In this week's Torah portion (Beshalach) we read: "Diligently heed the voice of the LORD thy God, do what is right in His eyes, give ear to His commandments, and keep His decrees..." (Exod. 15:26). It might be helpful to break this verse down to get a better idea of what the LORD is saying:
- "Diligently heed." The very first part of this commandment is to "diligently heed (שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע) the Voice of the LORD thy God," which recalls the great Shema and the commandment to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and possessions. The Mekhilta De-Rabbi Ishmael states that the "Voice of the LORD" (קוֹל יהוה) refers to the Ten Commandments, though it is clear it refers primarily to the Word of God (דְּבַר־אֱלהִים), "the voice speaking out of the midst of the fire" (i.e., Yeshua). The first thing required, then, is to humble yourself in order to listen to what God is saying... This involves "making space" within yourself to hear the Voice of the LORD.
- "Do what is right." The second part of this commandment is to "do what is right in God's eyes (וְהַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו תַּעֲשֶׂה). The Hebrew word yashar (יָשָׁר) means "straight" (as in a straight line) or "right." Because God is tov v'yashar (good and upright), he teaches his children to be yesharim (יְשָׁרִים), i.e., those who walk uprightly (Psalm 25:8). Indeed, the "way of the LORD" (דֶּרֶךְ יהוה) is "to do acts of charity and justice" (לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט) (Gen. 18:19). This is the "straight way" (derekh ha-yashar), or the "narrow path" that leads to life (Matt. 7:14). The yesharim are known by the good fruit of their lives (Matt. 7:15-23). The Mekhilta associates "doing what is right" with making God-honoring choices in our daily lives (1 Cor. 10:31).
- "Give ear to God's Commandments." The third part of this commandment involves "giving ear" to God's mitzvot (i.e., his commandments). The metaphor of "giving ears" is used to express the idea of active listening, and indeed the term oznaim (ears) is often used as a synonym for shema (hear) in the poetic books of the Scriptures. But notice that the object of our listening is God's commandments, His mitzvot (מִצְוֹה), which connects with the first part of the commandment to diligently heed the Voice of the LORD. There is a focus, in other words, to our listening, and that focus is upon the revealed will of God. We cannot "listen for the Voice of the LORD" apart from thoroughly hearing (and doing) His commandments. As the Apostle James admonished: "Don't deceive yourself (lit., "reason around" the truth, from παραλογίζομαι, from παρά, "around, beside" and λογίζομαι, "to reason") by merely hearing the truth of Scripture: Live it!" (James 1:22).
- "Keep God's Decrees." The decrees of God (חֻקִּים) are statutes given without an explictly defined reason or explanation. These laws can seem irrational to the sentiment of human logic. Zot chukat haTorah (זאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה) - "this is the Torah's decree...." is therefore a statement that God has commanded something and that settles the issue. Notice that this part of the commandment says we are to guard (i.e., shamar: שָׁמַר) these decrees of the Lord as something precious. "Keep (shamar) your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life" (Prov. 4:24). The decrees of God often become associated with customs (minhagim) and rituals in our lives which help form a sense of identity and community.
Notice that the emphasis of this verse has to do with acts of obedience, or "deeds more than creeds." The Mishnah states: "It is not the explanation that is essential, but the deed itself." This mirrors the Apostle James' statement that "faith without works is dead" (James 2:17). Obedience to God is its own reward, since we are given more light as we obey: "If you know these things, happy are you if you do them" (John 13:17). Indeed Yeshua warned us, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness" (Matt. 7:21-23).
This is why we say, "Blessed are You, LORD our God... who sanctifies us with His commandments..." The giving of the commandments is a gift that enables us to walk in the righteousness of life (1 John 2:29). We don't "have to" do the commandments of God, but what a great joy it is to do so!
כִּי נֵר מִצְוָה וְתוֹרָה אוֹר
וְדֶרֶךְ חַיִּים תּוֹכְחוֹת מוּסָר
ki ner mitz·vah, ve'to·rah ohr,
ve·de·rekh cha·yim to·che·khot mu·sar
"For the commandment is a lamp, and the Torah is light,
and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life" (Prov. 6:23)
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It is clear from other Scriptures that we are not saved by means of law-keeping, of course, though on the other hand that does not excuse us from doing acts of righteousness. God did not "waste His breath" revealing the principles of righteousness to the Jewish people, and therefore we are to "study to show ourselves approved unto God" (2 Tim. 2:15). The "law of the Spirit of life in Yeshua" (תּוֹרַת רוּחַ הַחַיִּים בְּיֵשׁוּעַ) empowers to serve God according to a new principle of freedom. After all, true freedom doesn't mean doing "whatever you want," but rather means the power to choose contrary to the demands of your lower nature. We "put off" the old self and "put on" the new (Eph. 4:22-24). It is the divinely imparted "new nature" that gives us the power to "put to death" the old self by reckoning it crucified with Messiah (Gal. 2:19-20). Obedience to the Torah of Yeshua leads to further revelation, just as disobedience to it leads to further darkness (Matt. 13:12). Yeshua is only the "Author of Eternal Salvation" for those who heed and obey Him (Heb. 5:9). "If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit" (Gal. 5:25).
מִכָּל־מִשְׁמָר נְצר לִבֶּךָ
כִּי־מִמֶּנּוּ תּוֹצְאוֹת חַיִּים
mi·kol mish·mar ne·tzor lib·be·kha,
ki mi·me·nu to·tze·ot cha·yim
"Above all things guard your heart,
for from it are the contours of life" (Prov. 4:23)
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For the follower of Yeshua, much of this process is "unconscious," by which I mean that it happens as a result of God's grace (χάρις, a word related to χαρά, "joy") over time.... As we learn to see the beauty of God's Torah, we will spontaneously and joyfully seek to do those things that please our LORD and Master. As the Apostle John wrote: "For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome (lit. "heavy," βαρύς) (1 John 5:3).
Finally, our verse concludes with the declaration that honoring God's Torah leads to our personal healing. We understand God as Adonai Rophekha (יְהוָה רפְאֶךָ), "the LORD our Healer," when we heed the message and truth of the Torah in our lives (Exod. 15:26).
אִם־שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע לְקוֹל יְהוָה אֱלהֶיךָ וְהַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו תַּעֲשֶׂה
וְהַאֲזַנְתָּ לְמִצְוֹתָיו וְשָׁמַרְתָּ כָּל־חֻקָּיו כָּל־הַמַּחֲלָה אֲשֶׁר־שַׂמְתִּי
בְמִצְרַיִם לא־אָשִׂים עָלֶיךָ כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה רפְאֶךָ
im sha·mo·a tish·ma le·kol Adonai E·lo·he·kha, ve·ha·ya·shar be·ey·nav ta·a·seh,
ve·ha·a·zan·ta le·mitz·vo·tav, ve·sha·mar·ta kol chu·kav, kol ha·ma·cha·lah a·sher sam·ti ve·mitz·ra·yim lo a·sim a·ley·kha, ki ani Adonai rof·e·kha
"If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God,
and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his mitzvot
and keep all his decrees, I will put none of the diseases on you
that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer" (Exod. 15:26).