Parashat Mishpatim

Commanded Holiness

Last week Moshe stood on the mountain of the Lord receiving the Torah; the fire, the smoke, the physical manifestations of the Lord’s presence! This week we’ve moved from that awesome encounter with God where He gave us the first of His commandments, to the total apparent mundane instructions of how to live and behave in certain situations! Just as we were feeling so close to God, we get an extended list of over 50 commands; surely so trivial in comparison to the closeness of God.

Before we get carried away and think that ‘all’ we need is this kind of experience, think again. The Torah lists for us who went up the mountain, and yes, it included Nadav and Avihu who went on to offer profane fire and died. If one thing becomes clear from all that has befallen Israel as they left Egypt with great signs and wonders is this: experiences of God don’t necessarily produce faithfulness of service to God. Servanthood is not created by experience but by allegiance. Dedication is not built on emotion or feelings but on choice and loyalty. Increased holiness in our lives changes us so that more of God’s righteousness can shine out to others.

This portion is a bridge between the spiritual high encounter of last week and the construction of the Mishkan which begins in earnest next week. It focuses on commandments – the link between the spiritual and the physical – and continues our discussion about the why and how of Torah: its purpose and place in our lives.

I’m going to connect two verses first: Ex 21:1 and 22:31a. These are the commandments you are to give THEM, and by definition, to no one else. And why? Because as verse 31 says, we are to be a holy people TO THE LORD. As He is our God He can tell us what holiness is (kadosh is the only word used of God three times in a row, showing us that this a core attribute) and we as His people copy that holiness unto Him alone. Holiness is not just a feeling, nor a vague concept of sanctity but it is defined by who your God is… Holiness, commandments and allegiance are all linked together. It is for Israel, the holy community, to keep the commandments outlined BEFORE the rest of the nations: the HOLY body living out holiness in front of an UNHOLY world. This drives the understanding between the spiritual to the physical and between Israel and the nations. So we have a clear group of people – Israel – being given commandments specifically for holiness unto a specific deity: the only God of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov.

Also, the peculiar structure of the Mishkan stands as an example to us of the nature of holiness and the journey of holiness. We, the Jewish people, were commanded to construct a movable tent that would house the visible presence of God, the Shekinah (you can hear the root in the Hebrew mishkan too). Its design was simple yet profound: at the very centre was the Holy of Holies, the place where God would dwell. Only one man, once a year, would and could enter. Around that was the offering altar space the Holy Place, divided off by curtains, and then around that the outer courtyard set off from Israel by the exterior curtains.

Most stop at that point but miss the obvious: there was still one more division; around Israel were the nations. With God at the heart, concentric circles of holiness emanated out in gradations until the antithesis of holiness was reached: the pagan nations. Again, we can see the same pattern of a graded holiness structure in the materials used too: for the Ark and table of the presence fine, purified gold alone would do, for the mouldings and incense altar normal unrefined gold sufficed, silver was used for the frames of curtains etc and finally bronze for the bases of objects, lavers and altar of burnt offering. Even in the tripartite division of Israel: High Priest, priests and others, we see the same principle applied. Holiness is gradated and involves a moving from one sphere into another, a moving away from profane to holy where God is. All this is a visible teaching tool to show us that the commandments given are the path of increasing holiness and therefore access to God so that we may walk closer with Him. The commandments are the means to an end, not the end in themselves. As our lives progress and develop, so too should holiness increase within us and so we should know the Lord better day by day. Seen this way our walking the commandments have a twofold function: access to God and a light of true holiness to the nations around us.

Before we turn to look at how this impacts the nations, the maths of the Mishkan reveal that the size of the Holy of Holies was scaled down in proportion to the Courtyard and Holy Place; each multiplied out the smaller one. In other words, sanctity and size are in inverse proportion in the Kingdom of God. Holiness is rarer than you may think!

In living out these commandments as a testimony to the nations, we allow the righteousness of God to impact upon them too, drawing the people of the nations closer to God. This has always been our historic calling as a nation of priests, to stand in the gap and be the bridge connecting the nations with our God. The Prophet Zechariah puts it this way: Zech 2:10-12. As our light shines out and we rise to our call and task as Israel, the nations will JOIN with us and if that was not abundantly clear he goes on to say that they shall become my people, the Jewish people, Israel. Note also the repeated theme of God’s presence with us, dwelling in our midst which is critical to our being able to fulfil our calling. God is only able to dwell in our midst if we are holy, so again holiness and our walking out of the commandments are connected with our ability to reach the nations with the salvation offered by the Lord through Mashiach. This is our historic prophetic narrative as Israel. Our message is clear: Come and join us!

This also lays to rest so many of the debates and arguments about status in Israel of converts and ‘believers’. Very recently I read a blog about how, based on the concentric circles of holiness in the Mishkan as I’ve detailed above, those from the nations coming into Israel are now in some way sanctified as goyim, creating their own circle outside of Israel. It may sound logical given the gradation but the Torah does not teach that, nor does it ever indicate that further circles would be created to hold gentiles in this way. In fact the opposite is true as we’ve seen in Zecheriah and the many other places, including the Olive Tree paradigm taught by Rav Shaul. In fact, the internal logic dictates that you CAN’T insert a level of holiness into a category that is defined by its unholiness (the nations). There has to be a movement away from the unholy to the holy, a dedication, a setting aside for service that SETS APART from the profane. Those from the nations who move towards God leave behind their unholiness to become holy, and that means adopting the commandments that lead you to a holy lifestyle and therefore enable you to enter into His presence. In a word: conversion, just as the Jewish commentators understand what Zecheriah meant when he wrote his proclamation from the Lord.

Holiness is about our spiritual journey towards the Lord, towards the centre where His presence lives. The spiritual by-product of our holy lifestyle and walk is that the nations are shown a different way to live and function and are drawn to the God of Israel. As the offer of salvation is accepted and responded to in and through Yeshua, conversion, a drawing near, is possible. So I would say to all who hear this: Come and join us!