Parasha Re’eh Devarim (Deut) 11:26-16:17
By Rav Mikhael
Many of us familiar with Christianity have had some contact with the charismatic movement. The charismatic experience has become entrenched in much of Messianic Judaism and as such, we will all meet people who subscribe to it’s validity. I have listened to people excitedly tell me about their experiences, particularly in the context of “revival”. Toronto, Brownsville and Pensecola have become renowned for their revivals and pastors and messianic leaders have traveled to these places to try and find out how to bring some of it ‘home’. It goes far beyond tongues and prophesy but has included the ‘slaying in the spirit’, the ‘gift of laughter’, ‘barking’, people’s fillings turning gold and ‘gold dust’ among other things, all of which have no scriptural basis. But that doesn’t matter to them, they believe it’s from G-d and that makes it so.
Our parasha contains a warning about such practices. In Deut 13:1-6 we learn that there will be prophets or dreamers among the people who will be able to produce ‘signs and wonders’ and will seek to entice people away from G-d and the covenant He made with them. Note that there is no question about the fact that the sign came true, which no doubt awed them all. Every time we experience the supernatural it impresses us because it is beyond our normal experience. But not all supernatural experineces come from G-d and the people needed to discern the purpose of the sign and it’s source.
So, what it the ‘litmus test’ for truth? It is whether or not that prophet or dreamer encouraged or discourages people to walk in the commandments of G-d found in Torah. If they perform the wonder and lead people from the commands, they are to be put to death, so serious is the charge. The whole thing is allowed by G-d to test His people to see whether they follow Him because of the Truth or because of the signs and wonders. Yahushua had the same problem. The people of His day sought a sign and He told them that His words and actions were enough, no additional proof was needed.
The question before us is really, what validates truth? Is it our emotion (it feels right) or miracle (my fillings are gold!) or is it Torah? The answer is clear, it is the Word of G-d. If people are doing things contrary to the Word of G-d, if they have chosen to ignore it or have rationalized it away, the signs that are part of their experience in no way validate their belief or position. That is putting the cart before the horse. When one is aligned with the truth of G-d, the power of His spirit works through you to produce the miraculous. But the miraculous has no power to validate truth, truth stands on it’s own. It is this truth (of Torah) we believe in and study to do the will of G-d.
This parasha contains a section that establishes the primacy of the Torah as the way of life over and above anything else. Judaism is primarily a religion based on past revelation, specifically the revelation of the Torah to Moshe. It is the only method established by the great Unknowable G-d by which man can have relationship with Him. It shows man what he must do to show himself acceptable to G-d. In a basic sense, Torah is ‘scientific’. Although spiritual things can never be reduced to purely cause and effect science, Torah is the method the Creator has given man by which he becomes acceptable in His presence for relationship.
As such, Torah is an expression of the will of G-d for man and produces people that love, respect and value one another. It is also part of the nature of G-d Himself and is perfect. Any deviation from this perfect standard will result in the dehumanization of man and the creation of distance between man and G-d. Torah is a complete revelation. We may wish for more or we may desire less but Torah is a complete package that cannot be improved upon. That is why G-d specifically prohibits adding to it or taking anything away. In a way, Torah is like a computer program. If you alter even one line of code, the outcome will be changed and is often not what was intended.
Around this injunction not to add or subtract from Torah (13:1) are two ways people attempt to do so that we must constantly be on guard against. The first is pressure from the world around us. When Israel went into the land and saw the religious practices of the nations around them, they were not to imitate them. This was not a prohibition of idolatry but of using the practices of the Canaanites in the worship of YHVH. They may have seen some sophisticated rituals, beautiful pomp and ceremony, they may even have seen spiritual power demonstrated by these pagan priests. Seeing the beauty and power of these pagan religions may have tempted the Israelites to attempt to incorporate these things into their own Torah directed worship. This would have been (and was eventually) catastrophic. Words and ritual have meaning and when one uses words or engages in ritual, the original intent of those religious words and actions is part of it. The religion of the Canaanites was centered on death, not life. That is why YHVH warned them that they do all kinds of abominable things including child sacrifice that would be the end result of the Israelites worship if they began adopting these practices in their worship. Christianity was the result of this approach in the second century. As we seek to implement the covenant in out lives we must be ever mindful of the things we do in worship and devotion as well as understanding the difference between the authority of tradition and that of Torah.
The second warning is of something even more insidious and dangerous, the false prophet from within. Someone within the community who through his words, deeds or even the ability to procure signs and wonders will lead the community away from the truth of Torah. In our day it may be the adulation of an intellectual or theologian, it may be the attraction of the charismatic movement or even people with the ability to perform real miracles as is prophesied about the end of the age. One must always ask, ‘what is this event or experience validating’? Charismatic experience validates that form of Christianity but it does not support a biblical lifestyle. An individual’s intellectual prowess may validate their own mental ability but not a Torah centered life. Does an individual or a ‘ritual’ expand and deepen the meaning of Torah? Then it may be valuable. If it in any way cheapens it then he or it must be avoided at all costs.
There is within our parasha a great test. Those tests are part of two warnings, warnings of danger from without and within. Warnings about abandoning Torah and YHVH for other gods and ways of life. We are to be watchful and make sure that we follow YHVH’s decrees and Him alone.
