Beth Elohim Messianic Synagogue
Parashah #51 Nitzavim (Standing): Deuteronomy (D’varim) 29:9-30:20
Haftarah: Yesha’yahu (Isaiah) 61:10-63:9
B’rit Chadashah: Romans 9:30-10-13, Messianic Jews (Hebrews) 12:14-15
Parashah #52 Vayeilech (He went) D’varim (Deuteronomy) 31:1-30
Haftarah: Hoshea (Hosea) 14:2-10
B’rit Chadashah: Hebrews 13:5-8
This week we have two parashot to consider. I am amazed at the applicability of the information contained in these chapters to recent disasters in the United States; Hurricane Harvey and Irma, and other recent significant events such as the earthquake in Mexico, and the continued provocation by North Korea on other nations. G-d certainly has a way to call our attention to that which is of paramount importance to our spiritual well-being through physical calamities.
We should neither be surprised at what we are seeing and experiencing, nor the increasing frequency with which we are experiencing or hearing about terrorist attacks, natural disasters, famine, plagues, etc. But before we compare our parashot to current events, let’s address an all too common comment when these things occur; “Life is not fair!”
To believe that life is not fair is to say that the Creator of life is not fair. It is an ignorant statement from one who does not realize or accept that everything HaShem does is calculated with precision, even though there is so much that we cannot humanly understand in this existence. G-d knows and controls everything. He knows when a human will choose to act according to His will or will choose to go his own way. He blesses (without exception) those who follow His Torah and curses those who will continue to ignore the warning signs and go their own way. Anyone who claims that whatever befalls them is by chance and not because of the will of G-d has a spiritual problem that needs to be addressed and rectified before it is too late.
True believers see the hand of G-d in everything, even disasters and other testings. It’s not that they understand why, although they learn that all testings work for their ultimate good and for G-d’s glory (Rom. 8:28). Rather, they know that G-d is true to His Word and that when people rebel, there are consequences. Unfortunately, most people see life as a succession of cause-and-effect events, devoid of any Divine control or intervention. This is classic secular humanism that is rampant in the United States. Science tries to convince us that are on the verge of understanding everything and perhaps even controlling everything.
Most recent events such as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the unanticipated outcome of the presidential election, and acute medical events should be enough to show us that we are not in control, that there is a Power higher than our humanity that is directing the universe and our individual lives. That G-d controls the world is seldom obvious. We are used to thinking that G-d intervened in earthly affairs only in the “major” Biblical narratives about the splitting of the Red Sea, inflicting the 10 plagues, and the Exodus. There are those who even doubt G-d’s intervention in these miracles! However, to G-d, there is no difference between splitting the sea and sending rain. He controls all. It is often difficult to see through the obscure lens of logic and discern the hand of G-d when events seem to contradict our understanding of what “blessing” means or right and wrong. This was the situation for Job. How could G-d treat a righteous man by His own definition with such tragedy? Although review and analysis of the book of Job is beyond the scope of this teaching, true believers learn that we must endure testing in many forms to refine our soul, to strengthen our faith, and to glorify G-d. It is easy to glorify G-d when things seem “good.” But what about when we may be standing in 4 feet of water with no electricity, food, fresh water, or gas? How can we glorify G-d when our home has been destroyed and our lives turned upside down? Job had similar questions. He lost his home, flocks, family, and health, just short of death. Even his friends and wife condemned him. He suffered from physical and spiritual loneliness, contrary to what G-d planned for man. Bridges and connections are important in many contexts but we will address the spiritual importance for now.
The double Torah reading this week expresses the theme of “bridges” or connections on several levels. At the beginning of the first reading, we see that although there are a variety of people, they are all one. There are leaders, tribal heads, elders, women, children, converts, those who carry water or cut wood. They are all standing together, regardless of gender, occupation, or whether a convert or indigenous Israelite. We find another bridge between the two parashot read this week. Nitzvaim means to stand firmly in place. Vayeilech means to go from place to place. What could possibly be the connection? Service to G-d is predicated on the idea that there must be two kinds of distinct service; standing steadfast and a constant evolution from level to level. The Torah is both the Written and Living; law and grace, neither to the exclusion of the other. Rather, they are inextricably linked: YHVH/Yahshua, One and the Same providing the laws of G-d literally first, then with a spiritual explanation and living example (Yahshua). This is the case with all aspects of spiritual service: Torah, prayer, and mitzvos.
