Mixed blessings: The Torah of Life and Death

For as many as are of the works of the Torah are under a curse; for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO DOES NOT ABIDE BY ALL THINGS WRITTEN IN THE BOOK OF THE TORAH, TO PERFORM THEM.” Now that no one is justified by the Torah before God is evident; for, “THE RIGHTEOUS MAN SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.” However, the Torah is not of faith; on the contrary, “HE WHO PRACTICES THEM SHALL LIVE BY THEM.” Messiah redeemed us from the curse of the Torah, having become a curse for us–for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE”–in order that in Messiah Yeshua the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

(Galatians 3:10-14, NASB with my Messianicisms)

No other words of Scripture have been misinterpreted, misapplied, and utterly confusing more than Paul’s words to the believers in Galatia. While I don’t intend on trying to put forth all of the answers to understanding the mind of our beloved Apostle (because I simply do not have them all), I do wish to bring some illumination on this particular passage.

Unfortunately, since I don’t know Greek (yet), at present I have to rely on other tools in order to sift through our English interpretations of the Apostolic Writings, particularly Paul. Probably the greatest tool I have at my disposal is my understanding of the goodness of Torah, based on the perspectives of the Tanach, the prophets and the Master. With this reference point, I can have a starting place by which to orient myself to any course I must navigate within the writings of the Apostles.

Another tool is my (however limited) knowledge of rabbinic writings and their lines of thought. Knowing rabbinic writings helps me to not be ignorant of problematic texts and seeming contradictions within the Apostolic Writings that would shake my faith like it has for so many others beginning to navigate their way through the Apostolic Writings with a fresh knowledge of Torah.

These two tools allow me to examine passages and make connections to Rabbinic thoughts and arguments (at least to the ones with which I am familiar) and bring a balanced perspective to the problematic texts. This passage in Galatians is one such text. How can we reconcile Paul’s statements regarding Torah, especially in light of Deuteronomy 6:25, which states:

It will be righteousness for us if we are careful to observe all this commandment before the LORD our God, just as He commanded us.

Looking at Paul’s words merely in our biased, English translations contradict this statement of Torah flat out. However, if we look at it from different perspectives, we can begin to make some sense out of it. One “clue” I have found is in Young’s Literal Translation, which translates verse 11 this way:

“And that in Torah no one is declared righteous with God, is evident, because `The righteous by faith shall live;'”

(Galatians 3:11, YLT)

The difference is the preposition “in Torah” verses “by Torah”. We know that we can be justified “by” Torah, just as it clearly states in Deuteronomy. Our lives are put before the heavenly tribune and the book of the Torah is therefore opened to compare our deeds of faithfulness or deeds of infidelity to what is written. Our names are found in either the Book of Life or the Book of Death. This is attested to in the book of Revelation, which states that those who persevere are those who hold to (are faithful to) the “commandments of God” (the Torah) and maintain their faith in Yeshua (Revelation 14:12).

However, we cannot be justified “in” the Torah. We cannot be justified by our choice to become included in those of the Covenant. Our inclusion does not justify us. It only affords us the opportunity to be justified and brought near on covenantal terms. If we are “included” into Israel, yet we forsake the Torah or Yeshua, we have heaped judgement upon ourselves.

If we take this argument into account, we can see how the Torah is life to those who truly take hold of it (via faithfulness to the commandments), and death to those who espouse it, but are unwilling to submit to its requirements. The Talmud is in agreement with such thoughts:

Rav Chananel the son of Pappa said: What is the meaning of that which is written, “Listen! For I will speak princely things”? Why are the words of Torah compared to a prince? This serves to tell you: Just as this prince has the power to kill and to give life, so too the words of Torah have the power to kill and give life.

This is reflected by that which Rava said: To those who grasp it with their right hand [through submission], the Torah is a drug of life. To those who grasp it with their left hand [in defiance], it is a drug of death.

(b.Shabbat 88b).

Therefore, let us heed the words of James, brother of the Master, which state:

Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was.

But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.

(James 1:21-25)

For Torah is a “tree of life to those who embrace her; those who lay hold of her will be blessed.”

