Category: Appointed Times
Medicine for the Soul
Tags: charity, High Holy Days, prayer, repentance, resolutions, righteousness, tz'dakah, Yom Kippur
D. Thomas Lancaster
A man goes to the doctor to get some test results. As he sits in the doctor's office, he sees that there are three folders on the doctor's desk. One is labeled "Good News." Another is labeled "Bad News." The third is labeled "Bad News and Good News."
The doctor opens the latter file and takes out a written diagnosis of the man's condition. The man is relieved to see that it did not come out of bad news file, but he is equally concerned that it didn't come out of the good news file either. The doctor looks over the report and then says, "I've got some bad news and some good news. The bad news is that your test results are in, and you definitely have a fatal, dreadful disease. You only have ten days left to live."
The man says, "Doctor, how can there still be good news? That's horrible."
The doctor says, "The good news is that there is a cure. It's an experimental procedure; it's rigorous; it's demanding and difficult. But past results have been good, so I have every reason to believe that if you undergo this treatment, you will pull through."
The Good News and the Bad News
This story is a vivid allegory describing the situation of the soul every year on Rosh Hashanah (literally "Head of the Year" in Hebrew, but also commonly known as the Feast of Trumpets). Every Rosh Hashanah is like a rehearsal for the final judgment. The book of Daniel describes the final judgment as the time when the Ancient of Days--God Himself--will take His seat on the throne of judgment. "And myriads upon myriads were standing before Him; the court sat, and the books were opened" (Daniel 7:10). Revelation 20:12 describes the same scene, saying:
I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds.
Jewish tradition explains that the heavenly court of judgment keeps three books.1 In the Book of Life the names of the righteous are recorded; in the Book of Death the names of the wicked are recorded; and in the Book of the Intermediates the names of the not-so-good, but not-so-bad (which is most of us) are recorded.
According to Jewish tradition, the day of Rosh Hashanah is a small, annual day of judgment on which the heavenly court convenes and opens the three books. The court reviews the cases of those recorded in the Book of the Intermediates, and each person's name is removed from that book and written into one of the other two books.
Ten days later on Yom Kippur ("Day of Atonement"), everyone's name is sealed in either the Book of Life or in the Book of Death. There is, however, a cure--a remedy for removing the evil decree--that has been prescribed by the sages of old.
The liturgical prayers written for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur essentially say, "Repentance, prayer and righteousness remove the evil decree!"
Repentance, prayer and righteousness are also the prescription of Yeshua.
Yeshua Taught about Repentance
The sound of the shofar--blown for forty days before Yom Kippur, and blown one hundred times in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah--is meant to awaken us, to rouse our slumbering souls and to focus us on the things of the Kingdom of Heaven. The sound is supposed to inspire us to repent.
The Master was always talking about repentance. Repentance means that we quit sinning and turn back to righteous living. The message of repentance was the very heart of Yeshua's ministry. Most of His parables, it seems, were about repentance. The Gospel--the Good News--that Yeshua proclaimed was the imperative message, "Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4:17).
Once He healed a man and He said, "Do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you" (John 5:14). Another time He told a woman, "I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more" (John 8:11).
"Sin no more" is the simple meaning of repentance. After that, true repentance becomes an ongoing process, which transforms us. It is not a one-time declaration that "I'm never going to do that again." Instead, it is a constant reprioritization of our lives, placing the things that matter to God ahead of the things that matter to our selfish flesh.
We are supposed to be different from the rest of the world. We are supposed to be disciples of Yeshua--reborn, transformed, godly creatures. People in the outside world are supposed to be able to look at our lives and say, "That's what a godly person looks like!" What more could a person want out of life than an epitaph stating: "Here lies a true disciple of Yeshua"?
The most pressing matter of repentance, though, is making things right with others. The Master says:
If you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. (Matthew 5:23-24)
According to Yeshua, a disciple will turn the other cheek. A disciple will not repay injury with harm. A disciple will give to the one who asks and will not demand repayment. A disciple will repay evil with good. A disciple will always forgive. A disciple will go the extra mile.
Yeshua Taught about Prayer
Jewish tradition teaches that prayer is a remedy for sin that can remove the evil decree of judgment. At first, this sounds like a contrary message of 'works' pitted against the Gospel message of faith. So, let's take this under consideration and compare it to the Master's teachings about prayer.
Yeshua definitely taught us to pray. He often spoke about prayer and the importance of confessing one's sins. Luke 18 records a story of the Pharisee and the tax collector who both stand in the Temple to pray. The tax collector beat his breast with his fist and confessed his sin in contrition by declaring, "God, be merciful to me, the sinner," while the Pharisee thanksed God for his own exalted status. Yeshua said that the tax collector was justified before God, while the Pharisee was not.
Moreover, the Master taught us that through our prayers, our sins would be forgiven if we would pray these words, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6:12). And continuing, Yeshua taught us:
...if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions. (Matthew 6:14-15)
What a precious gift this promise is! What a miracle! What a cure! If we will forgive others, God will forgive us. Yeshua said so.
Conversely, Yeshua was very clear that if we harbor unforgiveness against those who seek our forgiveness, then God cannot pardon us. Have you ever said the words, "I'm sorry isn't good enough"? If so, how can you turn to God and say, "I'm sorry for my sins, please forgive me, as I have forgiven those who sin against me."
