Pirkei Avot 1:13 — Messianic Commentary

Hillel used to say: He who aggrandizes his name, loses his name. He who does not increase his knowledge, decreases it. He who learns not, forfeits his life. He who makes unworthy use of the crown (of the Torah) shall pass away.

Rabbi Hillel is one of the most famous rabbis of the Second Temple period. He lived during late first century prior to the common era through the childhood years of Yeshua. He was originally from Babylon, but came to settle in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) around the age of forty. He took up residence in the Galilee and came to establish his own rabbinic school, known as Beit Hillel (The House of Hillel), which became the dominant rabbinic school of thought at the end of the Second Temple period. Since his life briefly overlaps that of Yeshua’s and his ministry being located in the Galilee, as well as the fact that nearly all of his teachings align with Yeshua’s, many have suggested that Hillel could have possibly served as a mentor for Yeshua in his childhood. Another New Testament connection and well known fact is that Hillel was the grandfather of Gamaliel, Paul’s teacher and the nasi (president) of the Sanhedrin during Paul’s life. These are some of the words of this great sage…

“He who aggrandizes his name, loses his name.”

If this is true, then the converse should also be true: “He who loses his name, aggrandizes his name.” When we look at the words of our Master, we see that this is indeed what he taught. He said, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). He also taught his disciples that in order to become great, one first had to become a servant:

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

“He who does not increase his knowledge [of Torah], decreases it.”

In Irving Bunim’s classic commentary on Pirkei Avot, Ethics from Sinai, he begins his comments on this section with the following illustration: “A man’s knowledge must keep step with his general development. It is considered an achievement when a one-year-old child begins to speak. But we can hardly continue to admire the child of twelve for his ability to talk. If he has not progressed since one, the child is a case of arrested development.” This may sound harsh, especially to the ears of those who have been under the impression that the serious study of Scripture is reserved for the elect; however, if we believe the Scriptures to be the inspired Word of God, then our knowledge of Scripture should be ever increasing, informing our day-to-day living. The author of Hebrews shows his frustration with a group of people who are slow to learn, saying:

“About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:11-14).

Bunim’s observation is correct. The Word of God is the daily sustenance for our souls. In reference to the Word being spiritual nourishment, even Yeshua himself, quoting from Deuteronomy 8:3, says that “Man shall not live by bread alone.” We are responsible for the teachings of the Holy Writ, particularly the words of our Master. Yeshua confirms this concept by saying, “Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away” (Luke 8:18). We generally associate these words of Yeshua to that of our spiritual abilities, i.e. our “talents” (from a sub-conscience association with the English homonym of the same name, rather than “talent” being correctly understood as a unit of currency). However, in this instance, Yeshua is clearly connecting this instruction with our responsibility as stewards of his teachings. His words are our very life. Peter came to this realization with his confession, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

“He who learns not, forfeits his life.”

As we stated earlier, the Word of God is life. If man does not “live by bread alone,” his existence, therefore, is sustained by the Word of God. Again, if we think about the reverse, it should bear to reason that without the Word of God in our daily diet, our lives fade from existence.

“He who makes unworthy use of the crown (of the Torah) shall pass away.” The author of Hebrews says that the Word of God has the ability to discern our motives: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). If we are making use of Scripture for personal gain, we will be sorely disappointed in the end.

Pirkei Avot 1:17 — Messianic Commentary

The following is a brief, messianic commentary I recently wrote for a messianic newsletter on (Pirkei) Avot 1:17.

slience

Shimon his [Rabban Gamaliel’s] son said: All my days have I grown up among the wise and I have not found anything better for a man than silence. Studying Torah is not the most important thing, but rather fulfilling it. Whoever multiplies words causes sin. (Avot 1:17)

In our above mishnah (saying), Rabbi Shimon states his observations from the time which he has “grown up among the wise.” In this he states that true wisdom is found in two main principles: holding the tongue, and living out the beliefs one espouses. These are principles that are commonly supported in the Scriptures.

