Light from the Sidra

Nitzavim (Ones standing...)

Torah: Deuteronomy 29:9(10)-30:20. Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10-63:9

An open secret

Rosh Hashanah begins this Sunday evening. According to the rabbis, on Tishrei 1 God weighs the deeds of all humanity in the balances of heaven. The perfectly righteous are inscribed in the Book of Life, while the perfectly wicked are inscribed for death. For the intermediate, those who have done both good and evil in the previous year, judgement is postponed for ten days until Yom Kippur. During the ten ‘Days of Awe’ Jewish people attempt to top up their store of righteousness by performing mitzvot and acts of tzedaka, and by seeking to be reconciled to those they have offended during the year. Even as I write, Jewish people around the world are examining themselves in preparation for the High Holy days and are wondering whether they will be inscribed for ‘a good year’. Is it possible to know?

‘The secret things belong to Yahweh our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons for ever; in order that we may do all the words of this law.’ (Dt 29:29). Some of Israel’s rabbis believed Deuteronomy 29:29 relates to hidden and open sins. The Targum of Jonathan, for example, interprets the verse in this way: ‘The secret things are manifest before the Lord our God, and He will take vengeance for them; but the things that are revealed are delivered unto us and to our children for ever, to perform by them the thing that is right, for the confirmation of all the words of this law.’ In other words, God who knows man’s secret sins will punish those sins, whereas the community is responsible for punishing overt sins.

There is no need to interpret the verse in that way. The point is clear and was summed up succinctly in Paul Simon’s song Slip Slidin’ Away: ‘God only knows/God makes his plans/The information’s unavailable to the mortal man.’

Science can reveal much about how the universe works but science has its limitations. Science can’t delve into the mind of God or tell us the secret things of God. The Tanakh reveals much knowledge about our Creator but only as much as he has been willing to reveal to us. Everything in the Bible is given to us on a need-to-know basis. Whatever we learn about the Creator or his creation – from the book of Nature or the book of Scripture – if our discoveries do not cause us to worship and obey the Torah, we have learned nothing: ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge. . .’ (Proverbs 1:7. Tanakh-The Holy Scriptures, The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text)

From time to time I meet people – both Jews and Christians – who believe they have insider knowledge about God and his ways. They claim that God has spoken to them and given them detailed instructions about things they are supposed to do. I find that such people often know very little about the Bible, and the revelations they claim to have received most of the time seem to correspond with their own plans. A woman I knew claimed that God would tell her when to get up in the morning, and it was rarely before 10 o’clock.

I have a Jewish friend who wants to study Kaballah. Kaballah means ‘to receive’ and refers to supposed revelations from God received by the Sages and passed to succeeding generations through oral tradition. The word was first used by mainstream Judaism but later came to refer to those who believed that only a select few were given the secret knowledge from God as to the ‘true’ meaning of Scriptures. My friend says I know nothing about the Torah because I don’t understand the deep esoteric, kaballistic interpretations of, for example, Genesis 1. I, on the other hand, point out to him that in spite of his claims to understand the secret things of God, he breaks just about all the Ten Commandments.

Back in the Sixties we used to have a saying: ‘Nothing is revealed’. It sounded cool but I never understood what it meant. In the Bible much is revealed and there is principle that as time goes by God makes some things clearer: ‘The path of the righteous is like radiant sunlight, ever brightening until noon.’ (Proverbs 7:19, Tanakh-The Holy Scriptures).

Nowhere is this principle truer than in what the Bible reveals about the Messiah. Genesis 3:15 provides a broad, general promise that the ‘seed of the woman’ will one day do battle with the serpent and strike a death blow to his head. With the calling of Abraham, the promise of Messiah became more specific; the Messiah would be a Jew. Genesis 49:10 brings the promise into even sharper focus; Messiah will be a ruler from the tribe of Judah to whom the nations will pay homage. Deuteronomy 18:18 identifies Messiah as a prophet like Moses, mighty in word and deed; those who refuse to hear him will be called to account. By the time we reach the end of the Hebrew Scriptures, we discover that the Messiah will be born to a virgin in Bethlehem (Is. 7:14; Mic. 5:2 (1)); that he will die by having his hands and feet pierced (Ps. 22:17) and that he will rise from the dead (Ps. 16:8-11). We learn in Psalm 110 that the Messiah will be a priest after the order of Melchizedek and will rule at the right hand of God. Isaiah 53 takes the imagery even further and reveals the Messiah as God’s ‘righteous servant’ who, like Israel’s high priest, makes intercession for transgressors while at the same time bearing the sins of Israel like the goat for Azazel on Yom Kippur. Daniel 9 prophesies that Messiah will be ‘cut off’ before the city of Jerusalem and the temple are destroyed by the Romans.

Even today, these revealed truths are hidden from most people. But they need not be. The Messiah is the ‘end’ of Torah, the destination for which the revealed truths of the law were always headed, and when Jews and Gentiles embrace him by faith they finally ‘do all the words of this law.’

L’Shana Tova!

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