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Parashat Yitro

The Commanded Life

We’re back to Yitro again; this is the portion I love each year, a chance to talk about Torah itself rather than the content. This is one of the most important if not the most important portions of the Torah. The impact of this portion in particular has gone far beyond the borders of Israel. God reveals His teachings to Israel, His people, and we in turn are meant to live them out and be a light to the nations. To take up our calling means we have to stand in between 2 things or people. Our God is one side and the nations, the goyim or gentiles are on the other… As we minister the righteous standards of God before unbelievers we are meant to draw them to the One true God, the God of Israel for whom we work.

If we’re honest we know that as Israel, and individually, we are dogged with the realisation that it isn’t that easy and that our “successes” may be slight and feel insignificant. And as we begin to dig deeper to discover the “why”, and not just the “what” and the “how”, we begin to see the actual challenge framed.

I have been constantly challenged by the comments of the Prophets, sometimes harsh but always revealing. I have concluded one thing: they are not bothered by the minutia of observance. Detailed comments are surprisingly absent and disturbingly lacking in an otherwise well-focused and targeted criticism of our national walk before the Lord. What we do read about is the railing against social injustice, the lack of practical righteousness and the way unfairness and corruption have destroyed a country (our country, Israel) which was to have been a beacon of light in a dark world. Yeshua too picked up on the same theme in Matt 23:23-24. Notice that it is not that we shouldn’t be walking out the commandments, but that there is something else to consider, the “weightier” elements of Torah. A focus on the minutia of the text produces a surprising outcome: a failure to actually obey.

In what is often definitively advertised as Torah Judaism we find that it is so easy to slip into an unbalanced view of Torah: namely that of exalting the gift rather than the Giver. When Torah observance itself becomes the aim rather than the means to the end (of walking closer to God), then the balance is wrong and unsurprisingly the outcome is bad. Living a Torah, commandment framed life is to produce good fruit, righteousness, social justice, honesty, fairness and a merciful society. These SHOULD be the outcomes of keeping Torah; these things are the essence of what Torah is all about.

HOW can we produce this righteous fruit? Is it just a question of trying harder? Or is it something more fundamental? Once the “why” is settled, the “how” becomes clearer. If being a Torah observant Jew means anything at all, then surely it hinges upon not just knowing THAT God exists but having a relationship with Him too. If keeping Torah as a Jew is not fundamentally about God rather than about Torah, then we shall be doomed to repeat over and over the tragedies of the past. The “why” of Torah gets clearer: it should draw us closer to God and should put our focus upon Him alone, the Giver not the gift. The “why” pushes us beyond mere text and “simple” commandments to dig deep into the very purpose of Torah in the first place: is it a self-serving document designed to be the goal of Jewish life or a map outlining a Jewish spiritual journey designed to bring us closer to God?

But surely, the two aren’t opposites!’ Sadly, given human nature, what shouldn’t be a problem becomes one. What begins as an honest quest can rapidly become, and so sadly often has become, a slavery to grammar and syntax. What we have forgotten is that GOD gave us the Torah in the first place, that righteousness is from HIM alone as we walk with Him in obedience. Righteousness comes FROM God, is revealed to us IN the Torah. As we seek to emulate and copy our heavenly Father in and through His commandments we shall walk out His righteousness because it is God-focused and not text focused. In fact, Heb 12:2 puts it this way.

We have in Yeshua a living – and through the Ruach still living – example for us every day of what real righteousness and its heart motivation and rationale is. We mustn’t be afraid of keeping our eyes fixed on Yeshua; He has been given to us in our own physical weakness to exemplify what the beating heart of Torah is in all its fullness. As we learn to apply each and every command through the lens of His redemption and sacrifice, we see God at work through us, His righteousness at work, His nature revealed through us and our obedience. We learn that the commandments are tools that produce righteousness – not the end result. Righteousness comes from serving God, in having a relationship of worship and love with Him to whom we offer our obedience.

If we approach Torah in this way we shall find that HIS life flows through us naturally and the light will shine out. As part of our now redeemed nature, if we let Him, the Spirit of God will guide us to fulfil all commandments in the way intended. We will do the things He does, healing, restoring, delivering, reviving, releasing and blessing, each command a microcosm connected to the whole gamut of God’s own righteous activity. We will in a word reflect Him and His nature.

Shabbat Yitro (Jethro)

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