“Torah is the mysterious bridge which connects the Jew and God, across which they interact and communicate, and by means of which God fulfils His covenant with His people to sustain them and protect them.” So says Rabbi Shraga Simmons in an article on the Aish website about Shavuoth. He also tells us that:
- At Mount Sinai when the Torah was given, the entire Jewish nation – 3 million men, women and children – directly experienced divine revelation.
- In addition to the written Torah God gave the Oral Torah, which in fact preceded the written Torah.
- One reason why dairy foods are eaten at Shavuoth is found in the Biblical book Song of Songs (4:11) which refers to the sweet nourishing value of Torah by saying: It drips from your lips, like honey and milk under your tongue.
- On the night of Shavuoth it is a widespread custom to stay up all night learning Torah. And since Torah is the way to self-perfection, the Shavuot night learning is called Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which means an act of self-perfection on the night of Shavuot.
Let us examine these statements…
Direct revelation or divine mediation?
Did the entire Jewish nation directly experience divine revelation? Rabbi Simmons bases this claim on this verse from Deuteronomy:
God spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you were hearing the sound of words, but you were not seeing a form, only a sound. He told you of His covenant, instructing you to keep the Ten Commandments, and He inscribed them on two stone tablets. (Deut. 4:12-13)
However the following verse shows that Moses was the mediator through whom God gave the Torah to Israel:
And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that you might observe them in the land which you cross over to possess. (Deut. 4.14)
This section of Deuteronomy retells the events that took place 40 years earlier at Sinai for the benefit of the generation that survived the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and were about to enter the Promised Land.
In the Exodus account of the Torah actually being given to the generation that came out of Egypt, the emphasis is on the separation of the people from Mount Sinai and from the encounter Moses had with the Lord:
Then the Lord came down on Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain. And the Lord said to Moses, Go down and warn the people lest they break through to gaze at the Lord and many of them perish. … But Moses said to the Lord, The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai: for you warned us saying, Set bounds around the mountain and consecrate it. (Exodus 19.20-23).
Now all the people witnessed the thunderings and the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off. Then they said to Moses, You speak with us and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die. (Exodus 20.18-20).
This passage shows that the communication of Gods commandments did not come directly to Israel but through the chosen mediator, Moses.
What about the Oral Torah?
According to Rabbi Simmons the Oral Torah preceded the Written Torah. He writes: The Oral Torah is not an interpretation of the Written Torah. In fact, the Oral Torah preceded the Written Torah. When the Jewish people stood at Mount Sinai 3,300 years ago, God communicated the 613 commandments, along with a detailed, practical explanation of how to fulfil them. At that point in time, the teachings were entirely oral. It wasnt until 40 years later, just prior to Moses death and the Jewish peoples entering the Land of Israel, that Moses wrote the scroll of the written Torah (known as the Five Books of Moses) and gave it to the Jewish people.
Yet in the Bible we have no mention of the existence of an Oral Torah. Here is something very strange. If God had given Moses both the written and the oral Torah surely something would have been mentioned in the written Torah pointing to the existence of this other teaching, which was necessary to understand the written Torah. But what do we find? Not a word about it.
In fact we find evidence to the contrary. It is hard to see how Rabbi Simmons can justify the statement that the oral Torah preceded the written Torah when Exodus 24 says Moses wrote all the words of the Lord. … Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read in hearing of the people. (Ex. 24.4-7).
Moreover the Book of Joshua tells us that Joshua (to whom Moses is supposed to have communicated the unwritten Oral Torah) possessed a written word, which he read to the people of Israel as they entered the Land. This written word contained all that Moses had passed down:
And afterward he (Joshua) read all the words of the law, the blessings and the cursings, according to all that is written in the Book of the law. There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel with the women, the little ones and the strangers who were living among them. (Joshua 8.34-35)
It is hard to reconcile these verses with the idea of an unwritten Oral Torah, which precedes the written Torah and is equally inspired given by God at Mount Sinai.
Is the Torah bitter or sweet?
It is true that the Torah has sweet nourishing value to those who study it. As David wrote in Psalm 19.7-11:
The Torah of the Lord is perfect converting the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure making wise the simple; the statutes of the Lord are right rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean enduring forever; the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold yea than much fine gold; sweeter also than the honey and the honeycomb. Moreover by them is thy servant warned and in keeping of them there is great reward. See also Psalm 119.
Yet there is another side to the Torah. The people responded to the words, which Moses had written down and read to them by saying All that the Lord has said we will do and be obedient (Exodus 24.7). Yet not long afterwards they were worshipping the Golden Calf, leading to God moving in judgement against them:
And the Lord said to Moses, I have seen this people and behold it is a stiff necked people! Now therefore let me alone that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. And I will make of you a great nation. (Exodus 32.9-10).
Without Moses acting as the mediator on this occasion God would have destroyed the entire nation as a judgement. Even with Moses mediation 3000 perished as a result of this sin.
In the summing up of the Torah in Deuteronomy 28, God tells Israel of the blessings which result from obedience to the Torah as they enter the land, but also warns of the curses (judgements) which result from disobedience. The last of these is to be scattered from the land and live with a trembling heart, failing eyes and anguish of soul (Deut 28.65) amongst the Gentile nations. The history of Israel written in the Bible tells of the outworking of this principle in the blessings in the land at times of obedience and the judgements following disobedience. The bitter side of the Torah is to be found in these judgements.
Is the Torah the bridge to God?
The bitter side of the Torah shows us the gulf, which separates us from God. On the other hand, according to Rabbi Simmons, Torah is the way to self-perfection, and the Shavuot night learning is called Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which means an act of self-perfection on the night of Shavuot.
