As we near the close of the Torah, we find that Moshe (Moses) begins to make frequent reference to the idea of rewards and punishments, or “blessings and curses”. Many people like to think that these conditions are directed towards individuals. However, that is not what the text indicates. Hashem expects the entire community of Israel to keep his commandments, as a whole. A little detail that often escapes us—it is not possible for a single individual to keep the entirety of the Torah. Why? Because some of the commandments are relevant only to females, while others are relevant only to males. Some of the commandments are relevant only to farmers, and not accountants. Do you see my point? No single person—not even Yeshua—is ever expected to keep every commandment in the Torah.
I always find that the hardest part of writing about a Torah portion is trying to narrow my topic. Every parsha in the Torah contains many significant statements, and I always hate to focus on one, as opposed to another. It is bad enough when my time is limited to “only” an hour or two for teaching. Here, I have only a limited space—enough to write what would take me just a couple minutes to present. So, if I don’t emphasize something you think is significant in a particular parsha, please feel free to drop me a note, and I’ll try to remember to address your point next year.
That’s one of the best aspects of teaching through the Torah—if I miss something this year, this parsha will be back in another year. <g>
On with the Torah
This time around, I want to share with you a paragraph from this parsha that has become something of a theme verse for my life. Before I ever even knew there was something called a “Messianic Movement” (this was a looooong time ago!), I heard this text expounded by a pastor in the “Church of God” denomination. The passage captured my imagination in a way I’m sure the speaker never thought possible.
(12) “So now, Isra’el, all that Adonai your God asks from you is to fear Adonai your God, follow all his ways, love him and serve Adonai your God with all your heart and all your being; (13) to obey, for your own good, the mitzvot and regulations of Adonai which I am giving you today. (14) See, the sky, the heaven beyond the sky, the earth and everything on it all belong to Adonai your God. (15) Only Adonai took enough pleasure in your ancestors to love them and choose their descendants after them—yourselves—above all peoples, as he still does today. (16) Therefore, circumcise the foreskin of your heart; and don’t be stiffnecked any longer!
(17) “For Adonai your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty and awesome God, who has no favorites and accepts no bribes. (18) He secures justice for the orphan and the widow; he loves the foreigner, giving him food and clothing. (19) Therefore you are to love the foreigner, since you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.
(Devarim/Deuteronomy 10:12-19, Complete Jewish Bible)
The first time I heard this passage read, it completely blew my mind. You see, I had been trained in the belief that “the Law” was harmful to us. It contained only threats and punishments, and was something to be avoided. Purportedly, the great blessing Messiah came to give was release from the harshness and severity offered by the Law.
So, imagine my surprise the day I heard that the Law (more properly, Torah) of God was “for your own good”! It set my thinking on an entirely new track. It became increasingly clear to me that Hashem had given the Torah as a way to bless his people, not as a way to curse them! Now it made sense when I read Sha’ul (the apostle Paul) saying, “the Torah is holy; that is, the commandment is holy, just and good.” Obeying the commandments of God is something that is meant to benefit me, not hurt me.
Adonai associates keeping his commandments with demonstrating our love for Him. The Torah teaches us that, as a result of our relationship with him, God expects changes in both our attitude and our behavior. Creating a dichotomy between the two is not only bad theology, it is psychologically damaging. Our behavior grows out of our thinking, and our thinking is affected by our behavior. Human beings are created to be an integrated, “wholistic” personality. As a result, we act upon our feelings, and our actions reinforce those same feelings.
Let’s take a look at what happens if we fall into either of the two extremes.
If we were to suppose that the only thing God cared about was our beliefs, we would tend to be lax in our dealings with others. “As long as we think good thoughts”, we’d say, “then we are doing OK.” After all, it is the thought that counts, right? If God is only concerned with our thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs, then our behavior becomes inconsequential. In this case, we might have correct doctrine, but our application of that doctrine would suffer greatly, because we would consider our actions insignificant. For some of us, this would lead to being lazy and careless. For others, we might start thinking that it is OK to be mean-spirited to others, in the name of “getting them to believe correct doctrine”. This idea that right thinking completely trumps behavior can lead to all kinds of messed up relationships.
How about the other position? What happens when we believe that God judges us on the merit of our behavior alone? What if it makes no difference whatsoever how we go at things, as long as we do the right thing at the right time with the right materials? Well, then we end up with what we typically call “legalism”. That is, the behavior becomes paramount, while our attitude means nothing.
Come to think of it… both of these extremes lead to almost identical manifestations! Both result in caring only about self, and demeaning others who don’t “measure up” to our standard of correctness. Whether we demand that others hold our same “correct” doctrine, or whether we expect everyone else to perform up to our expectations—both cases result in setting our personal standards over the worth of the individual.
If we truly wish to demonstrate our love for Hashem, then we will show him appropriate fear and honor—in other words, we will be mindful of who we are and who he is, and show proper humility. This will lead us to behave in accordance with his commandments. More than that, humility coupled with love for God, will lead us to be loving towards others. This blend of traits is what the Torah calls, “circumcising our heart”. It describes the removal of the callousness that sometimes characterizes our lives, so that we can exhibit the tenderheartedness modeled for us by our loving Father.
In a similar vein, the haftarah this week is part of a series that fall during a period known as the “Sabbaths of Consolation”. It contains Yeshayahu 50:4, which says that a sign of one who is well-taught is that he “with [his] words, knows how to sustain the weary”. This theme appears throughout Scripture. Yochanan, a follower of Yeshua, put it this way—”If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” So we see that one who truly loves Adonai will also demonstrate compassion and kindness to others.
May we all be known as people who have our ears opened by Adonai, so that we learn from him how to love, how to obey, and also how to console. These are the hallmark characteristics of one who truly knows the Almighty, and who walks in his ways. If we exhibit this character and behavior, then we will enjoy the blessing of Adonai, and bring his blessing to all those we meet.