Jew & Gentile:

Perfectly Equal – Equally Perfectible

 

Moshe Ben-Chaim

 

 

 

 

God created one human pair: Adam and Eve. Noah and all others down to you and I descend from this couple. No one since Noah was created anew: no one possesses a different design or nature than any one else. Therefore, it is incorrect to suggest there exists different types of humans. Thus, Jew and gentile are identical in design. Where we differ is not in our design or potential, but in our Torah obligations.

The Haftorah read on public fasts (Isaiah 55:6-56:8) was just read this past Tuesday, the 17th of Tammuz. My good friend Doug repeated a question that he heard concerning this portion: “Isaiah appears to suggest that a gentile must observe the Sabbath. While we know Sabbath observance is prohibited for gentiles, how do we understand this?”  I would add that this portion indicates that without Sabbath observance and following all of Torah, the gentile will not share in the future good to be granted to the Jew. Is this so? And if it is, why isn’t the gentile obligated in all of Torah? Is God playing favorites with the Jew, purposely excluding gentile from living the greatest possible life?

We discussed this last Sunday in class, but I subsequently reviewed this portion and observed additional points. Let’s review the text, and then offer an explanation:

 

Chap. 55

“6. Seek God when He can be found; call Him when He is near. 7. Let the wicked person forsake his path and the man of sin [forsake] his thoughts and return to God and He will have mercy on him, [return] unto our God for He is abundant in forgiveness. 8. ‘For My thoughts are not like your thoughts and your ways are not like My ways’, says God. 9. As the heaven as are higher than the land, so are My ways higher than yours and My thoughts from your thoughts. 10. For as the rain and snow descend from the heavens and to there [heaven] they do not return; rather they moisten the land giving birth and sprouting, giving seed to the planter and food to eat. 11. So will be the word that leaves My mouth, it will no return to Me empty: for it will do that which I desire, and it will be successful where I sent it. 12. For in joy you will go out and in peace you will arrive; the mountains and valleys will break forth before you in song and the trees of the field will clap hands. 13. In the place of the thorn bush a cypress will rise; and in the place of the nettle a myrtle will rise and this will be a monument to God, an eternal sign never to cease.

 

Chap. 56

1. Thus says God; observe justice and perform righteousness for My salvation is soon to come and My righteousness to be revealed. 2. Happy is the human who does this, and the son of Adam who seizes it; observing the Sabbath rather than profaning it and guarding his hand from doing all evil. 3. And let not the son of the stranger who attached himself to God say, ‘God will surely separate me from His people and let not the barren one say ‘Behold, I am a dry tree’. 4. For so says God to the barren who guard My Sabbaths and select which I desire and seize My covenant. 5. And I will give them a place and fame within My house and within My walls, better than sons and daughters and an eternal name I will give them that will never cease. 6. And the son of the stranger that attaches to God to serve Him and to love the name of God and to be to Him servants; all who observe the Sabbath instead of profaning it and seize My covenant. 7. And I will bring them to My holy mountain and I will gladden them in My house of prayer, their elevation offerings and peace offerings will find favor on My altar for My house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples. 8. The word of God, Who gathers the dispersed of Israel; ‘I shall gather to him even more than those gathered to him’.”

 

 

Our interest is to answer the questions above. Radak and others who understand the “son of the stranger” (56:3) to be Israelites, do not address here the distinction between Jew and Noahide. Rashi and Metsudas David understand “son of the stranger” to be the gentile. Following these two Rabbis let us proceed to understand these verses.

 

 

Isaiah’s Message

We are first told to seek God when He is near and can be found. This is a call to Jews sinning in action and in thought, to return to God…to reestablish a relationship with Him. Repentance is thereby defined as not simply ceasing from sin, but reconnecting with God. The Rabbis teach that God is “found” only when we are earnest in our desire to draw close and do not practice Torah in a rote fashion. Alternatively, He is “found” during our judgment (Rosh Hashanna or before death). For in these times reality hits us most, and we are genuine. God is also found (He responds) and we can repent, only during life, for we are taught that after life we cannot repent.

But man has a hurdle: he feels that perhaps his sins are not worthy of forgiveness. Therefore God tells us that His ways are different than man’s ways. For man will at times guard his hatred for others and never forgive. We project this onto God, but wrongly. God assures us that He is far above our ways and He fully forgives, recalling nothing of our sins, if we are sincere. His promise is secure: as the rains and snow never return upwards, but successfully descend and water the Earth. So too, God’s word is fulfilled, assuring us success in our repentance. Not only success, but also God says we become “an eternal sign never to cease”.

 

Isaiah then addresses gentiles. For they too have a chance at the same life as the Jew. A new address is made, “Thus says God…” (56:1) indicating the audience is now shifted from the previous Jews. God invites all to enjoy His “salvation” referring to the redemption. God clearly identifies this new audience of “humans” and “sons of Adam” to include all mankind. God teaches that true happiness is only achieved through the adherence to His entire system of 613 commands, termed as Sabbath and covenant.

So we answer the question above that while it is true that a Noahide is not permitted to observe the Sabbath, at the same time, his happiness and ultimate perfection relies on fulfilling all 613 commands. All will agree: with increased Torah observance comes increase perfection.

Jew and gentile are equal. Just as the wicked Jew must return, forsaking sinful acts and thoughts, and adhere to the 613 to enjoy “an eternal sign never to cease”, so too a gentile is taught here to observe Sabbath and the covenant (i.e., all of Torah) if he too wishes the identical “an eternal name I will give them that will never cease”. (56:5)

 

 

All Men are Created Equal

Of significance is the parallel: Isaiah exposes the same concern in the gentile as in the Jew: “God will surely separate me from His people”. Meaning, as Rashi states, the gentile feels he will not enjoy the reward of the Jew, “So why should I convert?” the gentile feels. (Rashi) Therefore God corrects the gentiles’ false assumption as He corrected the Jews, promising the identical reward! “And I will give them a place and fame within My house and within My walls, better than sons and daughters and an eternal name I will give them that will never cease.” 

 

God concludes, “their [the gentile’s] elevation offerings and peace offerings will find favor on My altar for My house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples. The word of God, Who gathers the dispersed of Israel; ‘I shall gather to him even more than those gathered to him”.  God refers to His house as a house of “all people”, and further, He says he will gather to Him peoples, in addition to the Jews.

God created all members of mankind with the same potential. The only difference is that the Jew was not given the choice to observe the 613 commands, while the gentile has this option. As the gentiles’ Noahide system is not a system of perfection, but an entitlement to his right to life, he must abide by a bare minimum of laws. But the 613 is a system that enables any man and woman to achieve complete perfection.

The gentile has the opportunity that equals that of the Jew. Both Jew and gentile require actions to ensure their identical reward; the Jew must forsake sin and follow his obligation of 613 commands, and the gentile too can select this life. These are the two addresses in this portion.

As a final thought, why is the Sabbath singled out, if the entire 613 commands must be followed? This is because Sabbath recalls Creation, and it is Creation that bestowed equality on all men and women, who God created as descendants of a single couple. Isaiah’s words underscore a theme of human equality throughout all of these verses.

 

As this portion is read on public fasts, its intent is to assist in repentance, so we learn of God’s appreciation of the hurdles blocking man’s repentance, and how He assists our return to Him by assuaging our concerns: the same concerns shared by Jew and gentile, and assuring our success.

 

God’s “equation” here of the Jew and the gentile is evidenced not only in the identical rewards enjoyed by both, but also in the identical concerns for the hurdles to repentance we both share, seeking to reestablish our relationship with God.