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Parashat Behar - Remembering our Roots

Remembering our Roots

Further thoughts on Parashat Behar

by John J. Parsons
www.hebrew4christians.com

[ Note: The following is related to this week's Torah (and Haftarah) reading for Behar.
Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]

How important are the Jewish roots of our faith? How important is our heritage in relation to our understanding of God's ways? Our Torah portion this week is called "Behar," from the phrase behar Sinai (בְּהַר סִינַי) found its opening verse (Lev. 25:1). But why does the word Sinai appear in a portion of Torah that discusses social and agricultural laws that were to be observed only later, in the promised land? What does the subject of the Sabbatical Year (shemittah) have to do with the revelation given at Sinai?

The sages say that the Sabbatical year was mentioned in connection with Sinai in order to teach that Moses received not only the Ten Commandments and the revelation of the Tabernacle there, but also specific laws regulating future social and economic practices of the people as well. The law of the Sabbatical year is a case in point, since it would have been absurd for a law that required farmers to abandon their farming practices once every seven years to have been proclaimed while the people wandered in the desert...

How important is tradition in our lives? So important that we could not understand even the first word of the Scriptures without it ... There is a story that illustrates this point. A pagan came to Hillel seeking to convert to the faith in the LORD but was troubled with the idea of tradition, though he accepted the idea of the written Scriptures. Since the man did not know how to read Hebrew, however, Hillel began pointing to the letters in the written Torah to teach him the alphabet: "This is Aleph... this is Bet... this is Gimmel," and so on, until the man began to understand the letters of the Aleph-Bet. "Now come tomorrow, and I will teach you more." The next day, Hillel pointed to the exact same letters but reversed their names, "This is Gimmel... this is Aleph... this is Bet," and so on. The convert was confused: "But yesterday you said just the opposite!" Hillel replied, "Now you have had your first lesson. You see that the written word alone is insufficient, and we need the tradition to explain God's Word." Another way to make this point is to say that the Torah was not revealed along with a dictionary that defines the meaning of its words...

All this is said to remind us that the transmission of Torah from generation to generation demands that we trust. Indeed the very concept of "Torah" (or Scripture) is bound up with trust and community... This is true of the written word (i.e., trusting in scribal traditions that preserved the Scriptures for us), as well as the oral word (i.e., the customs, interpretations, translations, and wisdom that explain the meaning of the words themselves). Knowledge has been defined as "justified true belief," which implies that there can never be knowledge without trust. It is ludicrous to think that we can translate the Scriptures in a vacuum - all by ourselves without any help from others... We must humble ourselves and become "like little children" to learn from those who have gone before us, and this is why the Jewish value of Talmud Torah - teaching children the words and values of Torah - is regarded as so important. As the Talmud puts it, "The world exists because of the breath of the schoolchildren who study Torah" (Shabbat 119b).

But what about the words of the Holy Scriptures? Don't they transcend cultural factors? Are they not timelessly true and exempt from culturally conditioned ways of reading them?  Hardly. Both Christianity and Judaism (as opposed to some other religions) do not worship a "book" that "floated down" from heaven complete with chapters and verses. Nor do we believe in a "divine dictation" theory that claims the Scriptures are "Xerox" duplicates of the words spoken by an angel or other divine being.  No, the Scriptures are regarded as the products of history -- sacred history, of course -- but history nonetheless. Therefore we have the same problems trying to discern the meaning of the Scriptures as we do for any other type of literature: Who was the original author and the intended audience? What were the cultural circumstances? Why was this written?  What kind of writing is it? Is it a poem (like a psalm), or perhaps an instructional maxim (like a proverb)? Am I reading an historical account, a description of a religious ritual, or something else?  First we must know what we are reading - and to understand its historical context.  Ignoring this simple rule leads to all sorts of errors in our reasoning and makes us unwitting victims of our own cultural biases. We will find ourselves "reading into" the Scriptures things that just aren't there, chaverim!

Regarding the literal words of the Scriptures, it's important to remember that the decisions made regarding which scrolls were "canonical" (and therefore to be included in our modern Bibles) came from the decisions made by earlier faith communities -- just as such decisions likewise preserved the sanctity of the sacred texts themselves.  For instance, without the Jewish scribal transmission known as the masorah (מָסוֹרָה), it's unlikely we would know how to read and interpret many passages of Scripture today (Christianity also has its own scribal traditions that preserved the transmission of the Greek New Testament). Original Hebrew did not include vowel markings or other punctuation. Neither did the Greek of the New Testament, for that matter.  Indeed, we can only understand the message of our faith through the medium of historical continuity, tradition, and ongoing dialog.... This was true even in the days of Yeshua, who endorsed the traditional tri-fold division of the Jewish Scriptures (the Law, Writings, and Prophets - Luke 22:44) and relied on Jewish tradition to teach great truths about his message (e.g., he associated the Passover seder with the "Last Supper" rituals of the New Covenant; he called himself Living Water and the Light of the world during Sukkot, and so on.) Yeshua placed high value on the "jots and tittles" of the texts of Scripture that were part of the spiritual heritage of his day (Matt. 5:18).

