Thursday, 6 November 2014

Vayera: Gods Right and Left Hands: The Conflict Between Charity and Justice?

Messianic Parsha: Vayera

Bereishit Vayera; Haftorah 2 Melachim 4:1-37
Brit Hadasha Readings: Lukas 1:26-38, 24:36; 2 Kefa 2:4-11

Prolegomenon: Avraham and Israel

Shlomo Katz (Ha Ma'ayan) writes on this week's parshah: 

"The Midrash Rabbah on this week’s parsha opens: “It is written (Tehilim 18:36), ‘You have given me the shield of Your salvation; and Your right hand has sustained me, and Your humility made me great.’ ‘You have given me the shield of Your salvation’--this refers to Avraham. ‘Your right hand has sustained me’--in the furnace (a reference to another midrash where Avraham was placed in a furnace for his belief in Hashem and survived], during the famine, and in Egypt. ‘Your humility made me great’--when did Hashem show humility to Avraham? When Avraham was sitting and the Shechinah was ‘standing,’ as it is written (in the first verse of our parsha), ‘Hashem appeared to him [Avraham] in the plains of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance of the tent . . .’.” 

R’ Yitzchak Ze’ev Yadler z”l (1843-1917; Yerushalayim) explains: If the only reason that Avraham was sitting was because he had recently undergone an operation (the circumcision), it would not have been worth the Torah’s while to report this fact. Rather, the midrash reasons, there must be a message in the verse. That message is alluded to in the cited verse from Tehilim, which teaches us three things about Hashem’s relationship with Avraham and the Jewish People. 

(1) Just as Hashem was Avraham’s shield (see Bereishit 15:1), so He is a shield for Avraham’s descendants. 

(2) Hashem acted towards Avraham and his descendants with his "right hand"- a term usually interpreted by our sages as an allusion to supernatural action.

(3) Even when a person is not capable of lifting himself to spiritual heights--as Avraham was not at this moment because of his physically weakened state--Hashem acts with humility and brings Himself closer to man. (Tiferet Zion)."

How truly do we see this reflected in Mashiach. Mashiach is a sheild for believing Israel and anyone who believes- a sheild that turns away the wrath we are heir to for our sins;

This salvation has come to us supernaturally through the self-sacrificial death of Yeshua Tzidkeinu (our righteousness);

Hashem's great humility is shown in the famous verses from Philippians 2:5-7:

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Mashiach Yeshua, 
6 who, though he was in the form of YHVH, did not count equality with YHVH a thing to be grasped, 
7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of humanity. 

This great humility of God is described in the first Brit Hadashah reading in Lukas, 1:26-38, which describes Gavriel's visit to Miriam, the declaration of Gods intent, and her acceptance of it. 

Charity and Justice

The Chofetz Chaim (R' Yisrael Meir Kagan, d. 1933) in his book Ahavat Chesed (The Love of Kindness) raised a question on verse 18:19:

"For I have chosen him (Avraham) that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of The Lord by tzedaka and mishpat (charity and justice)...." 

The Chofetz Chaim asks, "How can a person teach his household to do both charity and justice?" 

One needs to understand here that in Rabbinic thinking, these two qualities of tzedaka and mishpat form polar opposites. Tzedaka, which literally means righteousness, has a strong connotation of "charity/generosity/kindness" and sometimes carries the latter meaning exclusively. Mishpat literally means "judgement" and is taken to refer to strict justice or punitive judgement. These two qualities therefore represent the so-called "right" and "left" hands of God also known as chesed (kindness, mercy) and gevurah (severity, anger). 

Rabbinic thinking dating back to the Talmud sees these two qualities as existing within God in tension with each other. One somewhat shocking aggadah in the Talmud depicts God as praying , "May my mercy be stronger than my anger...." (T. Bavli, Berachot 7a). 

In fact on a Biblical, or p'shat level, this is somewhat of a false problem. The word "tzedaka" does indeed connote righteousness with an emphasis on interpersonal kindness, compassion and general ethical behaviour. The word "mishpat", however, refers to the sense of giving everyone their due, respecting their rights, being just. This is why when God is depicted as coming to the earth to bring mishpat it is an occasion of joy, not dread:

Psalm 98  

1 Sing to the Lord a new song,
    for he has done marvelous things;
his right hand and his holy arm
    have worked salvation for him.
2 The Lord has made his salvation known
    and revealed his righteousness to the nations.
3 He has remembered his love
    and his faithfulness to Israel;
all the ends of the earth have seen
    the salvation of our God.
4 Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,
    burst into jubilant song with music;
5 make music to the Lord with the harp,
    with the harp and the sound of singing,
6 with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—
    shout for joy before the Lord, the King.
7 Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
    the world, and all who live in it.
8 Let the rivers clap their hands,
    let the mountains sing together for joy;
9 let them sing before the Lord,
    for he comes to bring mishpat to the earth.
He will do mishpat to the world in righteousness
    and to the peoples with equity.

