The folowing is a D’var Torah, a sermon, I will be preaching on Shabbat Nitzavim-Vayelech, September 20, 2014, at Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue, Beverly Hills, California. Interestingly, part of this passage, Deut 29:10-30:20, was read in synagogues all over the world the day after I was born, too many years ago 🙂 It is good to be speaking on this, one of my favorite passages in Torah.
In recent months I have had the privilege of traveling to two congregations in two different states, and teaching extensively in each place. During my travels I have met two people from large families, one family of twelve children, the other of fourteen. In the case of the family of twelve, I was fascinated to learn that they had recently had a family reunion of the siblings, their children and their grandchildren. What a crowd that must have been? What a gathering.
In this week’s parasha we see the children of Israel having something of a family reunion, in fact, it might be termed a family pre-union, because gathered there are not only the Jews who were then alive, in the shadow of their ancestors to whom God had made promises, and therefore both present and past Jews, but also gathered there are the future generations of Israel. This is a family PRE-UNION. And all of us who are Jews are in the family picture.
The purpose of the PREUNION is for God to remind us of our family obligations. Let’s read about this here.
a) Torah is a gift—it is something which God gave to Israel for our obedient engagement.
b) Obeying Torah is the responsibility of all members of the community of Israel
c) This responsibility applies not only to previous generations but to all Jews who would ever live—“those not here today.”
d) It is a covenantal bond between the God of Israel and his people in fulfillment of promises made to our ancestors.
i) If we would take pride in being Jews, and pride in being the chosen people. . .
ii) . . . we must remember that God chose us to give us the responsibility to obey Torah
e) God did not bring us out of Egypt to set us free to go run and play. He brought us out of Egypt that we might serve him.
f) And the Torah is the guidebook for us Jews as to what that service of God should look like
g) We were brought out of Egypt so that we would no longer be Pharaoh’s slaves, so that we would instead be slaves of God.
2) The Risk of the gift of Torah (Dt 29:16-29)
a) The Torah comes with sanctions—the curses attached to the covenant. These are the consequences that await us if we do not not obey the stipulations of Torah but who instead opt for other options.
i) It is too simplistic to restrict these other options to other religions-it is more than that.
ii) Whatever you build your life around instead of building your life around serving God is your idol. . . . your false religion. And serving that instead of serving God is a recipe for disaster whether quickly or slowly, whether now or later.
iii) The gift of Torah, the responsibility of Torah, comes with sanctions, that is, penalties for non-compliance.
iv) This is the risk of Torah. If you want the gift, this is the price you pay for shipping.
b) This is not about perfect performance—it is about faithful performance. What God looks for is faithful responsiveness to his Torah
a) Moses predicts that in the latter days, which is now, when all these things befall us — “the blessing and the curse that I have set before you” — that the Jewish people will take these blessings and curses to heart amidst the various nations to which the Lord your God has banished us. The key to remember here is that we would take these things to heart—that we would do a costs benefits analysis of what disobedience and indifference to Torah has cost us, and what we stand to gain from walking in obedience to God.
b) This means that the Jewish people will experience peril in exile, and realize it is connected somehow with our disobedience to God.. This reality is coming upon us again even now. Although our people have sought to be comfortable in exile, repeatedly we get reminded that it is not safe out there.
i) This was certainly the case with the Shoah
ii) It is certainly becoming the case in Europe and elsewhere today
iii) The mold of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism remains and under the right conditions, revives with its noxious stink and toxic effects. We are seeing this mold revive in Europe, in Australia, and here in America.
c) In addition departure from God’s Torah brings negative results for our character and that of our children and their children.
4) The Return to Torah obedience observable among those who have truly repented (30:2)
a) One of the signs of true repentance among Jews is a return to Torah
i) The sinner abandons his sins
ii) Removes them from his thoughts, resolving in his heart never to commit them again. See Isa 55:7.
iii) He must regret the past – Jer 31:18 – “After I returned, I regretted.”
iv) He must reach the level where God, who knows the heart, can say, “He will never return to this sin again.” See Hosea 14:4 – “We will no longer say to the work of our hands, ‘You are our gods.’”
v) He must verbally confess and state those matters which he resolved in his heart concerning the sins being confessed.
vi) He must turn back to the right way having confessed having strayed into the wrong way.
c) Returning to paths of Torah is not a gimmick or some trendy add-on
d) It is not just a question of “getting religious.” ALL Jews are religious:
i) Some Jews are religious about their bank account, and their stock portfolio. As long as I have this, I shall not want.
ii) Some Jews are religious about living in Israel or living in Florida or living in New York.
iii) Some Jews are religious about the Florida Gators, or the New York Yankees, or some other sports team
iv) Some Jews are religious about sex—it’s all they need.