But didn't Yeshua condemn the "traditions of men" in His day?  Didn't he reject the traditions of the elders of Israel (Mark 7:5-13)? Didn't he rhetorically ask the religionists of his day, "Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition" (Matt. 15:2-10)? Yes he did, but it's important to understand the historical context of these sorts of statements. First, he was certainly not condemning "true traditions" that are outlined in the Scriptures themselves. Yeshua's entire ministry was predicated on the "appointed times" of the LORD and their fulfillment in him. "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Matt. 5:17). No, what Yeshua appeared to take issue with was the dogmatic interpretation of various aspects of ritual law and with the practice of "building of fences" around the original intent of the Scriptures. These man-made "fences" (gezerot) actually created a gilded cage around the Scriptures and effectively relocated the source of authority to the self-styled religious interpreters of the day... This was the crux of the disagreement between Yeshua and the Pharisees. (For more about this, see "The Heart of the Law; the Law of the Gospel".)

We all live by hours of the day, days of the week, seasons of the year, and God has revealed cycles and patterns of community life for Israel. Indeed, the mo'edim (festivals and appointed times) of the LORD are rooted in history and have prophetic implication for our lives. The "traditions of the elders" which Yeshua condemned had more to do with hidebound interpretations of the Scriptures (later embodied in the "Oral Law") than with the idea of tradition itself.  The Greek word for "tradition" (παράδοσις) is a neutral term, simply meaning "handing down" (from παρά (down, from) + δίδωμι (to give)) what was given before.  Both Judaism and Christianity hold to an "oral tradition" following the ministries of Moses and Yeshua, respectively. Because of the imminent expectancy of the return of Yeshua after His resurrection, the gospels were not committed to formal writing until the prospect of the death of the eyewitnesses loomed large. Moreover, there were numerous Gospel accounts which were eventually compiled into a standardized retelling of the story (Luke 1:1-4). In Jewish tradition, Moses received the written law at Sinai, but this cannot be understood in a vacuum. For instance, the details about how to construct the furnishings of the Tabernacle are not given, and the written law even endorsed the establishment of "judges" to interpret case law and establish precedent. Likewise the Apostle Paul admonished, "Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions (παράδοσις) which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle" (2 Thess. 2:15, 1 Cor. 11:2). Indeed, in a New Testament sense, "tradition" refers to the Apostolic teaching in general, as well as the valid inferences from the Tanakh that are thereby implied (2 Tim. 3:16, Matt. 13:52).

There is legalism -- i.e., the idea that we are duty bound to perform certain rituals, behave a certain way, follow a set of rules, etc., and there is the liberty we enjoy as the heirs of God. There is a higher way of understanding the same thing -- namely understanding as an adult rather than as a child.  Apprehending your identity as a son (or daughter) of the LORD God of Israel makes you no longer an outsider, a "child," an "outcast," etc., to the covenantal obligations and promises given to the Jewish people.  As a co-heir and fellow member through adoption into the household of God, you are a new creation. Being a Jew is a matter of having a new heart, chaverim (Rom. 2:28-29).

In Hebrew the word chinukh (חִנּוּךְ) means "education," a word that shares the same root as the word "chanukah" (חֲנֻכָּה, "dedication"). Unlike the Greek ideal that regards education as "enlightenment" (i.e., being "led out" of the cave of ignorance), the Jewish ideal implies dedication to God and His concrete purposes on the earth.  This ideal goes beyond the process of merely transmitting information, since dedication must be modeled (lived) as well as intellectually taught. Maimonides noted that the Hebrew word chinukh comes from the Torah's description of dedicating a tool for use at the Holy Altar, "habituating the tool for its work." In other words, godly education is a process of modeling how to be made into a "fit vessel" for the service of God in this world. All other ends of knowledge ultimately exist for this purpose, and rightly understood, then, education may be regarded as a form of worship.

Disciples of Yeshua are called talmidim (תַּלְמִידִים) - a word that comes from lamad (לָמַד) meaning "to learn" (the Hebrew word for teacher is melamad (מְלַמֵּד) from the same root). Education is therefore foundational to being a disciple of the Messiah, and the great commission is for each of us to share His teaching with others (Matt. 28:19-20). May God help each of us to be students who are dedicated to living for the sake of Yeshua's Name.


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