As Timothy Keller points out (Generous Justice) mishpat here connotes "vindication" or "putting things to right". It is a relief, not something to dread. Note also verse 9 actually says he will "do mishpat in tzedaka". In other words here mishpat is an expression of tzedaka!

These two qualities then are not necessarily in tension at all- in fact they support each other. The Rabbinic understanding of mishpat arises out of the juridical culture of the Rabbis, sprouting out of the internal debates of those called to judge legal cases. For the Rabbis mishpat referred to rendering a verdict in accordance with the law, and tzedaka to being kindly- going beyond the letter of the law to show compassion.

Interestingly these two ideas- strict justice and mercy- also arose as polar opposites in Christian thinking. "Strict justice" or "wrath" came to be associated with God's "holiness" which would not tolerate sin, and this attribute was juxtaposed with God's "love" or "mercy", which is his desire to save and bring His creations into his redeeming presence. Protestant theology has frequently described Yeshua's death on the cross as the resolution of this tension within God. In Yeshua's sacrifical death God's wrath is satisified, his justice honoured and fulfilled, and His holiness expressed and manifested. Yet this happens as a fulfillment of God's love- He himself takes our sin and death on Himself, in a staggering display of humility and mercy, in order to save us from ourselves. In the words of John Stott, "The cross demonstrates with equal vividness both His justice in judging sin and His mercy in justifying the sinner." (The Cross of Christ).  

This sacrifice is offered to all. All who accept it through faith are forgiven, made righteous, adopted as sons, and filled with the ruach hakodesh- the very Spirit of God, in order to be sanctfied and made holy. This is the culmination of the history of Israel and the centre of the story of the world. 

So how does the Chofetz Chaim answer? More prosaically, but still with wisdom worth heeding: "One teaches their children both charity and justice like this: with the rights of others be absolutely strict to the full letter of the law. With your own rights practice charity, and overlook other's transgressions against you."  

The Binding of Yitzhak (the Akedah)

The Akedah has long been considered an event of cosmic significance. In Christianity it is thought to be a sign, or type, foreshadowing Gods sacrifice of His own son. In Judaism it has been thought of as a great act of merit that Jews draw on eternally before God. In the zichronot prayer on Rosh Hashanah we pray the following, echoing what we said above:

"Remember the binding of Yitzhak so that your mercy overcomes your anger....."

Here Avrahams sacrifice is hoped to placate God forever; his descendants can call on mercy biglal Avraham (for Avrahams sake).

No doubt Hashem's love for Israel is eternal, but we know it doesn't quite work that way. God commanded Israel to offer atonement for themselves in the Temple despite Avrahams sacrifice, and even that was not enough in the face of Israel's failure to fulfill its mission to the world. God had to come Himself.

The Akedah is also a story of Avrahams consecration of Isaac to God as an offering and therefore the consecration of all Israel. It is Avrahams response to Gods consecration of Him, from which we learn that there must always be a response to complete the action of grace.

"Therefore I urge you brothers and sisters, in view of Gods mercies, to offer your bodies as living sacrifice (Romans 12:1)"

As I have argued elsewhere, I believe that Avraham did not think God would actually take Isaac from him, but rather trusted in Gods promises in the face of seemingly incontrovertible evidence. He trusted because he had walked with God and come to know Him. His faith in His promises had been amy rewarded and his faith his justice proven by his respond to Avrahams questioning over Sodom and Amorah.

This faith is what Kierkegaard called that of the "knight of faith", who gives all up to God confident that it will somehow be returned to him. This is the faith in resurrection. Instead of clinging tight to this world, grabbing what we can and looking out for no. 1, we "hate the world" and love God. But we will not lose all these beauties, we will not lose each other. All will be restored in a state infinitely more wonderful and true than now, and Gods justice and love will be vindicated even as he loves and vindicates.

This faith, and Gods power of resurrection, feature in this weeks Haftorah where we read of the resurrection of "the Shunnamite woman's" son through the intercession of Elisha. Like Avraham, the Shunnamite woman is first given abundance and then has her son seemingly taken from her, only to have him returned. All of the wonders that happen to her are a result of her faith in Elisha through light and dark.

In Lukas 24:36 we read of the ultimate sign of the resurrection: Yeshua's startling return as the first fruits back from the dead and the conqueror of death for all. Whereas Avraham has faith in Hashem even in the face of the apparent loss of Yitzhak, and the Shunnamite woman has faith in Elisha, Yeshua's disciples seem lost in doubt and fear (24:38). Yeshua's miraculous appearance is utterly shocking to them, and they think he is a spirit, or fail to recognize him at all. True to form Yeshua's reappearance to them and to us is not based on their or our faithfulness: it is a unilateral act of mercy that evokes faith in lost hearts.

It is interesting to note what the disciples do after meeting Yeshua on the road to Emmaus: they return to Yerushalayim and "were continually at the Temple praising God" (24:58 ESV). The disciples take their joy back into the very heart of Judaism and Israel. They express their joy Jewishly. Messianic Jews can take heart in their own path of delighting in Yeshua as and through and with Israel.   

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