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Parashat Eikev - Grappling with Grace

Grappling with Grace

Further thoughts on Parashat Eikev

by John J. Parsons

SOME PEOPLE SEEM TO THINK THAT "religious observance" is the way of salvation... Whether it's through the practice of a set of prescribed rituals, confessing to a particular creed, or becoming a member of a particular religious "in-group," such souls have trouble accepting the idea that God's mercy may be given to those who -- unlike themselves -- haven't "worked for it" and therefore don't really deserve it... They apparently have yet to discover the shocking and tragic truth of their own radical need for healing and therefore they're scandalized by the idea of God's unconditional love and acceptance. Perhaps they subconsciously believe that love must be earned and therefore they are careful to disguise the truth about who they really are (especially from themselves). They may hide behind ideologies, theologies, ritual acts, church affiliation or attendance, labels, pretenses, excuses, etc. -- all with the aim of being hidden within the crowd -- but they dare not view themselves as individuals who stand entirely dependent upon God alone for help... No, that is too terrifying, because the various self-made props given to shore up one's identity are rendered ineffectual and void before the Holy One....  All our attempts at self-justification invariably create ongoing anxiety within the soul.

I sometimes wonder about people who are obsessed over technical questions regarding "Torah observance" (i.e., dietary law, Sabbath Observance, ritual practices, etc.) Often they seem to be sincere, upright, and zealous for God, but when they're questioned about the ground of their acceptance in light of the Cross of Yeshua, it's often surprising how their lip service regarding the grace of God quickly reverts to talk about God's conditional love and acceptance. They imply, therefore, that the work of the Messiah somehow isn't enough (God forbid) and therefore "salvation" needs to be "completed" or "perfected" through human agency of some kind. Inwardly they think, "Salvation is a gift, yes, but sanctification is our job..." If hard pressed on the question, the self-justifying soul will either resound thunder from Sinai or else will reframe the question in terms of our personal responsibility as the determiner of salvation.

Whenever the question of moral obedience comes up (as it invariably does in these discussions), it is helpful to recall the first and most basic commandment of all, i.e., the commandment to love the LORD with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. THAT is the starting point.  Indeed, the very first of the Ten Commandments is אָנכִי יְהוָה אֱלהֶיךָ - Anochi Adonai Eloheykha: "I AM the Lord your God." Without this personal acceptance of the LORD as our God (i.e., our willingness to trust and to love Him), we simply cannot fulfill any of the commandments with the right inward intent.  God loves us - despite our sinful state - yet that gloriously liberating truth often offends those who labor under the illusion that they can find favor before the LORD God of Israel through self-effort. Surrendering to God's love is a humbling venture...

The term eikev (עֵקֶב) comes from the root akav (עָקַב, to "take by the heel"), as does the name Ya'akov (יַעֲקב, Jacob), who had "grabbed the heel" of his twin brother Esau while still in the womb of Rebekah. Ya'akov was later renamed Israel in commemoration of his grappling with Malakh Adonai (the Angel of YHVH) at Peniel. The Lord then declared to him, "Your name shall no longer be Ya'akov ("grappler") but Yisrael (יִשְׂרָאֵל), for as a prince (שַׂר, sar) you have striven (שָׂרִיתָ, sarita) with God and with men and have prevailed" (Gen. 32:28). The first occurrence of the root word appears in Genesis 3:15, where the LORD prophesied that although the Redeemer's heel (עָקֵב, akev) would be bruised, the very head (ראשׁ, rosh) of the serpent (satan) would be crushed.

Indeed, directly after the Akedah (the sacrifice of Isaac), the LORD said to Abraham, "in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed because (עֵקֶב) you have obeyed my voice" (Gen. 22:18). God blessed Abraham and his descendants because he grappled with the Voice of the LORD (YHVH). The great test of the Akedah centered on whether Abraham would accept the unconditional compassion of the LORD or if he would be tempted into seeking self-justification before God as Elohim (i.e, Judge). Ironically enough, Abraham's test was whether he would be "religious" or whether he would heed the compassionate intervention of the LORD...  When the White Ram was caught in the thicket and sacrificed in Isaac's place, there was nothing left for Abraham to do other than accept God's gracious gift of love. Surrendering to God's love is the only genuine obedience, after all. "This is the work of God, that you believe in the one God has sent" (John 6:29).

The sages teach that we shouldn't put off performing acts of righteousness (e.g., tzedakah, visiting the sick, studying Torah, etc.) by thinking we can always do them at a later time; on the contrary, we should always regard the first opportunity presented to us as the only opportunity we might ever get.  This is what is meant by the phrase "that I command you this day" (אֲשֶׁר אָנכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם). There are no evasions in the realm of the Spirit. We should never trade a present opportunity for God's perfect will in our lives for a lesser good.... "Repent one day before you die..."

The call to love God with all our heart and soul might seem overwhelming, though we can heed the sages' advice, "It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task; yet you are not free to cease from it" (Avot 2:16).  Though the Scriptures list a lot of commandments, all of these can be distilled to the all-encompassing principle of walking in love / לָלֶכֶת בְּאַהֲבָה (Eph. 5:2). "For in the Messiah Yeshua neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love" (Gal. 5:6). We can concentrate on heeding the immediate need of the hour.  Walking in light of God's love - while not neglecting the "weightier matters" of the Torah: justice and mercy and faithfulness - ought to be the rule of faith in which we live (Matt. 23:23). This agrees with the New Testament's repeated focus that "love is the fulfillment of the Torah" / הָאַהֲבָה הִיא קִיּוּם הַתּוֹרָה (Rom. 13:10).

If you are sensing a tension while reading this, you are perhaps grappling with the idea of God's grace... May God give us a renewed revelation of His love for us.

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