Subduing the Tongue

The first principle, holding the tongue, is a base requirement for godly living. Proverbs tells us the following:

“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” (Proverbs 10:19)

Rabbi Shimon’s saying that “whoever multiplies words causes sin” is merely a succinct restatement of this proverb. His introductory words, “I have not found anything better for a man than silence,” however, are a fence he establishes for guarding against sin. This fence is based on Proverbs 21:23, which states:

“Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.”

James, the brother of our Master agrees:

“… the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” (James 3:6-10)

Our words are important. We must be extremely careful with them, for “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21).

In the late nineteenth century, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, commonly known as the Chofetz Chaim (the “Desire of Life” – based on the title of his most famous work, founded on Proverbs 34:12-15), wrote extensively on the subject of Shemiras Halashon (“proper speech” — literally “guarding the tongue”). He became a world-renown authority on the biblical ethics of proper speech, and his works are the benchmark on the ethics of speech within Judaism to this day.

Yeshua taught about the overuse of words in regard to prayer. He taught his disciples,  “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7). In this teaching, Yeshua agrees with Rabbi Shimon in that “less is more.” In one instance, Yeshua says regarding our speech, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matthew 5:37). In another instance, he says, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45). Yeshua’s focus is on the quality of one’s words, verses the quantity. His concern was whether they emanated from the heart, or were a means of manipulation.

Knowing vs. Doing

Back to Rabbi Shimon. Sandwiched between these two expressions regarding speech, he states, “Studying Torah is not the most important thing, but rather fulfilling it.” In the tradition of a true master of Scripture, he ties these expressions of making ones words few to the living out of the principles of Scripture. But the question we must ask is how does Rabbi Shimon connect these teachings, regarding speech, to the “doing” of Torah? How are they related?

Throughout the existence of humanity we have witnessed an epic struggle between knowing and doing. There is a constant battle in relation to these two forces, ever the struggle to marry knowledge and application. This is the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Whereas knowledge is being informed, wisdom is acting on the knowledge we have been given. When we choose to ignore the knowledge we have been given and make choices that contradict this information, we are being foolish. Hence, it is the fool who ignores instruction and correction according to Proverbs. It is the fool who repeats his folly, not taking heed to warnings from his elders or even his peers. It is the fool who is informed, but who lacks wisdom in his actions.

The chasm between belief and faith have long been the discussion of seminaries, pulpits and armchairs. It is precisely here that we find the spiritual struggle of every believer. Our actions, however, reveal our true nature — we act according to our values. Don’t we justify ourselves in judging others based on their actions, rather than their intentions, but judge ourselves solely on intention? Dallas Willard is quoted as saying, “You can live opposite of what you profess, but you cannot live opposite of what you believe.” This is a very accurate observation, which is in the same line of thought as the words of Rabbi Shimon. We may have an ample number of intentions, but it is our actions that ultimately carry the weight of our beliefs.

This is the litmus test of genuine faith. It is only genuine faith in which “faith and works” walk hand in hand, as James tells us (James 2:18-26). Rabbi Shimon recognized the truth of the common aphorism that “actions speak louder than words.” He places emphasis on minimizing words, and maximizing actions, realizing that one’s actions are the sermons that others will hear quicker than any eloquent speech or illustration. Within the Christian tradition we have a well known saying which agrees with this assessment. St. Francis of Assisi is attributed to have said, “Preach the gospel at all times. And when absolutely necessary, use words.

May it be so.

Jesus, Friend of Sinners – Part 1

Jesus and adulteress woman

This is the first few articles that I will be posting entitled Jesus, Friend of Sinners. This first article only scratches the surface of the various sub-topics to which this broad topic has lead. I hope you will enjoy exploring this subject with me.

