Light from the Sidra

Nitzavim (‘You are standing…’). 1st October 2016. 28th Elul 5776

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

May you be inscribed for a good eternity

This Sunday evening is Rosh Hashanah and Jewish people everywhere will be hoping and praying to be inscribed in the Book of Life. According to the Sages, on 1st Tishrei God weighs the deeds of all humanity. The perfectly righteous will be inscribed in the Book of Life, while the perfectly wicked will be irrevocably inscribed for death. For ‘the intermediate’, those who have done both good and bad in the last twelve months, judgement is rescheduled to Yom Kippur. Between New Year and the Day of Atonement, during the ten ‘Days of Awe’, Jewish people will 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.

‘The secret things belong unto the LORD our God; but the things that are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law’ says Deut. 29:28 (JPS Translation 1917). Some believe Deuteronomy 29:28 relates to hidden and open sins. Rashi, for example, says all Jews are ‘obligated to safeguard the integrity of Israel against openly committed sins’ and, following Rashi, the Artscroll Stone Edition of the Tanakh translates the text: ‘The hidden [sins] are for HASHEM, our God, but the revealed [sins] are for us and our children forever; to carry out all the words of this Torah.’ ‘Sins’, in square brackets, indicates that the word is not in the original Hebrew text.

The Stone Edition text, therefore, is an interpretation not a translation, and is echoed in the Targum of Jonathan: ‘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 open sins.

However, there is no need to interpret the verse in that way. The Torah is God revelation of all we need, in order to know HASHEM and enjoy him for ever. All the knowledge and wisdom found in the Torah has been revealed to us on a need-to-know basis. HASHEM has revealed enough about himself and his world for us to be able to trust and obey him in the face of things he hasn’t revealed.

Although written over a period of 1,600 years by more than forty writers as diverse as kings and shepherds, statesman and priests, scribes and civil servants, in places as far apart as Babylon and Rome, the internal harmony of its teaching is astonishing. Imagine a similar collection of writings written between the fourth century and of the twentieth century by such a diversity of authors and in places as far apart as India and Sudan; would there be a perfect harmony of teaching such as that of the Bible?

It is impossible to read the Bible without being impressed by what Thomas Carlyle once referred to as its ‘infinities and immensities’ in the face of which the most profound insights of the great philosophers pale into insignificance. Yet its teachings are expressed in language that is profound but simple, brief but clear, and with a power that has radically changed the lives of millions.

No other religious document reveals so frankly the shortcomings and failures of its greatest saints. Where the Bible deals with historical events, its veracity has been vindicated on numerous occasions by archaeological discoveries of. Today, more than a century and a half after the publication of The Origin of Species, Darwin’s disciples are still trying in vain to overthrow the account of origins revealed in the early chapters of Genesis, while more and more scientists reject evolution as an explanation for the origin of life on earth.

Then there is the element of prophecy in the Bible. The judgements pronounced against ancient Israel’s neighbours: Egypt, Syria, Babylon and Assyria have all been fulfilled. Those once great superpowers have long since collapsed and testify to the truthfulness and authority of the ancient Hebrew prophets.

The Jewish nation itself is the subject of some of the most vivid and detailed utterances of the prophets. During his final illness Frederick the Great of Prussia summoned the renowned Swiss physician Johann Zimmerman to his court. Zimmerman was a devout Christian but Frederick had been deeply influenced by the French Enlightenment. Frederick demanded of his doctor, ‘Give me one proof that there is a God.’ Zimmerman replied, ‘The Jews, Your Majesty.’

Then there are the prophecies of Messiah. I used to teach Judaism to a final year junior class. The kids were pretty bright, so I decided to introduce them to the concept of the Messiah. I explained that religious Jews look for the coming of HASHEM’s Anointed, foretold in the pages of the Hebrew prophets; someone who would redeem Israel and reveal the true God to the nations.

I told the class that around 700 BCE the prophet Micah foretold that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), while the prophet Isaiah, writing at the same time, predicted that the Messiah would be born to a virgin (Isaiah 7:14). The ancient Jewish seer Zechariah in 500 BCE foretold that Messiah would ride into Jerusalem on a humble donkey (Zechariah 9:9), while, in 1000 BCE, in Psalm 22 King David foresaw that Messiah would suffer death by the piercing of his hands and feet and, in Psalm 16, that his body would not decay in the grave but would instead be raised to life. The headmistress raised her hand because she thought she had misheard me: did the Old Testament really say all those things about the Messiah, because it sounded like the prophets were describing Jesus!

This year, instead of trusting the uncertainty of tradition in an attempt to know your sins are forgiven, trust in the certainty about what the Tanakh says about the Messiah who died and rose from the grave to ensure your name is written in the Book of life; not just for the year 5777 but for ever.

L’Shana Tova!



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