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A Discussion of Messianic Judaism, the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm, and Related Leadership Issues from the Preoccupied Mind of Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD.

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Monday, April 24, 2006

Attitudes - A Sermon for Parashat Shemini

This sermon, presented Shabbat Sh'mini, April 22, 2006, at Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue concerns the respective roles of right attitude and right action in the paths of the just, as it is written, "Therefore walk in the way of the good, and keep to the paths of the just. 21 For the upright will abide in the land, and the innocent will remain in it; 22 but the wicked will be cut off from the land, and the treacherous will be rooted out of it" [Proverbs 2].

There are two extremes I wish to explore with you today, two extremes which must both be avoided. It is like walking on a narrow bridge: if you lean too far to either side, you will fall off. The trick is to maintain your balance.

The two extremes are the extremes of practice and of attitude. It is possible to do the right thing, but for it to be all wrong, because of the attitudes associated with the action. This is why the Apostle Paul can say truthfully, “I may give away everything that I own, I may even hand over my body to be burned; but if I lack love, I gain nothing.” This is most crucial to see—you can do the right thing, but without the right attitude there can be something very wrong about it.

But on the other side of the equation, there are the people who are so obsessed with feelings, that they delay right action or excuse inaction or wrong action because they did not feel up to it, their feelings were not ready, or right, or words to this effect. And then there are those who think their good feelings are an adequate substitute for right actions. We read of such people in Ya’akov/James 2:14 What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

So here are the two poles:-right feelings and right actions. If we lean too far in either direction, so that we forsake the opposite pole, we lose our balance, we fall off the narrow bridge upon which we walk through life, and we cause injury to ourselves and to others. When we go to either extreme, for the time being at least, we lose our bearings and wander from the paths of righteousness.

Wrong attitudes can destablize and corrupt the good that one is seeking to do. Even doing the right thing with a lousy attitude is less than righteous, even if helpful. We are aiming not only for right behavior, but righteousness. “Ge ye holy as I am holy” And this means we must look beyond outward appearance. As Samuel the Prophet reminds us, “Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.”
Our Scripture readings today focus on people with wrong attitudes. Let’s see what we can learn from them.

In our Torah reading, Nadab and Abihu do something very wrong and suffer severe consequences. Apparently, they had seen the holy fireworks that attended the dedication of the priests and the altar, and decided they wanted to make that happen too. From the instructions God gives in Vayikra 10:8-11, it appears that they may have been drunk when they did this, but that is not the point. The point is, they had a presumptuous attitude that resulted in their being judged by God. How did their presumption show? This way: They tried to use their knowledge of God’s ways to manipulate him and make him do something spectacular.

1) Do you think we ever try to use our knowledge of God to manipulate him?
2) What does this lesson have to teach us about the wisdom of doing so?
3) What proper attitude ought we to nurture instead?
4) How does Aaron demonstrate a right attitude in verse 10:3? Why do you think Torah points out Aaron’s silence?
5) Are there times in your life with God when it would be wise for you to be silent? Is it possible to say too much to God? [See Psalm 73, especially verse 15].
6) Notice verses 8-11. What do these have to teach us all about the connection between our calling and our priorities?

You can see here that if you know you have a certain calling from God [their’s was to be priests], this means there are certain disciplines, attitudes, practices, that must be nurtured and others that need to be guarded against.

But my major point is this: right attitudes lead to right actions; and wrong attitudes lead to wrong actions. The Bible puts it this way: “Keep your heart with all diligence, for from it springs the issues of life.” Torah, in Deut 29, says it this way:

18 It may be that there is among you a man or woman, or a family or tribe, whose heart is already turning away from the Lord our God to serve the gods of those nations. It may be that there is among you a root sprouting poisonous and bitter growth. 19 All who hear the words of this oath and bless themselves, thinking in their hearts, "We are safe even though we go our own stubborn ways" (thus bringing disaster on moist and dry alike)- 20 the Lord will be unwilling to pardon them, for the Lord's anger and passion will smoke against them. All the curses written in this book will descend on them, and the Lord will blot out their names from under heaven. 21 The Lord will single them out from all the tribes of Israel for calamity, in accordance with all the curses of the covenant written in this book of the law.

There is more we could find in today’s Torah reading on the subject of bad attitudes leading to bad actions. But I want to nuance the insight a bit before we move on to our Haftarah. I want to point this out.

My point is not simply that inappropriate attitudes lead to inappropriate actions. My point is larger than that.. We ought to repeatedly contemplate that the point of life is to present every relationship and aspect of our lives as a living sacrifice to the Holy One.

The phrase which comes to mind is this one from 2 Cor 7:1—“let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. And let us work toward complete purity because we fear God.” Some older translations put it this way: "perfecting holiness in the fear of God." You see, it wasn’t only Nadab and Abihu who were priests bringing offerings to God.