Recently, I heard a song by the popular Christian band Casting Crowns called “Jesus, Friend of Sinners” for the first time. The song is a call for unity within the body of Christ, to put down pointing fingers and judgementalism and show the world the love of Christ. The first part of the song, I think, accurately paints a picture of the current state of religious Christianity in our present day, while calling for a radical reform within our ranks. Here is the first verse and chorus:

Jesus, Friend of sinners we have strayed so far away
We cut down people in your name but the sword was never ours to swing
Jesus friend of sinners the truth’s become so hard to see
The world is on their way to You but they’re tripping over me
Always looking around but never looking up I’m so double minded
A plank eyed saint with dirty hands and a heart divided

Chorus:
Oh Jesus, friend of sinners
Open our eyes to the world at the end of our pointing fingers
Let our hearts be led by mercy
Help us reach with open hearts and open
Oh Jesus friend of sinners break our hearts for what breaks yours

In days when homosexuality and abortion are hot topics and call for hard lines to be “drawn in the sand,” we need to know where those boundaries are between the sin and the sinner. We need to be able to stand firm in upholding the biblical definition and rejection of sin, while extending our arms to the sinner to be embraced by the love of our Messiah. However, the the first part of the next verse is what caught my attention. Here it is:

Jesus, friend of sinners – the one who’s writing in the sand
Make the righteous turn away and the stones fall from their hands

Here we have a commentary on Jesus’ encounter with the woman “caught in very the act of adultery” (according to the KJV) from the 8th chapter of the Gospel of John (verses 2-11). We are all familiar with this passage, but let me refresh our memory before we continue.

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:2-11)

In this encounter, Jesus is confronted with a test from some of the religious leaders of his day. As he sits down to teach the crowd, a woman is brought before him with the claim that she was “caught in adultery, the very act” (KJV). They then press Jesus with the question regarding the situation of an adulteress in the Torah (vs. 5). Jesus acts as if he is ignoring the accusers, bending down and beginning to write on the ground with his finger. When he is questioned again he stands, responding with the famous quote, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” (verse 7). He sits back down and begins to write on the ground a second time. Those around Jesus began leaving “one by one, beginning with the older ones,” until only Jesus and the woman were left. Jesus stands and addresses the woman, asking her where her accusers had gone, and if anyone was left to condemn her. She replies that no one was left to accuse her. Jesus then responds with the celebrated words “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

A Closer Look

Although this passage has been admired by the church over the centuries — and is, in fact, due considerable admiration for the way Jesus, the Master of Torah, uses Torah to uphold the justice of Torah — we have heralded it largely for the wrong reasons. Almost inevitably, when reading the story of the adulterous woman in John’s Gospel, most readers will envision a summary statement that reads like the words of a newspaper headline: “Grace conquers Law.” We tend to think that Jesus overrides the Torah with his decision to ignore the “letter of the law” and show mercy to this woman. However, if we have a good familiarity with the Torah and we understand the actual situation properly, it becomes quite clear what is happening in this encounter. But before we get into the technical details of how Jesus handled this dispute, here is the question to which I have been building up:

Who were those who were holding the stones, eager to deal the blows of death to this woman? Were they really the righteous as the song presumes? If they were truly the righteous, then they would and should be loved of God, as it is said, “the Lord loves the righteous” (Psalm 146:8). Or does this story help us distinguish the righteous from the unrighteous?

Let’s review the lyrics in question again:

Jesus, friend of sinners – the one who’s writing in the sand
Make the righteous turn away and the stones fall from their hands

I’m sure the author had noble intentions when penning these lines. Their honesty, however, exposes a truth within our ranks that needs addressing. When we read this passage in John’s Gospel, the vast majority of us make the same assumptions as the author of these lyrics — namely that those who are ready to stone this poor woman are those who are “righteous” by definition of the Law, and are typical of those living “under the law.” After all, aren’t they just doing what the Law has prescribed – stoning an adulterous woman? Don’t we see their actions as the poster child of Judaism, while we see the “grace” of Jesus in this instance as the epitome of Christianity?