Thoughts on Discipleship

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah.

—Avot 1:1

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

—Matthew 28:19-20

Yosi ben Yoezer of Tzeredah said: Let your house be a meetinghouse for the sages and sit amid the dust of their feet and drink in their words with thirst.

—Avot 1:4

Bind up the testimony, seal the Torah among my disciples.

—Isaiah 8:16

And Abram took his wife Sarai and Lot, his brother’s son, and all their wealth that they had amassed, and the souls they had made in Haran, and they left to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan.

—Genesis 12:5

“‘And the people that they made in Haran.’ Rabbi Elazar ben Zimra said [the text should read]… ”these are the converts that they converted.” And if it is that they converted them, why does it say “make”? Only to teach you that all those who bring a worshipper of stars [i.e. a pagan] close [to God] and converts him, it is as if [the one who converts the other] created [the one who converts]”

(Genesis Rabbah 39:14).

This past Shabbat I taught a little on discipleship. This is a subject with which I have wrestled for several years. I have desired for a long time to be taken under the wing of someone to be discipled, so that I could truly disciple others, rather than floundering around and merely being a half a step ahead in trying to figure things out.

I’ve had several men come to me lately wanting at least my input, and some mentoring, and I have not had a method or plan. Since I currently do not have a mentor personally, I am currently having to reinvent the wheel (so to speak) and study out the Scriptures for methods of discipleship. I not only want to be a good teacher and able to disciple others, but I truly want to be a good disciple of the Master. I want to be what a real disciple should be. I want to emulate my Master, and product other disciples who will, in turn, be true disciples of the Master who will then disciple others.

I will probably have more to say on this in the future, but for now this will suffice. I have uploaded my (very sparse) notes from my teaching in the hopes that someone may find them of value.


Right-click (pc) or Control-click (mac!) to download:

Gracious Giver of Wisdom

For a few weeks now, the topic of wisdom has been on my mind. I have a good friend whom I just started doing some “formal” mentoring (ie. meeting on a regular basis for this specific purpose), and one of his main goals in life is to attain wisdom. This is a very noble goal, and one that I know he will (and already has begun to) achieve.

It seems that wisdom is an often desired middah (character trait), yet few know the secret of attaining this seemingly elusive trait.

Last week, as I was praying the daily Amidah, it occurred to me that both the mainstream of Judaism and the Apostolic Writings agreed by way of Hashem’s attitude towards His dispensation of wisdom.

You graciously endow man with wisdom and teach insight to a frail mortal. Endow us graciously from Yourself with wisdom, insight, and discernment. Blessed are You, Hashem, gracious Giver of wisdom.
(Daily Amidah)

This prayer makes use of the word “gracious” (from the Hebrew חן – chen) three times. It emphasizes that Hashem desires to freely give wisdom to all to ask. This, of course, corresponds to the words of Shlomo (Solomon) which state,

“I [wisdom] love those who love me, and those who seek me find me” (Mishlei/Proverbs 8:17).

“She [wisdom] will set a garland of grace [חן] on your head and present you with a crown of splendor” (Mishlei/Proverbs 4:9).

Hashem desires to give us wisdom “graciously”—freely, without reservation. However, we must first pursue wisdom and solicit Hashem for this precious gift. Ja’acov (James), the brother of the Master, gives us explicit instructions for seeking wisdom which corresponds with both the prayer from the Amidah and the words of Proverbs, saying:

If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.
(James 1:5-8)

If we seek wisdom, it is waiting to be received. But it doesn’t come uninvited. If wisdom has always been elusive, honestly ask Hashem for it and expect to receive it. No, you won’t wake up one morning and start spouting off the Pythagorean theorem1 like the Scarecrow on the Wizard of Oz (knowledge and wisdom are not synonymous). However, when that next difficult situation comes up, you will feel more confident in making the right decision with your newfound gift, graciously given by Hashem.

Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom.
Though it cost all you have, get understanding.
(Mishlei/Proverbs 4:7)

1 An interesting side note not related to my topic whatsoever is that in the Wizard of Oz, the Scarecrow actually misquotes the theorem.