v) Some Jews build their lives around protecting and preening themselves. That is their religion
vi) For some Jews their religion is the Republican Party and Ronald Reagan is their Prophet
vii)For some Jews, the Democrat Party is their religion, and Hillary Clinton is the last best hope of humanity
viii) For some Jews their religion in their family
ix) Whatever you build your life around, whatever it is upon which you base your security and hope, is your religion and all Jews are religious because we all build our lives around something.
e) But at the end of days, Jews will return to serving God in the context of Torah—we will again embrace this holy responsibility.
i) If departure from Torah is the measure of our sin, then it is difficult if not impossible to speak of a return to God apart from a return to obeying Torah.
ii) Jewish repentance has two components—embracing God’s messenger and embracing the message.
- Repeatedly when God enforced the sanctions of the covenant, its penalties, upon our people he mentioned two things: rejecting his messengers, the prophets, and failing to obey his Torah.
- The Prophet Ezekiel tells us that in the end of days, when God restores the fortunes of Israel, these two things will be together—embracing his ultimate messenger, the Messiah, and obeying his Torah. Here is how he says it: “My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes.
5) The Renewal that comes to people who return to Torah (Dt 30:3-20)
a) Returning to Torah is attended by spiritual, communal, and national renewal
b) Just as a departure from Torah results in a kind of decay, so a return to Torah results in fruitfulness and strength
6) The Return to the Land connected with Torah obedience. In the latter days, the return to Torah will be accompanied by a return to the Land as the return to the Land will be accompanied by a return to Torah. Even secular Jews in Israel increasingly are studying the holy books. God is up to something. (Dt 30:3-20)
7) Returning to Torah is not only a responsibility, it is a meant to be a delight
a) Delighting in pleasing the Beloved
b) Delighting in the elegance of God’s word and His ways
c) Delighting in knowing that blessing and protection await us at every turn as we obey his Torah
8) Returning to Torah is important because Torah provides Rungs of a ladder through which we can each and all distance ourselves from the uncleanness and indifference to God that is in world and draw near to God. If we are not going to return to Torah, how then, by what values and what guidelines are we going to conduct our lives? The Prophet Isaiah said it in unforgettable words: “And when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn (Isaiah 8:19-20 ESV)
As we go into the High Holy Days there are some questions we should ask and answer:
- As Jews, of what do we need to repent?
- What has our waywardness cost us, and what is it apt to cost us?
- When we repent what can we expect in terms of enrichment of life and purpose?
- Besides repentance, that is a change in feelings and judgment about what we have done and left undone, we must return. To what are we as Jews going to return as a demonstration of our repentance?
- What are you going to do now and throughout the year to come to make sure you grow in intelligent, life-enhancing faithfulness to God in the context of Torah?
- And what of God’s messenger? We Messianic Jews agree with what Scripture teaches, 1 Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. 2 And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through the Messiah, who, when he had cleansed us from our sins, sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven. We agree with the Jewish Prophet Ezekiel who put together the two halves of repentance that most people prefer to separate: “My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes.
- As we anticipate the Ten Days of Awe we Jews, who take pride in being the chosen people, must reflect upon how we have dealt with the responsibilities of chosenness. And all of us, in various ways and in various degrees, will need to repent and to return. The Torah is a gift. It is bond. It is a delight. But it is also an unavoidable responsibility.
One of my favorite rabbis, Rabbi Avraham Weiss, reminds us of our responsibilities when he speaks the role that Kaddish plays in our service. He says that the opening words of the Kaddish can be understood, “May we do our share to magnify and sanctify God’s great Name in the world.” When the leader of the service recites Kaddish and the congregation responds, “Amen,” we declare our intention to partner with God to fulfill this mission to make His Oneness and Kingship a reality in all the world. The prayer is repeated over and over again in the full service and it is all about our assumption of this responsibility. (See Rabbi Weiss’s book, Holistic Prayer: A Guide to Jewish Spirituality. This is not a book for neophytes but neither is it strictly the province of experts. But it is a wonderful book about Jewish theology and prayer).
It should be obvious that we cannot partner with God in bringing his Kingship to reality in the world if we ourselves do not treat him as King.
The way we treat Him as King is by honoring the responsibilities of Torah. During this High Holy Day season, let us all repent, returning to the paths of Torah from which all of us have strayed. As Isaiah reminds us, all of us like sheep have gone astray, we have turned each one to his own way, but HaShem has laid on him (the Messiah) the iniquity of us all.” We can only return to God to the degree that we are willing to deal with his messenger and his message. It is not enough to find forgiveness through the Messiah, because we are not forgiven so that we continue wandering away from the paths of Torah. Forgiveness enables us to return to those paths, and repentance is all about this return.