Light from the Sidra

Lech Lecha ('Go forth'). 1 November 2014. 8 Cheshvan 5775

Torah: 12:1-17:27. Haftarah: Isaiah 40:27-41:16


Exactly one year ago, in an interview with New Republic, arch-atheist Richard Dawkins admitted that he had no explanation for why the Jews, who make up less than 0.02% of the world’s population, have won 22% of all Nobel prizes. ‘Most of the [Nobel prizes] that have gone to Muslims have been peace prizes,’ Dawkins said, ‘and the [number of Muslims] who have gotten them for scientific work is exceedingly low. But in Jews, it is exceedingly high. That is a point that needs to be discussed. I don’t have the answer to it. I am intrigued by it.’

In an article for Harper’s magazine in 1899, Mark Twain wrote: ‘The Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvellous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He… is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?’

The answer Mark Twain looked for and which Richard Dawkins looks for is found in Genesis 12:1-3, the first three verses of this week’s Parasha. Four thousand years ago the Creator of all things called Abram, the father of the Hebrew nation, to leave his home and family in Ur of the Chaldeans to go to an unknown land. There God would bless Abram and make his name great and now, four millennia later, the name of Abram is venerated not only by Jews but also by Christians and Muslims.

God promised to make Abram ‘a great nation’ and to bless those who blessed him and to curse those who cursed him. In the space of 66 years since the state of Israel was founded, Abram’s people have once again become a great nation whereas the ancient superpowers that cursed and oppressed Israel are either non-existent or are third world backwaters. Where are the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans? I own a series of books with titles such as The Splendour that was Egypt, The Greatness that was Babylon and The Might that was Assyria. Those ancient superpowers are gone but Israel continues. But for what purpose?

God called Abram in order that through him and his ‘seed’ all the families of the world would be blessed. Not blessed in some general way but blessed in the sense that the curse brought on the earth through Adam’s sin would be lifted and mankind brought back into harmony and fellowship with their Creator. What could be a greater blessing than that?

Last year I spent a week preaching on the streets of Budapest, the capital city of Hungary. Budapest is home to some 80,000 Jews but Hungary is one of the most anti-Semitic countries in Europe and I wanted to get the attention of both Jews and those who hate them so I set up a board that declared: ÉN ZSIDÓ EMBEREKET! (‘I LOVE THE JEWISH PEOPLE!’).

That did the trick. Jews and non-Jews gathered to hear why I loved the Jewish people and why they ought to love the Jews too.

Abraham and the Jewish people have blessed me. Many of my favourite musicians –from classical and jazz players to rock and pop artists –are Jewish. The people who have made me laugh most – from the Marx Brothers to Peter Sellers –also come from that tiny minority of the world’s population called Jews. Some of my favourite writers, like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Chaim Potok, are Jewish. The Marvel and DC superheroes whose comics I read when I was a kid and whose movies I enjoy as an adult were created and produced by Jews.

I love the Jewish people also because they have blessed me through their contributions to science and medicine. Mercifully, I’ve never been stricken with polio because when I was a kid I was immunised against the disease through a vaccine developed by Jewish doctor Jonas Salk (who was born 100 years yesterday). Until recently, tuberculosis had been virtually eliminated due to the research of Jewish scientist Selman Waksman, who developed streptomycin in his laboratory. Even at this moment teams of Israeli scientists are frantically working towards a cure for Ebola.

It is an astonishing fact that since mid-nineteenth century 25% of world’s scientists have been Jews and in 1978, over half the Nobel Prize winners were Jewish. ‘Therefore,’ as Steve Maltz points out in The People of Many Names, ‘in 1978 over 50% of the main contributors to the progress of mankind were produced from less than 1% of the world’s population!’ The technology that allows me to type this article and post it on the World Wide Web is the product of technological innovations in Israel.

