This week’s parasha is mainly concerned with our Torah obedience and making sure that we take it as seriously as G-d does. There are long lists of blessings for obedience and curses and methods of discipline for disobedience. Since our observance of the precepts of the Torah is so important, and as Nazarenes we believe this wholeheartedly, perhaps we should take a look at exactly how we are to obey them.
First of all, we know that all the commandments that apply to us need to be kept. We are to “carefully follow all His commandments”. It does not say to follow them when you feel like it or find it convenient. Sometimes one must skip a meal or miss the ‘big game’ in order to be pleasing to our Father in heaven. We certainly do not have to make the choices Rabbi Akiva and the Jews of his time did; whether following even the most basic of the commandments would result in death, in the ultimate sanctification of G-d’s name. We have the freedom to eat what we want, worship when we want, wear what we want without the police coming to take us away. We will have no excuse when we stand before G-d and He judges us according to our works.
One of the key words constantly used is “all” when connected with the commandments. The Torah does not allow us to pick and choose between the ethical and religious, the moral and the ceremonial. We understand why G-d told us not to steal or commit adultery and we may understand Shabbat and the festivals, and we might not understand why we can only eat certain things or why we can’t plow with and ox and an ass together. But just because we don’t understand a command, or can’t see the point, it is still a valuable command and still needs to be obeyed. He is G-d, we are not and He has the right to ask anything of us or place any expectations He desires on us. We are thankful that His yoke is easy and the burden light, and He has done so much for us already. So we should stop our rationalizing and just do what it is that He has declared pleasing to Him.
And not only do we need to obey all the commands but we need to do so meticulously. We must remember who it is we serve. We owe G-d our best, not our leftovers. We bring the firstfruits, not that which we don’t need. If you clean the white house, you will (hopefully) be a lot more meticulous that you are with your own (current political prejudices aside). Our service to G-d must be of the same caliber. When we perform the mitzvot, we do so with an awareness of for whom we are performing the deed. And keep in mind the words of our Messiah. Our obedience is to be even more meticulous than that of the Pharisees, with, as G-d has commanded us as well, our whole soul in the deeds.
Finally, take a look at Deut 28:47. The curses come on Israel because they did not serve the Lord joyfully. We are not to perform the mitzvot as if under a harsh taskmaster or as if it is drudgery or mechanically without the ‘heart and soul’. We are to serve our G-d joyously and with gladness. If we are to attract people to the G-d of Israel, His Messiah and His Torah, we will only do so if we exemplify the joyous servant who gladly serves His master and doesn’t want to leave at the end of his service and allows his ear to be pierced. You attract bees with honey. But it is not just an act, not just a face we put on. We must truly be joyful servants and that comes with a change of attitude about G-d and Torah. I trust that each of you will foster the attitude that will make you a joyful, effective servant of our King.
In our parasha this week there is a very curious but important passage about the relationship between Israel and YHVH. In chapter 26:16-19 YHVH through Moshe makes some interesting statements. He says that this day you are to perform these commandments and this day you have distinguished YHVH as your G-d and this day He has distinguished you and his people to observe the commands and so become his treasured and holy people above all other people on the earth. All these statements in this section are bound up by this common phrase and in so doing, they give a us a very good idea about how to have the intimate relationship with G-d promised in the rest of this parasha.
There is a cause and effect relationship described here and the cause of the relationship is Torah faithfulness. This section begins and ends with emphasis on the commandments. Without the Torah and our fulfillment of it’s requirements, that which is described in the middle of the passage is impossible. How are we to observe them? With all our hearts and souls. The mitzvot all have meaning and purpose and are there to deepen our relationship with our Creator by revealing things about Him. The commandments are more than a cultural thing. We can do the ‘Jewish thing’ for a variety of reasons but if we learn the prayers and the language and the requirements and do them as a cultural thing, as a matter of rote or as some kind of evangelistic tool they will do nothing for us. It is not until we perform the mitzvot with kavannah (intention), seeking to understand the revelation behind the commands and it’s impact on our relationship with G-d, the world and the spiritual realm, that any of the mitzvot will have meaning in our lives.
What are the results of this kind of action? First, we distinguish YHVH as our G-d. We sanctify, or set apart, the name of YHVH. When we fulfill the mitzvot, we show the rest of the world that we follow the G-d of Avraham, Yitzach and Ya’akov. Not Allah, not Buddha, not Jesus, not Krishna but YHVH. Through our action we show who we are following. And when we do so we will not be disappointed because Yahushua promised that those who acknowledge Him before the world will be acknowledged by YHVH. He does not abandon His own but rewards them handsomely.
Second, YHVH distinguishes us as his people when we perform the mitzvot. YHVH’s kingdom is based on behavior and only on behavior. This day, the day one decides to perform the commandments, one distinguishes YHVH and is so distinguished. It is not birth, it is not a medical procedure, it is not some prayer one prays but behavior one engages in that makes one part of this people and worthy of all the blessings and promises. It all comes down to action, without it we are nothing. YHVH doesn’t need the children of Avraham if they refuse to obey, he can make them out of the rocks. He doesn’t want your prayers of commitment if they are not backed up with actions guided by Torah. He wants us to distinguish Him before the world so He can distinguish us by showering us with great blessing. The only way that happens is through the fulfillment of the mitzvot.
