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D'varim/Deuteronomy 13:1 The whole matter that I am commanding you, you shall guard it to do
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The word is most often accompanied by a plural noun and translated 'all'. When, as here, is qualifying a singular noun, then the translation options are 'any', 'every' and - particularly when the noun has a definite article - "the whole". What is "the whole matter" that Moshe is commanding the people? Is it just the last few verses - about not enquiring about the gods of the nations being expelled before the Israelites byHaShem? Is it the larger block of "laws and ordinances" (12:1) starting in chapter twelve and running on to the end of chapter twenty six? Jeffrey Tigay suggests that the scope is limited and that it applies only to worship: "This verse complements 12:31a: Israel may worship G-d only in the ways He command, no less and no more". Rabbi Hirsch, on the other hand, sees a much larger picture and purpose: "The Mitzvot that He has commanded you, and precisely as He has commanded you, are the expression of His will for you, and they tell you what He expects from you, and what you have to do to arrange your life on earth in accordance with His satisfaction."
Rashi, following a debate inSifrei 82, laconically comments: "That which is light, like that which is serious". We know that since at least Second Temple times, the relative importance of the various commandments had been debated and many teachers had categorised them in different ways as light or heavy. The gospels record this in the passage where Yeshua challenged the Pharisees and told them, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others" (Matthew 23:23, NASB). It was not that it was incorrect to tithe the harvest of their herbs - quite the contrary, this was very much in the spirit of the Torah - but that Yeshua's opponents had become obsessed with the minutiae and had failed to carry out the larger and 'heavier' commandments. Were these commandments more difficult or personally "expensive" to fulfill? Certainly, but that doesn't mean they could simply be ignored. After His famous statement that He had not come to remove or abrogate any of the Torah, Yeshua declared the rules for keeping commandments in the Kingdom of Heaven: "So whoever disobeys the least of these mitzvot and teaches others to do so will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But whoever obeys them and so teaches will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven" (Matthew 5:19, CJB). It would seem that Yeshua had a clear Torah priority in His ministry.
Obedience is still an important issue for James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, when he writes his letter to the Jewish believers in Yeshua who lived outside the Land of Israel in the Diaspora. After emphasising the need to "Love your neighbour as yourself" (Vayikra 19:18) and warning them against partiality, James points out that "If someone obeys all of God's laws except one, that person is guilty of breaking all of them" (James 2:10, GWT), before going on to say that - at least in that respect - there is no difference between committing adultery and murder, since G-d gave both commandments. Someone who has lived a perfect life but who then sins is now considered a sinner; this simply confirms the words of the prophet: "The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him when he transgresses ... the righteous shall not be able to live by his righteousness when he sins" (Ezekiel 33:12, ESV).
Attitude and circumstances are an important part of the picture, though. The rabbis identify situations when a departure from established rules in extenuating circumstances is allowed. This is covered by , a temporary ruling or "exigencies of the moment" (Drazin and Wagner). Perhaps the most well-known example is that of Elijah, who was not a priest, offering sacrifice to the L-rd away from the Temple in Jerusalem - Mount Carmel - at a time in history when the Temple was in operation. How was this allowed? Firstly, Elijah was acting upon the direct word of the L-rd: "The word of the L-RD came to Elijah: 'Go, appear before Ahab; then I will send rain upon the earth'" (1 Kings 18:1, JPS); secondly, he followed an existing precedent: "He repaired the damaged altar of the L-RD" (v. 30, JPS); thirdly, the L-rd publicly confirmed Elijah's actions: "Fire from the L-RD descended and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the earth; and it licked up the water that was in the trench" (v. 38, JPS). After the fire had fallen and proved that Elijah was indeed carrying out the L-rd's instructions, Elijah then commanded the people to seize the priests of Ba'al and summarily slaughtered them at the Brook Kishon without trial or any due process. The Sforno comments, "Even temporarily, no new commandment will be issued to the people unless it is accompanied (substantiated) by some sign." Another frequently cited example is Joshua's actions at the siege of Jericho as the people entered the Land: "[Joshua] had the Ark of the L-RD go around the city and complete one circuit; then they returned to camp and spent the night in camp ... And so they marched around the city once on the second day and returned to the camp. They did this six days. On the seventh day, they rose at daybreak and marched around the city, in the same manner, seven times" (Joshua 6:11-15, JPS); one of these days1 must have been a Shabbat. Joshua's command to the people was on the L-rd's specific instruction: "Let all your troops march around the city and complete one circuit of the city. Do this six days ... On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the horns" (vv. 3-4, JPS) and followed the miracle of the Jordan parting to let the Israelites cross over to enter the Land: "as soon as the bearers of the Ark reached the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the Ark dipped into the water at its edge, the waters coming down from upstream piled up in a single heap a great way off" (3:15-16, JPS).