But the Bible shows that no person can reach self-perfection by his own efforts. In Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 7.20 we read, There is not a just man on the earth who does good and does not sin. Isaiah 64.6 tells us We are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses (kol tsidkoteinu) are like filthy rags; we all fade as the leaf and our iniquities like the wind have taken us away.
Human experience testifies to the truth of this and religious people of all faiths often lead the way in putting people off from believing in God by the gulf between what they claim for themselves and what they do.
It is interesting to read on the Aish website the list of 613 commandments as recorded and classified by Maimonides in the 12th century. This listing is taken from his classic compendium of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah. Numbers 301 to 442 are all to do with the Temple and sacrifices and cannot be kept literally by anyone today. According to Rabbinic opinion Numbers 596-8 no longer apply because the nations referred to have already disappeared. This is just as well because they read: 596 Destroy the seven Canaanite nations. 597 Not to let any of them remain alive. 598 Wipe out the descendants of Amalek. Numbers 37-41 are also rather unfriendly! 37 Not to love the missionary. 38 Not to cease hating the missionary. 39 Not to save the missionary. 40 Not say anything in his defence. 41 Not to refrain from incriminating him.
Even leaving these out, the commands, which clearly are relevant today, are hard if not impossible to keep. How many people can read the 10 commandments and honestly say, I have never broken one of these? Who really fulfils the command to love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength (Deut 6.5 – number 4 in the 613 commandments)? Or to love your neighbour as yourself? It is interesting that this command (Leviticus 19.18 – number 13 in the 613 commandments) becomes to love Jews (i.e. not a general command to love your neighbour whoever he / she is, but only if he / she is Jewish).
If no one is able to keep all of these commandments, those who seek salvation by this method are left in a state of condemnation. As we have said our failure to keep Gods commandments shows the gulf, which separates us from God and our need of a mediator to bridge this gulf. This is why God promised that he would make a new covenant with the house of Israel, not because he found fault with the old one, but because of the impossibility of keeping it. Concerning this new covenant we read in Jeremiah:
Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people. No more shall every man teach his neighbour and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord, for they shall all know me from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity and their sin I will remember no more. Jeremiah 31.31-34.
The New Covenant
According to this passage the new covenant offers forgiveness of sin, knowledge of God in a personal way and having Gods law written on the heart. This will replace the covenant given at Sinai as the means by which God relates to humanity (i.e. the bridge to God). When Yeshua (Jesus) took the bread and the wine on the eve of Pesach (Passover) he described the cup containing the wine as the new covenant in my blood which is shed for you (Luke 22.20). In doing this he reinterpreted the familiar symbols, which speak of the Exodus from physical slavery in Egypt applying them to himself as the Passover Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. He brings about our Exodus from spiritual slavery in a world, which has fallen from Gods commandments and is in bondage to sin.
In his letter to believers in Messiah, living in Galatia, Paul described the Torah as our tutor to bring us to Messiah, that we might be justified by faith (Galatians 3.24). By this he meant that the Torah shows us that we dont achieve self perfection and that there is a huge gulf between what God requires and what we achieve. It was for this reason that I turned to the Messiah about 30 years ago when I realised that I had broken Gods commandments and was under his judgement.
The Torah shows us that we all fall short of the glory of God and need to be made right with God by repentance and faith in the sacrifice God has appointed. Under the old covenant this was through the blood of the animals offered on Yom Kippur. Under the new covenant it is through the blood of the Messiah. In this way Messiah Jesus becomes our bridge to God, fulfilling his word, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me (John 14.6).
When speaking to a learned rabbi of his day, Nicodemus, Yeshua said that in order to enter into this new covenant You must be born again (John 3.7) – not physically but spiritually, an experience also prophesied in Ezekiel:
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you. I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you and cause you to walk in my judgements and you will keep my judgements and do them (Ezekiel 36.26-7).
Just as the covenant at Sinai had to be mediated through Gods chosen servant, Moses, so the new covenant had to be mediated through one whom Moses prophesied as a Prophet like me (Deuteronomy 18.15-18). Isaiah reveals that this one would be more than a prophet. Although he would be born as a child, His name will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9.6).
Isaiah went on to describe how this anointed Servant of the Lord would be put to death for the sins of the people: All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. … For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken (Isaiah 53.6, 8). Although Rashi claims that this prophecy applies to the people of Israel suffering on behalf of the Gentiles this simply does not make sense of the text. For one thing it makes Isaiah a Gentile – He (Israel) suffered for my people (the Gentiles). For another it means that Israel, who Isaiah has been calling to repentance for their sins, is somehow bringing atonement for the sins of the Gentiles.
The interpretation of this prophecy which makes sense is the one favoured by Rabbi Alsech: Our Rabbis with one voice accept and confirm the opinion that the prophet (in Isaiah 53) is speaking of the King Messiah and we shall ourselves also adhere to the same view. We believe Yeshua, Jesus, to be the Messiah of whom Moses and the Prophets spoke, who has mediated the new covenant through which we can find the true bridge to God. Through his death and resurrection he has paid the price required for sin and made it possible for all humanity, Jewish and Gentile, to come to know Gods forgiveness and eternal life. Those who truly accept him as Messiah, Saviour and Lord (as opposed to the mass of generally uninformed and unenlightened Christendom) experience the new birth which Jesus spoke about to Nicodemus which empowers us by the Holy Spirit to walk in newness of life and gives us the desire to keep his commandments. Although we remain liable to sin and fall short of the glory of God, the blood Jesus shed is sufficient to cover our sins and to give us peace with God so that we know that when we appear before God on the Day of Judgment He will receive us into eternal life in heaven.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life. John 3.16.