In the second parashah, Moshe is preparing to be called home at 120 years. Sadly, Adonai tells him that after he is gathered to his ancestors, the people will revert to prostituting themselves before foreign gods. After much sin, G-d will punish them severely, and the people will repent and return to G-d. Therefore, Moshe is commanded to write a song that encompasses the history of Israel then and now. The Song of Moshe compares to the Laws of G-d. Just as the Israelites fell away from the blessings of G-d while they rebelled, they are being regathered as a people along with other true believers in our time. Punishments for rebellion applied when the Torah was written, and are increasing with man’s increasing rebellion today. Yet, there are those who have repented since those times and those who will repent as the punishments increase. G-d knows who will repent and learn to follow Him towards eternal salvation. These will endure and overcome all that is yet to come.
In Deut. verses 16-20: Moshe emphasizes the punishment that awaits someone who violates the covenant. Verse 18 is interesting because we should ask why a person whose heart has turned away from G-d still thinks that all will be well with him/her even when he has heard all the blessings and curses that are part of the oath? In the Chumash Rashi interprets verse 18 as “adding drunkenness to thirst.” Stearns Jewish Bible translates it as “although ‘dry’ [sinful] I will be added to the ‘watered ‘[righteous]”. However, the exact translation from the Hebrew says “v’haya b’sh’mo ET(Alef-Tav) d’vary haalah hazot v’heetbarach blevavo l’mor shalom YHVH li ki beeshriot levi elecha. This translates to “and he is when to hear him ET (Aleph Tav) (untranslatable in Hebrew), words of this oath, then he blesses himself in the heart of him to say safety (the direct Hebrew word used here is Shalom), he will be (the actual word used here is YHVH) to me though in stubbornness heart of me I go…”
So, the actual translation tells us that people who know the commands and transgress them anyway are saying to themselves that they will be “ok” because G-d will still give them safety. The direct translation also indicated that Yahshua is also witness to this high-handed sin.
Verse 19 tells us that G-d will not forgive him. I need to qualify this by saying that G-d’s unforgiveness is for the person who does not suffer remorse and conviction with subsequent repentance. We should all say “Baruch HaShem’ for the opportunities we have every day of our lives to repent and be forgiven lest we all suffer His wrath! In Orthodox Judaism, there are those who believe the righteousness of the patriarchs will cover any sin they commit; thus, the danger of quasi-obedience to G-d’s Torah. On the Christian side, there is the same quasi-obedience based on the belief that “the grace of Jesus has done away with the Law and we are free to eat anything, do anything and choose our own day of worship”. We can see in this passage that this is just not the case. This Parashah thus brings the blessings and curses down to the individual level, where the previous Parashah dealt with the nation as a community with communal/national punishment. One who sins high-handedly cannot say the curses belong only to the nation or the community. Neither can he say that he will be blessed because the nation is blessed. We are all individually accountable!
Verses 22-29: This entire paragraph could easily be draped over the United States. Even the Chumash commentary, although talking about the Land (Eretz Israel), matches the exact events that are at least partially responsible for the downfall of this country; “Onlookers will analyze the incredible change in the Land from a country flowing with milk and honey to a wasteland from which the Jews were driven away. And they will conclude that only one thing could have caused such desolation: The Jews forsook their proven, all powerful G-d to worship deities that had no power and no legitimacy.” Simply substitute the word “Americans” where “Jews” is written and you can see the profound similarity. Those who say the Old Testament is not applicable to today is Torah illiterate.
Chap. 30:1-10: These verses provide untold comfort to those who love and fear G-d. We know that He has every right to destroy us, banishing us from His presence forever. But He tells us that His chosen will once again return to Him after we have had what G-d deems as enough “time out” to think about our idolatrous actions and once again live the Sh’ma. He will come looking for us and gather us and bring us back to the Land never to be divorced or exiled again. It is interesting to note that Verse 8 reminds us that we will still be accountable to live the Torah; there is no “age of grace” that releases us from this command.
