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Parashat Sh’mini – Lev. 9:1 – 11:47

There is an immediate mismatch between the Hebrew text and the majority of its English translations – for example: “I the L-RD am He who brought you up from the land of Egypt” (JPS) or “I am the L-RD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (ESV) – the question of tense. The translations follow the obvious plain meaning of the verse and its position in the narrative flow: that the Exodus preceded the narrative in the book of Vayikra. Targum Onkelos uses the Aramaic deasek, “that brought you up”, while the Greek Septuagint has an aorist participle from the root to lead or bring up. Yet the verb in question, hama’aleh, is the ms Hif’il participle from the root alah, “to go up”, with a definite article – the – prefixed to the front. Hebrew participles are usually rendered as current or continuing action and are used with the appropriate subject pronoun – I, you, he/she, we, you, they – to form present tense verbs in modern Hebrew. Literally, then, the text should be translated something akin to the above: “I am the L-rd who is bringing you up from the land of Egypt”. This “bringing up” can therefore be seen as ongoing, both after the Exodus while our people are in the wilderness, and now: HaShem is still bringing us up from Egypt.

The Sages of the Talmud ask why the text here says “I brought you up” (from the root alah), while on most other occasions it says “I brought you out” (from the root yatzah). They point to three other commandments: usury – “Do not lend your kinsman money at interest … for I am the L-rd your G-d who brought you out of Egypt” (Vayikra 25:37-38); tassels – “Tell the Israelites to make tassels for the corners of their garments … to remind them to be holy … I am the L-rd your G-d who brought you out of Egypt” (B’Midbar 15:38-41); and honesty in trading – “You must have honest weights and measures … for I am the L-rd your G-d who brought you out of Egypt” (Vayikra 19:36); and want to know why this commandment – obeying the laws of kashrut, the dietary laws – is different (b. Bava Metzia 61b). Their answer depends on the same ongoing action that we have discussed above: that obeying the laws of kashrut continue to bring the Jewish people out of Egypt – Mitzrayim, bondage – to this day. Hirsch explains it this way: “The redemption from Egypt is to be an ‘elevation’, leading you upwards out of the moral depths into which Egypt had sunk. The goal of this upward path which began with the Exodus from Egypt is, ‘to be to you G-d’, and the demands which the attainment of this object make are summarised in the mission: ‘You shall be holy because I am holy.'” Israel is given national freedom so that they may have individual free-will to obey G-d and be His people. As Rashi rather more tersely adds: “On the condition that you accept my commandments I brought you up.”

Ibn Ezra takes a more robust line: “The point of the expression is: The only reason I brought you up from Egypt was to be your G-d. And if you will not be holy, I will not be your G-d. So if you want Me to be your G-d, you must be holy.” Softening slightly, the Abravanel suggests that “since He brought them out of Egypt, it is fitting that they should obey His commandments.” Ovadiah Sforno paraphrases what he imagines HaShem would say to the people: “it is proper that you make this effort to sanctify yourselves and to be holy so as to fulfill My desire, for indeed, My intent in bringing you out from the land of Egypt was that you attain this level of holiness, that I shall be a G-d to you without any intermediary, and you shall be holy and everlasting, resembling Me in characteristics, conduct and concepts, ‘for I am holy.'” Rabbi Pelcovitz, who edited and translated the Sforno’s Torah commentary, explains, “Since G-d wishes us to be holy, thereby “imitating Him”, He gave us the laws of food and purity which help us lead holy lives. That was His intention in bringing us out of Egypt. Redemption was for the purpose of becoming a holy nation.” For G-d’s people, this is not optional – something we can do if we like and not if we don’t – it is existential, why we exist. Or as Chizkuni bluntly puts it: “You shall be holy whether you want to be or not.” G-d has called us – Jews and Gentiles alike, as the people of G-d – to be His people, to acknowledge Him as our G-d and therefore, concomitantly, to obey His laws. This is why, as Plaut says, “Here, as often, the authority of the laws is reinforced by reference to the great historical memory of redemption from bondage.”

