices were more restricted than any other Israelite. So for us, the demands of the commandments are due to the fact that God has brought us near to himself, If we value that nearness, the commandments are not irksome.
  4. The point of keeping the commandments is relational—out of a desire to honor God—not mechanical—out of some sort of fearful obsessive compulsiveness.
  5. Obeying halacha, system of working out the implication of the commandments, is the way we present our selves to God as living sacrifices in every aspect and detail of life. It makes this intention explicit.
  6. Being overly anxious about observing or performing the halacha ruins its relational aspect. Guard yourself against this!
  7. In a practical sense, living a halachic life is the glue that bonds the Jewish community together as one people, making a theological fact explicit.
  8. The root of all Jewish observance must be kavvanah–directedness, focus, relational intentionality. This is Jewish mindfulness–mindfulness of Who it is before Whom we stand.
  9. The priority is that we Jews honor God as a people.  It is when all Jews honor God in the same way that attention is drawn to Him. This is how Moses conveyed this in Deuteronomy, Chapter Four.

 5 Look, I have taught you laws and rulings, just as ADONAI my God ordered me, so that you can behave accordingly in the land where you are going in order to take possession of it. 6 Therefore, observe them; and follow them; for then all peoples will see you as having wisdom and understanding. When they hear of all these laws, they will say, ‘This great nation is surely a wise and understanding people.’ 7 For what great nation is there that has God as close to them as ADONAI our God is, whenever we call on him? 8 What great nation is there that has laws and rulings as just as this entire Torah which I am setting before you today? 9 Only be careful, and watch yourselves diligently as long as you live, so that you won’t forget what you saw with your own eyes, so that these things won’t vanish from your hearts. Rather, make them known to your children and grandchildren. . .

Clearly, we Jews have a job to do. And in significant measure, the way of Torah is the job description.

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