Role Models of Righteousness
Parasha Nitzvim 5779
There are evil forces all around us—aliens, who are continually out to destroy the world. As Agent K (played by Tommy Lee Jones) puts it “There’s always an alien battle-cruiser, or a Corillian death ray, or an intergalactic plague that’s about to wipe out life on this miserable planet. The only way that these people get on with their happy lives is they DO NOT know about it.”
So what saves us from all of these evil forces? Why it’s the Men in Black of course. As Will Smith puts it in the music video for the movie, “”We are the best kept secret in the universe. Our mission is to monitor extraterrestrial activity on earth. We are your best, last, and only line of defense. We work in secret, we exist in shadow and we dress in black.”
I assume everyone here has seen Men in Black or one of its sequels or are at least familiar with its premise? Yes?
But are you also familiar with the famous Jewish legend of the Lamed Vav Tzadikim, otherwise known as the “Lamed Vavniks?”
The movie Men in Black is nothing more than a modernized and updated version of that famous Jewish legend. This legend is recorded in the Talmud and it says that the world depends on lamed vav tzadikim, on 36 totally righteous and hidden people for its existence. Later references describe these “hidden tzadikim” as very humble, ordinary, normal appearing people. Yet the existence of the world depends on their quiet and unassuming faith and righteousness. There are many folk tales which describe some kind of great danger that faced a community, and one of these lamed vavniks quietly appeared, took care of things, and once again faded into obscurity.
This week’s Torah portion speaks of hidden things. Deuteronomy 29:28 reads: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this Torah.” This verse appears in the context of God bringing judgment down on the heads of the people. The simple peshat meaning of the text is that you shouldn’t think because you didn’t get caught, that you’re safe. If you sin in secret, God will know. God will judge you and punish you for those hidden things.
So if you have yirat shamayim, if you are a “God-fearing” person, that should be enough to keep you on the straight and narrow. We learn in Pirkei Avot (2:1): “Consider three things and you will avoid sin: Know what is above you: an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all your deeds written in a book.”
The flip side of this, is an admonition, in a sense, to the community: while the secret things belong to the Lord, the revealed things belong to us. If we do not mete out justice when we become aware of sin, then we are not fulfilling our responsibility to build a just society. We cannot ignore injustice and we cannot ignore wrongdoers in our midst. If we turn a blind eye to such abuses we become parties to the crime. If we do not speak out against wrongs, we are complicit by our silence.
We are commanded to judge them, and see that justice is done. We also cannot allow our confidence that God will deal with the hidden things to be an excuse to ignore the visible injustice around us. We cannot put our heads in the sand and say “God will take care of it.” This week’s parsha commands us “the revealed things are for us,” they are our responsibility to address.
“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8
“Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gave you.” (Deuteronomy 16:18)
“How blessed are those who keep justice, Who practice righteousness at all times!” (Psalms 106:3)
And our verse again:
“The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 29:28)
But there is more to this simple seeming verse than meets the eye. Our sages point out that for every good thing, there is a proper and suitable quantity. There is such a thing as “too much of a good thing.” The lamed vavniks, the hidden tzadikim, are in theory a good thing. But if they were too numerous, how would we learn to be righteous? How would our children learn? If all injustice and sin were resolved in hidden ways, what is the point of the mitzvot? What is the point of Messiah?
So perhaps this is the meaning of our verse: the secret things, hidden righteousness, is for God alone. Only God knows about the doings of righteous people who are hiding. But the revealed—people who reveal their righteousness, who are not in hiding—are for us and our children. They serve as role models to teach the proper way to conduct one’s self. They serve as mentors, guiding us through the example of their own lives, in their pursuit of a just society.
In his book “Rabbi as Symbolic Exemplar,” Rabbi Jack Bloom points out that this is especially true for rabbis. People expect their rabbi to live the ideal Jewish life that most of the rest of the community doesn’t even aspire to. Many modern rabbis and probably pastors too, complain about living life in a fish bowl, and not being comfortable with it. And, it can of course be difficult if a person feels he is being judged by a standard far different than the standard used for everyone else.
Nevertheless, Rabbis are symbolic exemplars and the Talmud has some amazing stories of the lengths some students went to emulate the behavior of their teachers. One student went so far as to try and watch his rabbi in the bathroom, and in the bedroom, claiming, that “this too is Torah.”
You should also recall another amazing story from Scripture where a student tried to emulate his rabbi by walking on water.
But the truth is, it is not only rabbis who are symbolic exemplars. We are all role models to someone. Each of us looks up to others and others look up to us.
So what behaviors are we modeling?
What’s the message your child gets if you tell him that learning is important, but they never see you open a book? What’s the lesson we model by sharing Netflix accounts rather than paying for our own? What are we teaching when we buy our 13 year old a reduced rate ticket to Cedar Point for kids UNDER 12 or we use our gray hair to get a senior discount at a restaurant or theater while in our fifties? What are our children learning as we turn our faces away from the homeless and speed past the beggars on the street corner? What are we telling people about our values when we close our borders to refugees fleeing war, persecution, or famine, and when we separate parents from their children simply for crossing an imaginary line between two countries?
I think you get my drift. Individually and corporately, in all revealed ways, we have a responsibility to pursue righteousness. We are commanded to pursue justice. So in that end, I ask you, who is our role model? Who are we to follow?
Righteousness was Yeshua’s way of life. He related to others with aspirations for their spiritual well‐being. Yeshua righted wrongs. His vision for justice for the vulnerable drove his intent and guided his practice. In his teaching and in his living, Yeshua created opportunities for people whose plight in life was curtailed by the prevailing culture of life‐denying forces.
Yeshua’s life is a demonstration of how to live and love. He demonstrated willful, purposeful and creative love; love for God, for self, for neighbor, for truth, for righteousness and for justice. Yeshua envisioned what didn’t yet exist. He championed freedom from oppression—discrimination, exclusion, inequity, poverty, sin and from injustice.
In Yeshua’s code, Torah, to love is to be just. To be just is to love. And when we claim to follow Yeshua we are disciples of justice. We are pursuers of righteousness. We are ambassadors of love.
Yeshua’s mission on earth, in his time, is still our mission on earth, in our time.
This is an important message for the high holidays. It is now just one day until Rosh Hashanah, Yom Ha-Din, the Day of Judgment. As we review our behavior over the past year, as we begin to judge ourselves and think about the areas where we need to improve, we must remember that it’s not enough to simply fulfill the standard model of teshuva, to turn back to G-d and try and fix any damage that we have done. We need to go further than that. We need to consider that we are role models to others around us—especially our children, but also to other people in our circles of colleagues, friends, and acquaintances. As Messianic Jews, we are exemplars of a movement that is constantly judged by both Jews and Christians.
So, are we living our lives in a way that sets a good example?
Are we living in a way that brings justice, and dignity, and love to others?
Are we living in a way that will bring others to Yeshua?
May it be so.
Shabbat shalom v’ketivah v’chatima tovah
May you be worthy of a good inscription and sealing [in the Book of Life]