At Beit haKadosh several months ago I proposed a hypothetical experiment. If one could put a group of Jewish Atheists in the Land of Israel and had them do Torah, would they experience the great blessings promised in this passage and others? The question being, is the performance of the mitzvot simply cause and effect or is there something more. In this week’s parasha, it is proven that there is something more.
Our parasha begins with the Bikurim offering, the first fruits of the land. After they had settled and peace was the order of the day, they would bring their firstfruits and thank G-d for what they had. In this is a very important lesson. In other parashot, when the curses are detailed, after Israel is in exile, they will seek G-d and He will be found. In their crisis, they will pray with tears and in the depths of desperation and despair brought about by their sin, G-d will hear. This mitzvot of bring the firstfruits is to keep them from having to get to that point.
In their prosperity, they are to remember where they have been, what their circumstances were before and be exceedingly grateful for where they are. They are no longer in slavery and who accomplished their salvation? YHVH. They have been delivered from their enemies and who is responsible for that? YHVH. The land has brought forth abundant produce and who made that possible? YHVH. He is the one who delivers them against all odd and continues to do so. He is the one who sends the rain so the crops grow. He is the one who blesses them continually and they are to acknowledge that with gratitude. Just when they may begin to be filled with pride in their own sense of accomplishment, when they may be sitting back fat and happy, they are reminded from whom all they blessings are derived. And for that they are commanded to rejoice! “You shall rejoice with all the goodness that YHVH your G-d has given you...” (26:11)
Rejoicing is the outpouring of the heart which is why the previously mentioned experiment would be a failure, and atheist could not rejoice and YHVH would know it for He knows the heart of man. How important is rejoicing, serving the Lord with joy and gladness. The parasha, after telling of all the horrible things that will befall the people if they do not follow the covenant, concludes with this- “because you did not serve YHVH your G-d amid goodness with gladness of heart, when everything was abundant.” When the blessings came, they did not appreciate them and they did not rejoice and they did not obey. They were then put into captivity amidst sorrow and loss where there was no rejoicing or opportunity and freedom to obey.
We all have sorrow and difficulty in our lives, there are always circumstances we wish we could change. More money, better health, a better job. But we have food on the table, a roof over our heads and friends and family who love us and those are blessings we need to be grateful for. These are things we can rejoice in and we should because joy in obedience leads to greater blessings. We must change the attitude of our hearts. This is a lesson that we need to remember daily in our chaotic and troubling world.
In chapter 27 the Israelites are instructed to stand on two mountains, Gerizim and Ebal, and the Levites, the teachers of Israel, are to shout out curses upon certain actions, and the people are to respond ‘AMEN’. This was apparently a big event with all the tribes participating. Obviously what is said here is crucial to the spiritual health of the nation. One would assume that the ten commandments or the shema would be spoken here. All the people are listening and agreeing. But there is no mention of the sabbath, taking God’s name in vain, festivals, kashrut, or even circumcision, all of which are today central to Judaism. They define what a good Jew is like. Perhaps we need to change that definition.
What is included is a mention of idolatry, sexual sins, murder, respect for parents and the rule of law. Except for the first, these are all what we might classify as ‘moral’ commands, they regulate our interaction with our fellow man. These twelve statements are the one’s God thought important enough to have all of Israel gather together to repeat and agree to. Whenever you see twelve, you know it is something foundational. That is because the tent, central to nomadic life and the basis for understanding ancient Hebrew culture and language, is held up by twelve tent pegs. The tent is the community, the family and the pegs that hold it up are the foundational principles that keep it upright and allow it to fulfill it’s function. These twelve principles are the one’s God deemed essential to supporting the family of Israel as a people, community and nation.
Interestingly, they are all prohibitions yet the summary verse (26) says that the one who does not perform them is cursed. How does one ‘perform’ a command that tells us to abstain from some behavior? By doing the opposite. We are cursed by degrading our father and mother therefore we actively seek to honor them. We are cursed for striking or killing innocent people therefore we actively seek to protect the innocent among us. We are cursed if we remove the boundary of our fellow therefore we actively respect and protect the property of our neighbor. This was one of the major problems of the Pharisees. They may have known they were to honor their father and mother but by withholding their wealth ‘legally’ through corban, they negated the command. They may have not shown favoritism in judgement but if they used the law to ‘devour’ the houses of widows and orphans, they were not righteous.
After our section of twelve curses, there is a lengthy section of blessings and curses and the curses conclude with the following statement “because you did not serve YHVH your God with gladness and goodness of heart”. The Torah is not simply a list of do’s and don’t’s, it is a way of life that proceeds from the heart. It is based on love which is action, the action of helping and uplifting our fellow man. This is what Y’shua was interested in. He taught little on ritual and religion, sabbath and festival. He taught a lot on love and proper behavior to our fellow man. Love is done for it’s own sake and not really for the sake of the other or with the expectation of reward. That means that love is not essentially what takes place when people interact but through what appear to be isolated, unconnected, unconcerned actions that each person performs. Love does not need a specific individual to focus on but it is what fills in the space between us and all others brought about by our everyday actions.
Love and helping are not virtues but the very basis of our existence. It is love that is the very power of the eternal expressed through each of us. We do not help out of pity for one who pities is removed from the object of his pity. One who helps does so because both the one who helps and the one helped are one in God and the helper bears the need because it is his own and gives because what he has already belongs to the other. We love and we help and we do so joyously because the reason for our existence is to fill up the world. We are to fill the spaces between us and the rest of creation with the matter of love.