I am grateful to the Jewish people for the way they have blessed me culturally, scientifically and medically but I love the Jewish people even more because through them I learned how I should live. The Torah which was given to Moses on Mount Sinai tells me that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the only true God. The Ten Commandments tell me to honour my parents, not to murder, not to commit adultery, not to steal, not to tell lies about others and not to covet the possessions of others. Until I read the ‘Ten Words,’ I thought I was a pretty good person. When I began to understand that those words call me to love HASHEM with all my being and to love everyone else in the way I love myself, I suddenly saw that I was more wicked that I could ever have imagined. But the Torah which revealed the depth of my sinfulness was powerless to save me from my sins.

So the third reason why I love the Jewish people is that the one who saved me from the punishment I richly deserved as a sinner is a Jew. What the Torah was incapable of doing, Jesus the Jewish Messiah did. The man most people know as ‘Jesus Christ’ is the only person who ever observed the Torah perfectly and because of his perfect life Jesus was able to offer himself as God’s sacrificial Lamb for the sins of Israel and the world. And because Jesus never violated a single yod of the commandments, it was impossible for death to hold him and so, three days after being nailed to a tree, HASHEM raised Jesus to life, thus declaring him to be his Son.

I love the Jewish people because Jesus the Messiah is a Jew. The first preachers of the Good News of the forgiveness of sins through him were Jews. Therefore I am a disciple of Jews. I am a convert to a Jewish faith. I share in the Jewish hope of the resurrection from the dead. The Bible I read was written by Jews and I am a preacher of truths taught me by Jews.

Many Jewish people believe they are special but they don’t know why. Orthodox Jews are convinced that they are a light to the nations but they don’t know how to shine their light. A Hasidic Jew called Elimelech once asked me why I read the Tanakh.

‘Because it’s the Word of God.’

‘But why do you want to read the Word of God?’

‘Because it tells me what I should believe and how I should live.’

‘But you’re a Gentile. The Tanakh is for Jews.’

‘That’s true, Eli,’ I said. ‘The Tanakh is for the Jewish people but God says in Isaiah 45:22, “Turn to Me and be saved, all ends of the earth, for I am God and there is no other.” I want to be saved so I’m going to look to your God because no other god can save me.’

Until then, Eli had had no intention of telling me about his God. He would have happily let me to remain in my spiritual darkness. But 2,000 years ago, a Jewish disciple of Jesus, a man who had at one time been Sanhedrin material, counted everything ‘dung’ in comparison with what he had in the Messiah. That man was Saul of Tarsus and he gave up everything in order that his own people and the Gentiles could hear the Good News of the Messiah. Saul – later to be known as Paul – was willing to suffered incredible hardships including shipwrecks, imprisonment, starvation, flogging, rejection and ridicule in order to bless his own people and the nations. In fact, after Jesus, Paul did more than any other Jew, before or since, to fulfil the calling of Abraham and the Jewish people.

Today, millions of Gentiles bless Jesus and Paul but many Jews speak evil of them. But if not for Saul’s willingness to count everything loss for the sake of the Messiah, those Gentiles might still be, as Paul says in a letter to Gentile Christians in the Turkish city of Ephesus, ‘without the Messiah, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers to God’s covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world.’ But Paul goes on to say that those Gentiles who believe in the Jewish Messiah are no longer ‘far off’ but are ‘near’ and are one with Jewish followers of the Messiah.

There’s an awful irony in that. The world is full of Gentiles who experience the spiritual riches God promised to the Jewish people but so few Jewish people enjoy those riches. Worse still, there are Jewish people who actually hate their two greatest men, Jesus and Paul. Because of that they are now like Gentile Christians once were: without the Messiah and, as a result, are without eternal hope and without their own God.

As a Jew, are you content to simply pride yourself on being a member of that exclusive club that is now officially recognised as the smartest people in the world? Don’t you long to be blessed by being in a right relationship with your God? Don’t you wish you were certain your sins are eternally forgiven? Wouldn’t you love to have the blessing of a clear conscience? What wouldn’t you give to know that if, God forbid, you died tonight, all would be well with your soul? What would be the point in gaining every possible earthly blessing if in the process you lose your very soul?

This is not an invitation for you to become a Gentile. As a Gentile convert to your God, I’m urging you to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Messiah and to experience in him the blessing of peace with God. After all, what could be more Jewish or more blessed than to know the Jewish Messiah!

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