Yeshua illustrated this in the parable of the ungrateful debtor in Matthew 18:23-35. The parable closes with the king revoking his absolution of the unforgiving man's debts. Yeshua concluded with the frightening words, "My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart."
Therefore, we learn that from Yeshua's perspective, the remedy for sin involves all kinds of prayer: prayers of confession, prayers petitioning for forgiveness, and prayers of forgiveness for others. These are the very types of prayers prescribed in the liturgies of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Yeshua Taught about Righteousness
Jewish tradition teaches that acts of righteousness--particularly the giving of charity--is a remedy that can remove the evil decree of judgment. When the High Holiday liturgies of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prescribe 'righteousness' as a means of removing the evil decree, they mean the practice of righteous deeds.
In a rabbinic context, the Hebrew word "righteousness" (tz'dakah) specifically means giving alms to the needy, and is considered among the greatest of all acts of righteousness. Hence, when the Holy Day liturgy speaks of a righteousness that removes the evil decree, it has charity (the giving of money) in view.
Yeshua had quite a bit to say about doing such acts of righteousness and giving charity. In fact, there was no other subject the Master spoke on more than the giving of charity. To Yeshua, this was a matter of utmost importance for His disciples. He taught that we should give generously to the poor, to those in need and to the work of the Kingdom. He told several parables to illustrate the point, and He often taught on the subject.
Moreover, He spoke of reward for giving generously. In many parables, He encouraged generous giving as a means by which to earn merit in Heaven. He told His disciples to "...store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal" (Matthew 6:20), implying the possibility of earning reward in Heaven. The following passage from Matthew illustrates that Yeshua believed doing acts of righteousness could earn one heavenly rewards:
Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in Heaven. So when you give to the poor...do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-4)
In these words, Yeshua instructs us to do our giving in secret. The sages advise the same mode of giving alms. R. Eleazar said:
A man who gives charity in secret is greater than Moses our teacher, for of Moses it is written in Deuteronomy 9:19, "For I was afraid because of the anger and hot displeasure of the LORD," but regarding the one who gives charity [in secret] it says in Proverbs 21:14, "A gift given in secret subdues anger."
How do you know if you're giving enough? You won't--you can't. It is not possible to give enough, and our circumstances always constrain us from giving enough. However, it is always possible to give more, in some way or another. So the question for the disciple of Yeshua is not "How much do I have to give?" but "How much more can I give?"
Medicine for the Soul
The High Holy Days are a season of the year to get serious about repentance, prayer and acts of righteousness. On Rosh Hashanah, we are diagnosed as sinners. Like the sick man diagnosed at the beginning of the article, we have only ten days to live (so to speak). On Yom Kippur, the gavel of judgment falls. It is written, "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). Repentance, prayer and acts of righteousness are the only things that we can do to help our case.
Of course, one might object and say, "This sounds like you are suggesting that we can do good works to atone for our sins while ignoring the atoning work of the cross. Salvation is a free gift through grace, and not by 'works' lest any man should boast!"
When we discuss the High Holy Days, we are not talking about one's eternal destiny; we are talking about our perception of life in the here and now. We are not speaking about whether or not a person is literally going to heaven or hell in that year. These somber days help us become aware of the sinful state of our hearts, not our eternal destinies. A person may be a believer, and yet still be mired in sin. Sin always has consequences.
Repentance, prayer and righteousness are remedies for our sick souls. It's tough medicine. Perhaps you are thinking, "Surely there is an easier way." After all, we are accustomed to asking, "Can't you just give me a theological pill? Isn't there some easy drug I could take instead or some abstract theological concept I can believe in instead?"
New Year's Resolutions
Real spirituality is like anything of value in life. It does not come easy; it does not come free. Have you ever tried to lose weight? Is it easy? Of course it's not easy. It takes immense discipline to govern yourself about the food you eat, and it takes great effort to exercise--not just once in a while but regularly. So why do we expect spiritual growth and discipleship to Yeshua to be easier than losing weight? When we admit our need for repentance, prayer and righteousness, we are not talking about earning salvation in the world to come; we are talking about living the committed life in this world--a life of faith and godliness.
Every secular New Year, on January 1, thousands of people make New Year's resolutions. "I'm going on a diet this year" or "I'm quitting smoking this year" or "I'm going to exercise this year" or whatever the case may be. That is similar to the opportunity granted to us by the traditional new year of Rosh Hashanah. The High Holy Days give us a chance to improve ourselves, to resolve to try harder. God doesn't expect us to be perfect, but He does expect us to challenge ourselves to be better.
This is the drama of the High Holy Days. We have ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Ten days to undergo a radical treatment. You can do it. Don't listen to the devil, and don't listen to your flesh. Listen to the Spirit of the Lord within you. You can be better. Set your eyes on the prize of a good inscription in the Book of Life for a sweet new year. And don't forget to take your medicine: repentance, prayer and acts of righteousness.
1. b.Rosh Hashanah 16b.
Adapted from Messiah Magazine #97. Â© 2012 First Fruits of Zion. All rights reserved. We encourage you to share this material with your friends for further personal study. However, this material may not be republished, in print, electronically, or any other form without our prior permission.
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