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Parashat Bo - Being a Jew Inwardly
Marc Chagall

Essential Jewishness

Further thoughts on Parashat Bo

by John J. Parsons

WHY WAS THE DEATH OF THE FIRSTBORN (makkat bechorot) considered the ultimate plague that God brought upon Egypt?  After all, the other nine plagues were terrible in consequence and clearly demonstrated God's justice and power. So what's the significance of the death of the firstborn? Is there a deeper message here?

According to some Jewish thinkers, the final plague dealt a deathblow to the ancient institution of "primogeniture," that is, the special status and privilege given to the firstborn son. Consider, for instance, the Torah's narratives about Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Reuben and Judah, Manesseh and Ephraim.  Or think about the choice of Moses or King David. In each of these cases the firstborn son was "passed over" by God; in each case devotion to God trumped family "pecking order." In other words, the Torah makes the point (repeatedly) that personal godliness is more important than genealogy or genetics.  Unlike ancient Egypt, people are not to be given special treatment because of their birth order or their lineage, certainly not before the Master of the Universe who is "no respecter of persons" (Deut. 10:17, 16:9; Prov. 24:23, Rom. 2:11, etc.). "Freedom from slavery" means more than recreating another caste system...

But what about Israel being called the "firstborn son" of God (בְּנִי בְכרִי יִשְׂרָאֵל)? The sages state that this status must be regarded as sacred because of God's promise to the Jewish people, but individually speaking, if a Jew does not keep the Torah or keep faith with the LORD, he will be "passed over" as well...  Okay, but what about the selection of the Levites? Were they not "exchanged" for the firstborn sons of Israel because of the sin of the Golden Calf? Yes, but that in itself lends credence to the idea that status as a favored child of God comes through faith and obedience, since it was the Levite tribe that did not lapse in faith by worshipping the idol.  Later, of course, the Levites became itinerant teachers in Israel (living in Cities of Refuge), but eventually spiritual leadership was assumed by the Sages who through study and devotion to the Torah became the chosen sons of Israel.  By the time of Jesus, personal godliness was recognized as more important than physical lineage or genealogy.

All of this leads to thoughts about the essence of "Jewishness." The word "Jew" (יְהוּדִי) comes from the patronym "Judah" (יְהוּדָה), which derives from a root (יָדָה) that means "to give thanks, laud, or praise." Note that every letter of the Divine Name (יהוה) appears in the word Judah.  In Jewish tradition, there are two basic views about the essential character of the Jewish people.  First, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi takes an ethnocentric approach by claiming that the Jewish soul is different than the non-Jewish soul, possessing a mystical quality called "segulah."  The Jew is therefore ontologically different than the Gentile, possessing a higher-grade soul, etc. This is the "tribalist" mentality that is often embraced in various ultra-Orthodox communities... Maimonides, on the other hand, who was more Greek-minded, stated that there is nothing special about the Jewish soul in itself, but only if a Jew keeps the Torah is he worthy of the name, and if not, he is just like a non-Jew. It is the Torah - and the Torah alone - that makes a Jew special and holy.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), the first Ashkenazi Rabbi of the modern State of Israel, attempted to mediate these views by quoting the Talmud (Sanhedrin 59a):

    "You shall therefore keep my statues and My ordinances, which if a man (adam) does, he shall live by them..." (Lev. 18:5). R' Meir interprets that the Torah's choice of the word "human" (adam) means that even a non-Jew who keeps the Torah and mitzvot is as great as the High Priest.

In other words, personal godliness is the issue, not genealogy.  Jews cannot rely on their mere inclusion of ethnic Israel for righteousness (though God has indeed promised a glorious future to ethnic Israel). Indeed, if a Jew is ungodly, then a godly Gentile is considered more righteous than they. Once again, individual godliness is more important than ethnic identity or genetics.

The Apostle Paul, of course, said this centuries before these sages:

    Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God (Rom. 2:25-29).

The very first occurrence of the word Torah (תּוֹרָה) in the Scriptures occurs in the verse that says, "There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger..." / תּוֹרָה אַחַת יִהְיֶה לָאֶזְרָח וְלַגֵּר (Exod. 12:49). Torah - in terms of general instruction regarding the will of God was always meant to be for all people...

Finally, what do we make of the idea that ethnic Israel is called the "first born" of God (Exod. 4:22)? Well, despite the fact that "Jewishness" is a matter of the heart - not of genetics - there are still prophetic promises given to the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to inherit the land, to be supernaturally preserved as a people, and to be recipients of the Millennial Kingdom of God on the earth.  The LORD has always had a remnant of Israel (she'arit Yisrael) that has believed in Him - and this remnant today includes those Jews who have accepted Yeshua as their Messiah (i.e., Messianic Jews).  But the Hebrew prophets are explicit: There awaits a future yet to be fulfilled for ethnic Israel. Yeshua confirmed this when He said He would return to Jerusalem at the end of the "End of Days." As the Apostle Paul said: "And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, 'The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob'" (Rom. 11:26).

So what might all this mean for you? If you are someone who trusts in Yeshua as your Savior and Israel's Mashiach, then you share the heritage and glory of Israel -- regardless of your personal DNA or your genealogy.  By faith you are "grafted in" to the covenants, blessings, and promises given to the "commonwealth of Israel." As Paul says, you are no longer an "alien" or "stranger" to God's family but can call upon the LORD God of Israel as your God (Eph. 2:12). As a follower of the Jewish Messiah, you are now made a "Jew inwardly" with a circumcised heart (Rom. 2:29, Col. 2:11). You understand that just as the LORD God of Israel will never forsake His covenant promises to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, neither will He ever forsake His covenant love for you... Bless His glorious Name!

Shalom, chaverim...

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