The Mah Zot (What is This?) Principle

January 9, 2019

This is a drash, a Torah lesson requested of me and submitted to the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations ( I thought you would want to see it here too. Many thanks to Rabbi Russ Resnik for his always attentive and tasteful editing.

Like a pot of cool water that is gradually heated until the proverbial lobster is cooked without fully realizing what is happening, so can some cultural trends in the Messianic movement “cook” our unique calling as Jews so that we lose track of who we have been created to be, and what we have been called to value and preserve.  

This danger is especially evident in congregations where the Jews become more Christian in culture and the Gentiles become more Jewish, so that both meet somewhere in the middle. But when that middle involves leaving behind Jewish baggage packed for us by God himself, we Jews need to awaken to the bubbling in the pot. This week’s parasha comes to our aid. It enshrines for us what is called the Mah Zot (What Is This?) Principle, which states: 

There should be markers in the lives of Jews that memorialize our unique experience with God and provide occasions to proclaim and renew awareness of his saving acts among our people.

This is a principle repeatedly illustrated in our Scriptures, but most prominently in this week’s parasha where we read that Jewish householders were admonished to put blood on their doorposts as a yearly reminder of the redemption from Egypt (Exod 11:21–27); to give special treatment to first-born sons and animals as a reminder of the slaying of the first-born in Egypt (Exod 13:1, 11–15); to wear phylacteries so as to not forget these saving events (Exod 13:9–10, 16); and to eat unleavened bread during the Passover season each year as a memorial of the Exodus (Exod 13:2–6). All of these commandments (not customs!) come from this week’s parasha. And if you want another, just go and grab hold of one of the twelve stones that were removed from the midst of the Jordan to serve as a reminder of how God cut off the flow of the river that Israel might pass through (Josh 4:1–9). In each case, the behavior or artifact served as a memorial of the saving acts of God and as an occasion for inquiry (by our children but not only them) into the meaning of that artifact or ritual.  

You are right to ask, “What was the purpose of all this?” It served as an opportunity to recall and to tell the next generation of the mighty acts of God for and among the descendants of Jacob. These behaviors were tent pegs securing the particularity of that people of whom Paul will, without shame, say: “What advantage has the Jew and what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way!” (Rom 3:1–2a). He was not embarrassed by the unique calling of the children of Israel, and neither should we be.  

These texts commend Messianic Jews incorporating and in many cases restoring such traditional markers into our personal and communal lives. We must never forget that we are participants in a common identity and common history with other Jews. Our parasha expresses this clearly when, speaking of the yearly Feast of Unleavened Bread, it tells each father to explain the rite to his inquiring son, saying, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt” (Exod 13:8). Each father, though born after the events, is nevertheless to see himself as implicated in those events. It is for this reason that the Haggadah bids us all consider the Passover events as if we ourselves had come out of Egypt, for indeed we did.  

We might compare our situation to that of a pregnant woman who is temporarily in jail and doesn’t know she is pregnant. The child in her womb doesn’t know he’s in jail; but he is. And the proof that he’s in jail is that if his mother doesn’t get out soon enough, he’ll be born there! 

Similarly, if God had not delivered our ancestors out of Egypt, out of Pharaoh’s “jail house” (his “house of bondage”) we ourselves would still be enslaved in Egypt. This is an issue of corporate solidarity. We Messianic Jews are in corporate solidarity with the Jewish people, and are participants in the unique historical experience of that people. What happened to them historically is our personal history. Even if the Jewish community seeks to exclude us, ever and always, together we are family. As such, we have a common history, even if much of that history was ours while in the loins of our ancestors.  

We must not miss the crucial implications of this principle. Failure to preserve and honor our Jewish particularity means the neglect of our very own history and identity. More tellingly, such neglect means to egregiously disassociate from other Jews and to display a cavalier forgetfulness concerning God’s intentions in making us a people for his own Name. (See Micah 4:9, but also Acts 15:14 where we read that he also is making from among the Gentiles a people for his own Name.) At the very least, such forgetfulness violates the warning in Psalm 103, “Forget not all his benefits.”  

This means that the communal and personal lives of Messianic Jews ought to be different from those of the wider Body of Messiah because our history is different and because we share a corporate solidarity with other Jews which we must not ignore. It also means that those from among the nations who are traveling with us should encourage us to engage in that ritual life which is particular to ourselves, without feeling excluded. The coming of Messiah means that God intended all non-Jews in his family to be fully included, but not in a manner that erased the special history and privileges of the Jewish people, which Paul refers to as their “much in every way advantage.”  

Applying this principle in our context will also require that we Messianic Jews follow and observe the Jewish sacred calendar. The festivals found there are like family anniversaries and birthdays circled on the family calendar hanging in the family kitchen of our people. If we consider ourselves members of the family, if we are grateful for what those circled dates signify, then we will not treat these occasions just like any other day. We will mark special occasions in special ways, in ways customary among our people, our family. So shall we honor our Father in Heaven and our brother and sister Jews. And so shall we become who we really are: Messianic Jews, Messiah’s people, and the offspring of Abraham, the friend of God.

2 comments on “The Mah Zot (What is This?) Principle”

  1. Dear Rabbi Dauermann.

    My daughter is an occasional visitor to s church. She has brought my grand son and daughter as Christians. They are uncomfortable in a Jewish environment and do not keep the Holy Days except Hanukkah and Purim. Is my daughter and grandson and daughter in the same catagory as Jewish people in the messianic community who do not follow Jewish tradition? Are they in danger of being that lobster in the pot being cooked?
    What can I do if anything to help them to see their precarious situation. As a dad I love them and want the best for them.

  2. I don't suppose, Henry, you can explain why it is that your offspring feel so uncomfortable in a Jewish environment? Is it because they have not grown up with it and feel it is foreign? Is it because they have been trained to think as Christians rather than as Jews and therefore harbor an irrational disrespect or fear of real Jews and Jewish environments? Do they fear they will be rejected and ostracised if they say the wrong thing in such a venue; and do they know anything about how to express themselves Jewishly to avoid inadvertant offenses? Have they ever visited Israel to connect with their heritage, biblical and post-biblical? Have they ever been exposed to Jewish messianists who express a comfortably normalized traditional Jewish environment, as distinct from some of the pseudo-Jewish environments that exist in some supposedly-"messianic" congregations? How have they formulated their own identity -- particularly vis-a-vis HaShem -- and how do they perceive Jewish identity? How would they characterize either? Have any of them read Dr. Mark Kinzer's book "Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism? Have you any idea if they fear something bad will befall them if they embrace their historical and religious Jewish identity and heritage? Apparently they don't yet realize that something bad has befallen them already in cutting them off from that heritage; nor how serious are the future consequences for their immediate family and for the Jewish people in general.

    It may be that their lobster is already cooked, Henry, but miracles of redemption are never beyond all hope. I was hoping that Stuart might respond to your plaint during the past month since this essay was posted, and that he might be able to offer examples from his "interfaithfulness" experience of having been able to help improve such situations. I hope that my list of questions above might stimulate a helpful idea or two.

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