It is us too. And our attitudes can defile our sacrifices, something we ought never to do. We need to cultivate right attitudes not only because right attitudes lead to right action. We need to cultivate right attitudes because they make doing so makes our sacrifices to God a sweet smelling savour rather than a stench in his nostrils [See Isaiah 65:1-5].

Our Haftarah provides another glaring example of right and wrong attitudes. [David and Michal]. It is a familiar story. When David the King was bringing the ark of God up to the City of David, he danced with abandon before the Ark, rejoicing in the God of Israel. But not everyone was pleased. We read the following in 2 Samuel 6:

16 As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul [and David’s wife] looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart. . . .
20 David returned to bless his household. But Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and said, "How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants' maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself !" 21David said to Michal, "It was before the LORD, who chose me in place of your father and all his household, to appoint me as prince over Israel, the people of the LORD, that I have danced before the LORD. 22I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in my own eyes; but by the maids of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor." 23And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death.

Two attitudes are contrasted here: David’s is exemplary. He is prepared to be a complete fool in the eyes of his people and himself for the sake of the honor of God, and knows that people with good judgment, even lowly people, will respect him for it. Michal, however, is contemptuous of him and of others. Here is just another example attitudes and their relationship to righteous, holy living.

There is always a danger for us that we will watch what we do, but will assume that our attitudes are our own business. This attitude is both dangerous and in error. It is dangerous because harboring a bad attitude inevitably leads to bad actions. It is in error because our bad attitudes make the sacrifices we offer to God to be a stench in His nostrils.

In Philippians chapter 4, we read of the Apostle Paul, who had every right to a bad attitude, and we read of his advice about attitude to the people in Philippi. He begins here by referring to two women in the fellowship who were having difficulty getting along with each other.

2 I beg Evodia and I beg Syntyche to agree with each other in union with the Lord. 3 I also request you, loyal Syzygus, to help these women; for they have worked hard proclaiming the Good News with me, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow-workers whose names are in the Book of Life. 4 Rejoice in union with the Lord always! I will say it again: rejoice! 5 Let everyone see how reasonable and gentle you are. The Lord is near! 6 Don't worry about anything; on the contrary, make your requests known to God by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving. 7 Then God's shalom, passing all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds safe in union with the Messiah Yeshua. 8 In conclusion, brothers, focus your thoughts on what is true, noble, righteous, pure, lovable or admirable, on some virtue or on something praiseworthy. 9 Keep doing what you have learned and received from me, what you have heard and seen me doing; then the God who gives shalom will be with you.

He asks Syzygus to intervene, to help them as they work hard for the Kingdom, thus relieving some of their pressure, and he begs them to remember their unity together in Messiah and to live in peace with each other. Then he goes on to encourage the congregation in the realm of attitudes—attitutudes of rejoicing, of reasonableness, gentleness and fobearance, of not worrying, and the famous passage about habitually focusing one’s thoughts on what is “what is true, noble, righteous, pure, lovable or admirable, on some virtue or on something praiseworthy.“ It is obvious that for Paul, right attitude is crucial to walking life’s narrow bridge in uprightness and holiness.

Like a tightrope walker himself, going on before the congregation, with them walking behind him, he says “Keep doing what you have learned and received from me, what you have heard and seen me doing; then the God who gives shalom will be with you.” We maintain our balance by imitating others who walk in that balance.

He then goes on to speak of matters that could have caused him to lose his own balance, and of how he maintained his walk nevertheless. He was in prison at this time, and had been for a while—dependent upon the congregations he had nurtured to remember him there and to send gifts to him to help make his incarceration less arduous. Imagine what kind of attitude you would have if you were in prison and felt that those in whom you had invested your life had forgotten you. But instead, he writes them to thank them for having at last remembered to do right by him. Here is what he says. Notice his gracious attitude and his reference to the equanimity in which he lives. And notice how frank he is about how this congregation is the only one in all of Macedonia that has stood by him in this trial and others.

10 In union with the Lord I greatly rejoice that now, after this long time, you have let your concern for me express itself again. Of course, you were concerned for me all along, but you had no opportunity to express it. 11 Not that I am saying this to call attention to any need of mine; since, as far as I am concerned, I have learned to be content regardless of circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in want, and I know what it is to have more than enough - in everything and in every way I have learned the secret of being full and being hungry, of having abundance and being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who gives me power. 14 Nevertheless, it was good of you to share in my trouble. 15 And you Philippians yourselves know that in the early days of my work spreading the Good News, when I left Macedonia, not a single congregation shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving - only you. 16 Indeed, in Thessalonica when I needed it, you sent me aid twice. 17 I am not seeking the gift; rather, I am looking for what will increase the credit balance of your account. 18 I have been more than paid in full: I have been filled, since I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent - they are a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, one that pleases God well. 19 Moreover, my God will fill every need of yours according to his glorious wealth, in union with the Messiah Yeshua.