But the only way for these lyrics to make any sense is to turn the tables and make the unrighteous become the righteous, and vice versa. Why? Because if we were to be honest, the only one righteous in this whole story is Jesus. We know the position of the woman. She has been brought before Jesus on grounds of adultery, a serious charge. Regarding the ones who held the stones, we would have to say that they were not upright in their actions. Therefore, they would fall into the category of unrighteous as well. As a matter of fact, they were the ones breaking God’s Law to a greater degree than the woman. They actually knew the measures prescribed by the Torah for dealing with adultery, yet willfully chose to act in opposition to God’s instructions. This automatically places them in the category of “sinner,” rather than “saint;” “unrighteous,” rather than “righteous.”

Here is where “Jesus, friend of sinners” fails. We would never knowingly call Jesus a friend to these hypocrites who turn God’s holy system of justice on its head. We would never rightly call Jesus an advocate of these who would “call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (Isaiah 5:20). Why, then, do we do so in this story? We loath the villains – those who have brought the woman before Jesus – but at the same time we call them “the righteous.” This is a contradiction and we must admit it. In our zeal to show the sinner love and mercy, we often topple the definitions of “sin” and “righteousness,” completely blurring the lines between the two. We must keep in mind that Jesus does not love sinners because of their sin. There is no merit in being a sinner. His heart is drawn to sinners in order that they might turn from their sin and become one among the righteous of his people. He sees their potential and beckons them to leave their present circumstance and allow him to wipe away their stains and release them from the shackles of their sins (Psalm 146:7).

There is a rabbinic saying, which states, “Even righteous people cannot stand in the place of those who repent”. 1 Although worded in a different manner than we are accustomed, this central theme continues to act as the driving force behind the ministry of Jesus. The words that have the more familiar ring to our saintly ears are, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). Why doesn’t heaven rejoice over the one who is faithful, diligent and true? Because of the Father’s love for all of His creatures and His longing to have all of humanity reconciled to Himself. This point is emphasized in Luke’s account of the “sinful woman” who washed his feet with her tears (of repentance), anointed them with oil and then wiped them with her hair.

“And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”” (Luke 5:30-32)

Jesus continually emphasizes this point when he tells the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7), the Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10) and the Parable of the Lost (Prodigal) Son (Luke 15:11-32). There are others as well. My point is this: Jesus’ love and longing for the sinner is born out of his Father’s will that “whosoever believeth on him might be saved.” It is not his identification of commonality with sinners. Let me once again emphasize that there is no merit in being a sinner. The point of Jesus’ mission is not to start Club Sinner. His mission is to restore broken people, transforming sinners into saints, and not merely through membership card distribution.

Summary

Yes, Jesus is a Friend to sinners. But his love calls them to leave everything — particularly their sin — in order to follow him. He makes a distinction between the righteous and the sinner, never blurring the lines that define them. The righteous are truly righteous, and the sinners truly sinners.

In my next article we will continue to explore this theme, Jesus, Friend of Sinners, by examining the details surrounding this instance and how Jesus used the justice of the Torah to defend this woman, rather than merely forgiving her and ignoring the Torah’s system of justice.

  1. b.Berachot 34b

FREE Torah Wallpaper for iPhone

Torah themed wallpaper for the iPhone Torah themed wallpaper for iphone

So… I finally broke down & got an iPhone (3GS) the other day and entered the world of smart phones. But when I did, the wallpaper I had created for my previous phone no longer fit correctly on my new phone. So, I whipped out another version… an iPhone version.

This image is 640×960 px and will look good for both the iPhone 3GS and the iPhone 4. The resolution for the iPhone 3GS is actually half the resolution of the iPhone 4, but at the same proportions. That’s why I went ahead & bumped it up to the iPhone 4 resolution (forward thinking).

If you’re an iPhone user, feel free to download this free Torah-themed wallpaper. I hope you enjoy it!

