Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.
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For those of us that hold that our eternal salvation is dependent upon G-d's grace, and not our ability to earn His favor, it seems quite easy to define "grace" as simply "unmerited favor." Unfortunately, the issue is far more complex than our theologies permit. You see, "chen" [grace] is first used in reference to someone who apparently earned G-d's favor: Noah.
We are first introduced to chen in the phrase, "v'Noach matza chen b'ayini HaShem." [And Noah found grace in the eyes of HaShem].
Scripture does not record at what point in Noah's life that he "found grace in the eyes of HaShem" - it simply says that he did. The Bible often does this. When our theologies demand that we know the sequence, the cause and effect, the Bible simply tells us the facts - which carries with it the eternal challenge, "So what are you going to do about this?" Sadly, we often want to know the mechanics, before committing to the process. More importantly, we often lose sight of the Person of HaShem as we seek for more information. Remember, it is in the eyes of HaShem that Noah found chen.
What we learn about the practicality of chen in the life of Noah is how we all live with the choice between disobedience and obedience. Noah chose correctly, and we see how G-d called him a Tzadik [righteous man] in verse 9. In the arguments of theology, which may be quite important, we may miss the most important verse in the entire account of the first mention of chen [grace]:
Noah did this; he did all that G-d commanded him.
While we search out the sequence and examine the theology, let's never lose sight of our response to Scripture's eternal challenge: "So what are you going to do about this?"
Oh, and yes, there is some deepinformation in the account of Noah. "Noach" is spelled Nun-Chet. "Chen" is spelled Chet-Nun. It is an anagram which points to the word resting between the words "Noach" and "Chen" in the Torah scroll - the word matza [found], which is spelled Mem-Tzadi-Alef (not the "matza" of Pesach, which is spelled Mem-Tzadi-Hay). Interesting, "rest" [noach] and "grace" [chen] joined by "found" [matza]. Dig into these words and maybe you will find the answer to the question…
When Fences Become Walls
And HASHEM said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to HASHEM to look and many of them perish. Also let the priests who come near to HASHEM consecrate themselves, lest HASHEM break out against them.” And Moses said to HASHEM, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for you yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set limits around the mountain and consecrate it.”
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for G-d has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the L-rd is able to make him stand.
“Children want boundaries.” You have heard that, or perhaps you have said it yourself. It is true of course. Human beings seem to almost crave limits to our behavior. No doubt this part of our G-d-given conscience – our sense of “right and wrong.”
Let’s be honest though, our conscience is not the same thing as right and wrong – it simply is our sense of what we think is right and wrong. Sadly, some people seem to have no conscience at all, and it is equally sad when some think everything is wrong.
When Conscience Becomes a Choice
In order for our conscience to be a positive tool in our relationship with HaShem, we need to be careful what choices we make in establishing new (or new to us) “fences” (boundaries put up to protect particular commandments) and how we maintain a distinction between those fences and the written commandments of HaShem. Once a standard is a part of our conscience, it is difficult to undo that without damaging our conscience.
It is common in newly observant communities for individuals to grab hold of standards that are new to them. This can be very good. The danger is when individuals make these fences matters of conscience. This is a matter of choice if the fences are not clearly distinguished from the actual commandments of HaShem. “So, if the standard is upheld, and the individual conscience is not offended, what is the downside?” you might ask. The dangers are:
An ever-increasing more-observant-than-thou attitude
Adding to your personal “I will be offended if…” list
Your children as they grow older may have difficulty distinguishing between HaShem’s commandments and your newly established fence
By choice, becoming the “weaker brother”
Safely Embracing Fences
In the case of neighbors with literal fences along a property line, it is easy to understand that one neighbor cannot move the fence without affecting the other. This is also the case of “fences around the Torah.” To best understand how to safely embrace fences, we must remind ourselves what fences are and how they might affect others. A fence is a standard that is beyond of the literal words of HaShem. Notice, that man did not initiate the fence around Mount Sinai in Exodus 19 to keep the people safe. HaShem commanded that it be built. So the Exodus 19 model does not apply to “fences around the Torah” – that is, unless you are also willing to disregard the very sober words in Deuteronomy 4:2:
You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of HaShem your G-d that I command you.
Yeshua alludes to this in His admonition:
And why do you break the commandment of G-d for the sake of your tradition?
I am very encouraging to people who want to embrace Jewish tradition, making the lifestyle of Judaism, their own. I offer this personal caution however: as you adopt traditional halacha and make it your own, do not make the traditional halacha a matter of conscience. That is truly your choice. Distinguish between the literal commandment, and the traditional “how to” in walking out that commandment. Here are my personal recommendations:
Context. Do your best to mirror the community in which you find yourself. If your community does not adhere to your newfound fence, be careful to not promote it as a community standard. Do not broadcast your fence. It is personal, or for your family only. On the other hand, be careful to reflect the community in which you are currently a part. Do not offend your brothers and sisters by what you permit or by what you forbid.
If you have children, as they get older, make it clear that your “family rules” are not “more right” than any other families' rules.
Be gracious. Recognize that everyone errs in some way. Make sure you do not begin to look down on those who do not share the same fences that you do.
Remember Romans 14:4:
Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the L-rd is able to make him (and you) stand.
Don’t let your fences become walls. Walls that keep out the blessing of a healthy relationship with HaShem, or walls that make your circle of brothers and sisters ever more small.
The Mideast Update News Site
In 2007, my eldest son moved to Jerusalem working as a journalist and writer. Since then he has done interviews with government officials, academics, and "the man on the street." Joshua maintains a news web site that draws from his contacts in the middle east: the Israeli government, middle eastern universities, and public relations outlets. His reporting, analysis, and insights are unique in reporting on Israel and the middle east.
My friend Brock Wright has written an iPhone/iPad app called "Daily Aliyah" that displays the Torah and haftarah portion for the current week, as well as the daily aliyah for the day of the week. Get it for free in the iTunes App Store.