In parasha Acharei Mot 5773 we discussed the idea that since the commandments are a way of life, it is not intended that anyone should die by them. All the commandments - except idolatry, murder and sexual crimes - may be suspended when life is in danger or at risk.
Since Yeshua emphasised obedience as a way of life and relationship on several occasions (Matthew 28:18-20; John 14:15, 15:10), how are we as believers to conduct our lives today? Certainly legalism - strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code as a means of earning salvation or G-d's favour - must be avoided, but anti-nomianism - a belief that the Gospel frees Christians from required obedience to any law, whether scriptural, civil, or moral - is equally to be avoided. Rav Sha'ul declares that "it is evident that no one comes to be declared righteous by G-d through legalism, since 'The person who is righteous will attain life by trusting and being faithful'" (Galatians 3:11, CJB), quoting from Habbakuk 2:4, but also maintains that "Everyone is to obey the governing authorities" (Romans 13:1, CJB)2. Yeshua used the example of a domestic accident - "Which one of you shall have a son or an ox fall into a well, and will not immediately pull him out on a Sabbath day?" (Luke 14:5, NASB) - to teach that compassion, concern for people's welfare and well-being as well as life-saving, takes a higher place than observing Shabbat rules.
Our position then must be that we observe "the law of Messiah" (Galatians 6:2), taking seriously our commitment to following the Master and doing as He would do. We also recognise that compassion is often an overriding factor, while regretting and minimising any disobedience of lesser commandments in order to be compassionate. Yeshua taught that the two greatest commandments are to "Love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself" (Luke 10:27, ESV). This is not a blanket excuse for violating any of the other commandments just to please somebody else; there must be a genuine need for it. After all, one of the ways we love G-d is by keeping His commandments (John 14:15) rather than obeying our own desires. The L-rd would rather we skipped church one morning in order to mind the young children of a mother who needed to be with her dying husband in hospital, rather than insisting on "not neglecting meeting together" (Hebrews 10:25) and ignoring her need for compassion. That is obeying the whole matter; hearing and responding to the heart of G-d.
1. - The Jewish tradition holds, since the last day is explicitly numbered as "the seventh day", that the final assault and capture of Jericho took place on Shabbat.
2. - It must be noted that this can be misused by civil authorities, as was done by the German National Socialist Party to obtain compliance from German Christians in the years before and during the Second World War.
Further Study: Luke 6:46-49; Mark 3:31-35; Romans 13:1-7
Which side of the line do you normally tread? Are you a bit of a literalist,
or do you show mercy? Are you prepared to set a smaller command aside in
order to love as Yeshua did? Why not ask the L-rd if you are seeing
priorities the same way that He does?
© Jonathan Allen, 2013
Your turn - what do you think of the ideas in this drash ?
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© Jonathan Allen, 2013
Your turn - what do you think of the ideas in this drash ?Like most print and online magazines, we reserve the right to edit or publish only those comments we feel are edifying in tone and content.