Then we are hit with the “however” in verse 10. This verse is paramount to the true believer. We should memorize both this verse and verse 11 just as we do the Sh’ma. One of the biggest arguments of Christians is that no one can completely follow Torah. G-d’s Torah is replete with scripture that reminds us that we have all sinned and that none of us are righteous. Nevertheless, our shortcomings as humans does not negate the fact that it can be done! G-d reminds us of this very point; “However, all this will happen only if you pay attention to what Adonai your G-d says, so that you obey His mitzvot and regulations which are written in this book of the Torah, if you turn to Adonai your G-d with all your heart and all your being.” Verse 11; “For this mitzvah which I am giving you today is not too hard for you, it is not beyond your reach. It isn’t in the sky, so that you need to ask, ‘Who will go up into the sky for us, bring it to us and make us hear it, so we can obey it?’ Likewise, it isn’t beyond the sea, so that you need to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea for us, bring it to us and make us hear it, so that we can obey it?’ On the contrary, the word is very close to you-in your mouth, even in your heart; therefore, you can do it!” If we feel as if we are incapable of learning, then it follows that we will feel as though we are to “excused” from the obligation to learn. Rambam (Talmud Torah 1:8) states “every man in Israel whether he be rich or poor… needs to establish times for learning Torah…”. But how can the average person learn to become so obedient?
In the Tanya, R. Schneur Zalman develops the Chabad approach. I love this approach because it reflects the concept behind the Sh’ma. The rabbi teaches a holistic approach to life in which the mind and intellect play the leading and pivotal role. First the person studies, comprehends and meditates on the truth of G-d, mans’ mission in life, and the resources and challenges extended to him to fulfill it. The next step is translating this knowledge and understanding into emotional feelings. Because of the innate superiority of the mind over the heart, the understanding, assimilation and meditation on these G-dly concepts compel a love and awe of G-d. This love is seen as that unquenchable desire to cleave to G-d and emulate Him as much as possible. (For the Messianic Jew, we have Yahshua’s teachings provided even more detail to help us as well.) The “awe” of G-d is the utter hatred towards anything that makes a barrier between Him and us. Finally, when a person has so oriented his mind and so transformed his heart, his observance of Torah becomes not only possible, but a compelling need. He craves the fulfillment that comes with obedience to Torah and continually strives to evade anything that would interfere with his obedience.
So, you might ask why spend a lifetime learning, assimilating and pursuing this disciplined state of mind and heart? Why not just read the directions and follow the instructions? The direct approach is a dead end. This is called the short but long way. There are too many concepts, challenges and lessons from G-d that would be missed. On the other hand, the long but short way is winding, steep, tedious, and long as life itself. It is full of ups and downs, setbacks and frustrations. It demands every ounce of intellectual and emotional stamina the human being can muster. But it is the road that leads, steadily and surely, to the desired destination, which is to glorify G-d.
“…keep asking, and it will be given to you; keep seeking, and you will find; keep knocking, and the door will be opened to you…” (Luke 11:9-10). Sh’aul mentions this concept comparing it to a “race toward the prize.”
“But if we continue hoping for something we don’t see, then we still wait eagerly for it, with perseverance” (Rom. 8:25). Sh’aul puts this concept as such, “I, for my part, do not think of myself as having yet gotten hold of it; but one thing I do; forgetting what is behind me and straining forward toward what lies ahead, I keep pursuing the goal in order to win the prize offered by G-d’s upward calling in the Messiah Yahshua” (Phil. 3:13-14).
Verses 15-20: G-d is pleading with the nation to choose life by obedience to the Torah. This is amazing and humbling. We have an all-knowing, all-seeing G-d who with a passing thought could obliterate us or make us robotic in nature. This would have been so much easier for Him. Think about it; if this had been His choice He would not have needed to create a place for us; He would not have had to withdraw a part of Himself to make space for us; He would not have had to provide the Torah; He would not have had to provide Yahshua for a sacrifice; Yahshua would not have had to suffer the pain of knowing what was to be and that there would be those who would yet deny Him; G-d would not have had to endure our chosen ignorance, rebellion, destruction and denial of His Torah. Just think…But He did and does give us a choice.
