The Torah reading this week includes the 5 chapters of Devarim (Deuteronomy) 12 to 16. Also included is the last part of Devarim 11 and these verses, beginning with verse 26, may be seen as an introduction to the entire portion. “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, when you obey the commands of יהוה your Elohim which I command you today; and the curse, if you do not obey the commands of יהוה your Elohim, but turn aside from the way which I command you today, to go after other mighty ones which you have not known” (Deut 11:26-28). The Hebrew word that is translated in The Scriptures as “blessing”, is the well known concept of “barachah”. This is directly related to the word “baruch”, that is included in almost all of the prayers and blessings that the Yehudim use in their festive rituals, services and everyday life. The majority of these start with the words: “Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu …”, which means “Blessed are You, (Yahweh) our Elohim …”.
The words “barachah” and “baruch” come from a word that basically means to kneel down, as a token of reverence, adoration, praise and thankfulness for what someone has done for you and what he or she means to you. “Blessing” is by far not the only word available to express the true meaning of “barachah”. In the context of Devarim 11 the word “barachah” may also be translated as “prosperity”. What Yahweh had in mind for his people when He gave them the Torah was, among other things, prosperity – He wanted them to prosper; He wanted to bestow upon them his favour; He wanted them to thrive and to be successful. That is, if they were prepared and committed to keep the Torah. If not, Yahweh would withdraw his favour and his people would find out what it means to live a life of emptiness and lack of hope.
In certain religious circles “prosperity” is interpreted in a way that does not honour the “barachah” of Torah at all. If you Google the words “prosperity theology” you’ll find definitions like these: “Prosperity theology (sometimes referred to as the prosperity gospel, the health and wealth gospel, or the gospel of success) is a Christian religious doctrine that financial blessing is the will of Almighty for Christians, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to Christian ministries will always increase one’s material wealth.” What these prosperity theologians fail to understand is that it is the will of the Almighty, first and foremost, not for believers to become wealthy, but for believers to subject themselves to his Torah. If they do that, He will prosper them in ways that go far beyond the accumulation of money and riches here on earth. In fact, the kind of prosperity that Scriptures have in mind, may be present in someone’s life, even if that person is not rich at all. Interestingly enough, the word “prosper” comes from the Old Latin “pro spere” which means “according to expectation” or “according to hope”. Those who are serious about Torah, are the ones who live their lives “pro spere”, not according to the hope of becoming rich or being wealthy, but according to the hope of being found worthy by Yahweh – the hope to be favoured by Yahweh and to receive out of his hand an inheritance that surpasses anything else of this world. In the chapters that follow after Devarim 11 and form part of this week’s Torah reading, a number of commandments or “mitzvot” are given – all of which are practical ways to become prosperous and living one’s life according to this hope and expectation. Here is a short summary of these chapters:
Devarim 12: If you want to prosper, do not follow the ways and the traditions of those nations who do not know Elohim.
Devarim 13: If you want to prosper, do not tolerate people (even if they are prophets) who are leading others to adopt the ways of the nations who do not know Elohim.
Devarim 14: If you want to prosper, do not eat what is abominable in the eyes of Elohim.
Devarim 15: If you want to prosper, do not neglect the poor and the giving of gifts to those who are in need.
Devarim 16: If you want to prosper, honour the appointed times of the Almighty, according to the prescribed guidelines that He had given.
In the popular prosperity sermons of our modern day world, not much is said about the things that are mentioned in these 5 chapters. Not much about the feasts of Yahweh or unclean food or even giving to the poor and needy. Yes, giving to ministries and ministers who are wealthy already, but not giving to the poor – just because it is a mitzvah and not because of any personal financial benefit. I have an idea that many of us, too, and others who take Torah seriously, may not be fully aware of the fact that charity and giving to the needy is a clear-cut part of the Torah and a genuine commandment that we need to honour.
In the Talmud and other Jewish writings this aspect of always keeping one’s hand open towards those who are in need, is pointed out repeatedly. Somewhere in the Talmud it is stated: “Everybody is obliged to give charity; even one who himself is dependent on charity should give to those less fortunate than himself.” One gets the impression that the deed of giving is absolutely necessary, not only for the one who receives but also for the one who gives. This is exactly how this mitsvah has been understood, through the ages. In one of the Jewish writings it is said: “The poor man does more for the giver than the giver does for the poor man.”
When looking at Y’shua’s teachings, the aspect of giving to the poor is touched upon a number of times and it becomes clear that Y’shua completely agreed with the way this aspect was understood in the Jewish writings. However, Y’shua did not always agree with the way some of the Jews and Pharisees lived out this principle in everyday practice. For example, in Mat 6:1-4, Y’shua said: “Beware of doing your kind deeds before men, in order to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in the heavens. Thus, when you do a kind deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do, in the congregations and in the streets, to be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a kind deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your kind deed shall be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret shall Himself reward you openly.” This is a hundred percent in line with Jewish understanding, as it is written in one of their writings that Reb Yannai once saw somebody giving a coin to a poor man in the market place, in public and noticed by many people. Upon seeing this, he said, “It were better not to have given him anything rather than to have given him and shamed him.”
In the quote from Matthew above, Y’shua is talking about the attitude behind giving, not about the question whether one should give or not. He simply assumes that true believers will also be givers. Therefore he says “when you do a kind deed …”. There is no doubt that what He had in mind, was this mitzvah from Deut 15:7-8: “When there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, within any of the gates in your land which Yahweh your Elohim is giving you, do not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, for you shall certainly open your hand to him and certainly lend him enough for his need, whatever he needs.”
Against this background we can now clearly see what a life of prosperity is really all about. First and foremost, it is about kneeling before Yahweh, acknowledging that what we have, and what we have accomplished and what makes our lives complete, is because of Him. And secondly, because He has made our lives complete and has given us an expectation and a hope to live for, it has become our heart’s desire to honour Him by obeying his commandments. We have come to know that obeying his commandments may be for the benefit and prosperity of others but in a deeper sense, Yahweh will turn these acts of charity around and cause them to bring prosperity and fulfillment to our own lives. Next time, when we come across someone in need, we may truly rejoice, because all of a sudden we are facing an opportunity to do a mitzvah. Without asking for it, we have been granted the opportunity to do something in return for the wealth and the gifts and the prosperity He had bestowed upon us!