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Binding & Loosing: From Torah to Yeshua

keys

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־רָאשֵׁי הַמַּטּוֹת לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יהוה׃ אִישׁ כִּי־יִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַיהוה אוֹ־הִשָּׁבַע שְׁבֻעָה לֶאְסֹר אִסָּר עַל־נַפְשׁוֹ לֹא יַחֵל דְּבָרוֹ כְּכָל־הַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיו יַעֲשֶׂה׃

(Numbers 30:2-3)

Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the people of Israel, saying, “This is what the LORD has commanded. If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.
(Numbers 30:1–2, ESV)

Vows & Oaths

The above passage comes from last week’s Toah portion, Matot, and contains a key by which we can better understand a teach of the Master found in the Apostolic Scriptures. In this passage we find the Scriptural rule for vows, oaths and self-induced prohibitions.

The first thing we note in this passage is that whatever proceeds from our lips is binding. In fact, it becomes as binding as Scripture. In a sense, when we make a vow or pledge an oath, we have created a new restriction upon ourselves that is above and beyond the obligations of the Scriptures. We have, in a sense, “added to Scripture.” This is one reason why both the sages, and our Master are so critical of vows and pledges.

A person should take care not to make any vows. It is even preferable not to vow to give charity. Rather, if one possesses something to [give to] charity, he should give it immediately; if one does not possess the means at present, he should wait until he does, and then give without taking a vow. 1

The above quote is a typical quote from a Jewish source. The general consensus in regard to taking upon oneself vows or pledges is not a favorable one. The master agrees:

Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. (Matthew 5:33-37, ESV)

Hebrew Word Play

There is, however, something deeper which I would like us to notice. In the Hebrew, there is a play on words that  we do not completely catch in the English. Three times it uses a combination of words which play upon one another.

  1. yidor neder (to “vow a vow”) – the root being נדר
  2. hishava shavua (to “oath an oath”) – the root being שבע
  3. le’sor issar (to “bind a binding”) – the root being אסר

Two of these are somewhat obvious in our English. The last one, however, is not so obvious. The KJV actually brings this out a little more by translating this as “to bind his soul with a bond.”

Binding & Loosing

In this passage, we clearly see how “binding” is associated with a restriction. This is the precedent by which the rabbis use the term to “bind” or loose” in regard to things which are questionable in their use. For instance, a rabbi would “bind” (restrict/forbid) the use of a certain type of crock pot for use on Shabbat. Or they might “loose” (permit) an activity which might be questionable.

It is in this very context that we should understand the words of Jesus in Matthew 18 in regard to “binding” and “loosing”.

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 18:18, ESV)

In this passage, the context is dealing with church discipline. Jesus is telling them that the decisions they make in this regard will be upheld by his authority in heaven. They have the power to both restrict and permit anything that is not clearly spelled out in the Scriptures. This is even more apparent in the DHE, as the Hebrew uses the same terminology as the passage in Numbers.

אָמֵן אֹמֵר אֲנִי לָכֶם כֹּל אֲשֶׁר־תַּאַסְרוּ עַל־הָאָרֶץ אָסוּר יִהְיֶה בַּשָׁמָיִם וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר־תַּתִּירוּ עַל־הָאָרֶץ מֻתָּר יִהְיֶה בַּשָׁמָיִם

(Matthew 18:18)

In this passage, he says, “kol asher ta’asru al ha’aretz asur yihyeh bashamayim” – “everything that you bind on earth will be bound in the heavens.”

Rather than giving his disciples authority to “bind” demons, or “loose” finances (as I was taught growing up, and contrary to much contemporary teaching), this teaching of the Master is associated with apostolic authority. Yes, Jesus gave his disciples authority over demons. However, this teaching is in no way associated with demons or spiritual warfare. It is, however, a clear case in which both Jesus and the rabbis are using their clear understanding of the Torah to allow the creation of legislation within their communities.

  1.  http://www.torah.org/learning/halacha/classes/class250.html