This Parashah is not read just before Rosh Hashanah by chance. During this season “teshuva” (“return to G-d”) is in the air with personal and collective introspection as the order of the day. The Jewish concept of return is a return to G-d. Could the disasters of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma be included in this call to repentance? It is a theocratic phenomenon, which serves, in most cases, to heal an egocentric perspective. One of the principles of teshuva is not repeating the same transgression in the same situation as before. Choose life! This is a call to win the spiritual battle between life with G-d or eternal separation or death through disobedience to Torah. We can only have life when we make soul choices and do what is hard and right over emotional, animal soul choices that are easy and wrong. It is extremely hot and humid in Florida where many still do not have the basic necessities including fans or air conditioning. Yet, in some cases, there are reports and video clips of these folks doing their best to help others in the midst of their own misery. I submit this would not happen under ‘normal circumstances. Some of these folks don’t even know who they are helping; their political affiliation, their social status, or religion, if any. Yet, they are standing as one, reaching out to make human connections of the unselfish kind. Will these individuals, the nation, and the world, all of whom are watching, get the point and remember it? Will we remember what is important or will we go back to arguing and fighting over issues of much less importance? Only time will tell.
Choosing death is easy; not growing spiritually; not making time to study G-d’s Word; not observing Shabbat because you have something “better to do;” eating fast food all the time because it is convenient. We choose death all day long. Yet we wonder why we are lifeless, unmotivated, discontented, depressed, and anxious. This is because we are not living by G-d’s definition of “life.” Instead, we are choosing death by distracting ourselves and killing ourselves one poor decision at a time. G-d would not plead with us to choose life if it were not in our best interest. The Torah is telling us that mere “existence” equals death. People who choose the easy road or choose not to make choices are choosing death. Living Torah requires that we submit to the authority of our Creator; nullify our egos and our natural “instincts”. It takes discipline, effort, humility and strength. Providing man with the means to live a holy life by choice is a far greater demonstration of G-d’s chesed than if He simply fed us like helpless baby birds put on autopilot. He will bend us to where we think we will surely break. But He knows our limits and we need to learn to trust that He does nothing that is not intended to make us grow.
The ability to face decisions involving life and death issues was placed before man for the first time only after the giving of the Torah. The object of free will is to nullify it by applying it properly. Our purpose is to change our essence from animalistic, greedy, lustful beings to one of striving to please our G-d through obedience to Torah. How do we know this is what G-d uses as proof of our love for Him? The following verses are some of the strongest proof texts of Yahshua’s command in the “New” Testament to follow His commands, rulings, and statutes. Yochanan 14:15 reads:
“If you love me, you will keep my commands.” Verse 21: “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me.” Then verse 23: “If someone loves me, he will keep my word.” Finally, in Chap. 15:10, “If you keep my commands, you will stay in my love…” Choose life! It doesn’t get any clearer than that for those who argue the “Law is dead.”
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10-63:9
This is the seventh and final installment of a series of seven “Haftarot of Consolation”. Isaiah begins on a high note, describing the great joy that we will experience with the Final Redemption, much like the joy of a newly married couple. Isaiah then declares his refusal to passively wait on the Redemption: “For Zion’s sake I will not remain silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be still, until her righteousness emerges like shining light…” Then the haftarah recounts G-d’s oath to eventually redeem Zion, when the Jews will praise G-d in Jerusalem. There is also the description of the punishment G-d will mete out to Edom and the enemies of Israel to their final destruction. May it be soon and in our lifetime!
Brit Chadashah: Hebrews 12:14-15
The consistency of Torah is once again proven in these verses. We are admonished to keep pursuing shalom and to see to it that no root of bitterness springs up causing trouble and thus contamination to many. It recalls the story of Esau who exchanged his right as the firstborn for a single meal and then changed his mind to no avail. It is also interesting that this parashah falls on Shabbat just before Rosh Hashanah when we are to ask for forgiveness from our fellow man for any sins we may have committed against them during the year, then G-d that we may be forgiven for any oaths or vows that have not been kept during the year and into the new year. We must seek wisdom and knowledge from G-d in asking Him to search our hearts and make our sins known to us so we can follow through with establishing peace with G-d and each other.
Rabbi Tamah Davis