The first warning comes from one of my favorite Scriptures, one of the early scriptures that motivated me to come out of the church and Christianity. It is Deut 12:29-31. This is the warning about those things outside the nation of Israel. They were not to look around and see the way the other nations were worshipping their gods and incorporate those forms of worship into Torah. This is what the church has always done. When they ‘converted’ a native population, instead of having the people give up their pagan ways, the church simply renamed the act or celebration and incorporated it into it’s tradition. Today it incorporates popular culture to be hip and relevant. This is not the way of Torah and it dilutes G-d’s message and confuses people. Although our chapter break comes where it does, 13:1 belongs with this warning, it is not a new thought. We are not to add to Torah or take away from it. Torah is part of the nature of G-d, it is the perfect expression of His will and character. We, as simple human beings, cannot improve upon it and to attempt to do so will have disastrous consequences.
The second warning is about negative influences from within. The prophetic spirit was to be widespread in Israel (I desire all of YHVH’s people to be prophets) and would give them a spiritual depth that would provide great blessing. But the prophet was not above Torah. If a prophet came performing signs and wonders and the purpose of those miracles was to take people from Torah to idolatry, they were not to listen. And G-d allowed this to test the people to see whether or not they were seeking Him or the flashy magician’s tricks. This is why miracles never convince many and do not leave lasting results. They did not in Y’shua’s day and they do not now. People will just go for the next new and fancy thing. G-d’s people are supposed to be grounded in truth and Torah; the prophetic is an enhancement to that truth, not a substitute for it. Y’shua said our foundation was to be solid and that solid foundation is based on the word of G-d-Torah. If that is our foundation, we will never falter or be deceived.
This weeks parasha describes the treatment of slaves. It would seem an odd thing to regulate in a society that is based on freedom from slavery. Freedom is one of the most misunderstood concepts in messianic theology. Many have accepted the Christian idea of freedom that means anything goes. Few Christians live like this, they set up boundaries but those boundaries are those of their own making, no matter how strict. Ultimately they accept the fact that anything they do is ‘forgiven’ therefore anything is legal. As they are wont to quote “All things are legal but not everything is beneficial”-Paul.
Then many of us find Torah. Now this throws a wrench in the workes because now our theology becomes confused. We know that Torah is the way we should live but we are unsure of how and what the consequences are for not keeping it. Some hold to the Christian idea that Torah is a beneficial thing but not necessary for salvation. Others say that one has to keep Torah as the orthodox Jews do in order to have any hope of salvation. The first group has what they think is freedom but are unsure of any boundaries, the other group says they have freedom ‘in Torah’ yet anyone who is honest will see the constrains binding them. Whether they are self imposed by a fundamentalist Christian group or an orthodox Jewish one, or the imposition is from social pressure, whether formal or informal, freedom is absent.
A slave in Torah has to obey his master. He does not have the same rights that a free man has, he is not a full person under the law. He is in a situation that is the opposite of freedom. He is told when and where to go, when and what to eat, how to dress and what his job is. Now some people like this lifestyle which is why the Torah makes provision for permanent slavery of the slave’s choosing. Why would anyone chose to remain a slave? Several reasons. Security is one. Another is that they do not have to think for themselves nor do they have to provide for themselves. It is the same reason many people stay in a dead end job or a destructive relationship. It is familiar and to some degree, we are all afraid of the unknown. The problem is, fearful people who are secure in their slavery are not people God can use. He needs free people.
Free people are like entrepreneurs. They take risks, they are responsible for their own success or failure, they provide for themselves as much or as little as they want. They have the freedom to go where they need to for the greatest success. They are like the nomads of old, the patriarchs. Their only security was in their little camp, the world was their backyard. Israel had to learn how to be nomads for forty years because there was too much of the slave mentality in them.
The key to freedom is maturity. Children need definitive rules and clear boundaries. These are things imposed from the outside. This is covenant. Mature people have the wisdom to know the path to take and they take it because inside, they know it’s right, they understand the principles which are to govern our lives as people of God. So many of the arguments and divisions we have are the result of disputes over the rules and external boundaries. We argue about the rules on shabbat or the display of tzitzit or the nature of messiah and we get so caught up in these little things. Are we going to go to hell if we drive to shul on shabbat, lighting a million little fires? If you are not careful and ingest some non-kosher thing, are you damned? If the calendar you follow is wrong, will God strike you down? Most of us know that none of this is true yet too often we look down on other ‘children’ who don’t follow the rules the way we do. This often leads to tattling (gossip).
The mature person acts according to the principles of Torah that are within each one of us. This person understands the workings of God’s universe and adapts his life to them. We understand that physically, gravity is a law of the universe. It would be foolish to deny it and destructive to live as if it wasn’t there. Most people have accepted this and order their lives around this principle without thinking about it. Morally and religiously, this is true as well. The promise of the new/eternal covenant is that the torah written on our hearts will be what guides us every day, naturally, without having to think or analyze. No longer will a man have to teach his brother, no longer will we need the external rules and boundaries of an imposed covenant. We will be free from the guilt and pressure that is the result of such external things. That is why Y’shua condemned the Pharisees for burdening men so much. They had extrapolated so many little rules from the basic rules based on the principles under Torah and redefined sin and righteousness in the process. Y’shua defined righteousness according to basic principles-justice, compassion, faithfulness, and not according to stringent rules-whether you wash your hands before you eat or heal on the shabbat. Clear rules are important for children but just as adults don’t have strict bedtimes or are forbidden to eat dessert first, so we must learn to get beyond the minute of the Torah and learn to live as mature people, adapting righteous principles to every situation and thereby demonstrating to the world the wisdom of the people of God.