Notice as well how he himself ties in such righteous living, such holy giving, with the metaphor of sacrifice: “they are a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, one that pleases God well.” Indeed, how we live and how we treat others is our priestly service to God—either an aroma or a stench,

Of course, earlier in Philippians, in chapter two, in the matter of personal relationships, Paul holds out Yeshua as the prime example, and focuses on one particular attitude above others that he exemplified, which we need to imitate if we would walk rightly with one another.

3 Do nothing out of rivalry or vanity; but, in humility, regard each other as better than yourselves - 4 look out for each other's interests and not just for your own. 5 Let your attitude toward one another be governed by your being in union with the Messiah Yeshua: 6 Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God something to be possessed by force. 7 On the contrary, he emptied himself, in that he took the form of a slave by becoming like human beings are. And when he appeared as a human being, 8 he humbled himself still more by becoming obedient even to death - death on a stake as a criminal! 9 Therefore God raised him to the highest place and gave him the name above every name; 10 that in honor of the name given Yeshua, every knee will bow - in heaven, on earth and under the earth 11 and every tongue will acknowledge that Yeshua the Messiah is Lord - to the glory of God the Father.

In conclusion then, what shall we say?

Don’t imagine that the meaning of life with God is just believing the right things and repeating the right words. This is a gross distortion of everything the Bible teaches.

Like Nadab and Abihu, all of us are priests, either good ones or bad ones, neglectful ones or diligent ones, rebellious ones or obedient ones.

If we truly love God, we will want to bring Him the most perfect sacrifices we can. We will makea David’s prayer our own: “May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer [Psalm 19:14].”

“Tend your heart with all diligence; for from it spring the issues of life [Prov 4:23].”

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov said this: “kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar me’od, ve-ha-ikar lo lefached klal,” “The whole world is a very narrow bridge; and the key is not to be afraid at all.”

Don’t be afraid as you walk the narrow bridge, don’t live in terror of falling off one side or the other. It is the Holy One who holds your hand [see Hosea 12:1-4].

But do be careful to maintain your balance between right actions and right attitudes.

Remember to always reach out in prayer that God might help you to maintain your balance. Remember to live constantly orient yourself to His word, His commandments, the lessons of Scripture, and the example of Yeshua and those who follow Him well. These will all help you maintain your correct orientation toward the horizon toward which we are all walking, standing straight instead of leaning too far in one direction or the other.

Remember what our liturgy says to us, in the prayer one says after putting on the tallit: “Extend your kindness to those who fear you, and your righteousness to those who are upright in heart.” It is in walking in the fear of God that our hearts are upright, and we can therefore maintain our balance on the narrow bridge of life.

And let’s remember that we, as a congregation, walk the bridge together.

We can and should help each other to maintain our balance.

Let’s do it.

At 4/25/2006 10:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shalom. You start sermon talking about actions and attitudes, then you characterize "attitudes" as "feelings." While it is possible to see these terms as synonyms, you will find in Webster's 11th a list of synonyms for feeling; attitude is not amongst those synonyms.

An appeal to reason might be the most succinct way to make the distinction. One cannot always control one's feelings, but one can always choose what one's attitude will be. Viktor Frankl develops this fully in his "Man's Search for Meaning."

Let us look at your use of what Paul says regarding his actions needing to be done with "love." You describe it as an attitude. If by attitude you mean "intention" this fits would fit with the Jewish concept of kavannah. But when, in the next paragraph, you seem to build on the Pauline quotation and describe "love" as a feeling. This, I believe, misses the point.

The poles are not "right feelings" and "right actions." They are on different scales all together.

Actions are actions, they can be done whether feelings are hot or cold (or whatever descriptive terms you wish to use.) Give them their own scale, and judge actions on the merits of the actions.
Whether such actions will be judged right by a third party, is another matter. Perhaps this is what Paul is referring to when he says that even if his actions are the right actions, the Judge will look at his heart. If Paul's attitude was not one of "agape," the action won't count for anything.

To grow ethically is to learn to identify one's feelings as early as possible, and be honest with how our feelings are impacting our attitudes and penchant for carrying out the correct action.

The example you give of people who base their actions on their feelings is an example of a person who cannot be trusted to make good choices. I would not rely on such people, and would generally choose not to be undertake projects with such people. When forced to work with such people, I find that I must protect myself against their whims. If I do not factor in their feelings (regardless of their attitude), I might be subjected to the consequence of their feelings. If such consequences are negative, I might still have the right attitude toward my slothful and treat them as created in the image of God, but I am sure I will feel pissed.


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