The Psalmist exhorts all the people and all those who work or participate in the service of HaShem in the Temple, to praise G-d, to sing hymns to His name, for G-d is good, “For the L-RD has chosen Jacob for Himself, Israel, as His treasured possession” (Psalm 135:4, JPS). G-d has chosen Israel as His possession, to be a people and a nation uniquely called from among all the nations of the earth, to be called by His name and to be a corporate witness to all the nations that there is a G-d who loves justice, punished iniquity and never breaks His covenant. That choice is not based upon anything that Israel had or brought to the table – “not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the L-RD set His heart on you and chose you — indeed, you are the smallest of peoples; but it was because the L-RD favored you and kept the oath He made to your fathers” (D’varim 7:7-8, JPS) – neither can His choice and calling be revoked: “For the sake of His great name, the L-RD will never abandon His people, seeing that the L-RD undertook to make you His people” (1 Samuel 12:22, JPS) as Rav Sha’ul confirms to the congregations in Rome, “the gifts and the calling of G-d are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29, NASB). The prophets cry out that G-d has not forgotten His promise or choice, so that “The L-RD will take Judah to Himself as His portion in the Holy Land, and He will choose Jerusalem once more” (Zechariah 2:16, JPS), and “on the day that I am preparing, said the L-RD of Hosts, they shall be My treasured possession” (Malachi 3:17, JPS).

Where, then, does that leave Jewish and Gentile believers in Messiah Yeshua? Are we part of G-d’s choice in Yeshua? Absolutely! Rav Sha’ul picks up the same ‘possession’ word when he writes to Titus, reminding him that Yeshua “gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:14, ESV). Notice how similar this is to our text: believers have been redeemed from lawlessness (as were the Israelites from Egypt) so that they might be Yeshua’s possession, a people of His own, who are eager to obey Him and do the right thing. Peter is even more explicit, extending the offer made to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai to all believers in Yeshua: “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9, ESV). G-d’s original offer was to the Israelites who had just come out of Egypt, and they remain irrevocably chosen as G-d’s ancient people, the physical descendants of Avraham, Yitz’khak and Ya’akov. But the Ruach here enlarges the calling, through Peter’s words, to all those who believe in Yeshua and follow Him. Gentiles too are now called to be witnesses of G-d’s grace and mercy, redeeming ancient Israel from slavery in Egypt and people today from slavery to sin.

As with Israel, this is not because of anything that the Gentile believers can bring to the table, but because of G-d’s choice and call: “G-d has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and G-d has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27, NASB). We bring what we have and who we are – we are, after all, made in the image of G-d and have been gifted in many ways by Him – but our part is to accept the call and to be obedient to the instructions we have been given. Yeshua made it clear: “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch, and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned … If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love” (John 15:6,10, NASB). Just as for Israel, this is not optional; it is existential, it is why we exist – to serve G-d in such a way that we are His possession and bring glory to His name. We have to be holy; in thought, word and deed, we are called to exhibit the characteristics, conduct and concepts of G-d as the people of G-d in this generation. This is not a one-off event, responding to an invitation, saying the sinners’ prayer and signing a pledge card – it is an ongoing and continuous battle to allow Him to lift us out of the habits of sin, laziness and ungodliness as He conforms us to the image of His Son, “that He might be the first-born among many brethren” (Romans 8:29, NASB).

Further Study: D’varim 10:12-15; Ephesians 2:8-10

Application: Are you living in such a way that the world can see that you have been brought up from Egypt and are you working with G-d to continue that upwards call in Yeshua each day? How can you make that difference from Egypt both more marked and more compellingly inviting today?

Jonathan Allen
Jonathan and his wife, Belinda, lead Messianic Education Trust, which is an educational ministry based in England. It is a part of the Tikkun family of ministries, serving the Messianic Jewish community in Israel, Cyprus and the USA , as well as former republics of the Soviet block.

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