Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of the Fathers, begins with the following affirmation,
Moses received the Torah at Sinai and handed it on to Yehoshua (Joshua); Yehoshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets to the men of the Great Assembly. They (the men of the Great Assembly) said three things: Be careful in judgment; raise up many disciples; and make a fence for the Torah.1Pirkei Avot 1:1
The first two of the three things stated by the men of the Great Assembly are fairly easy to accept. The idea of being careful in judgment is exemplified in Yeshua’s words,
Stop judging, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Matthew 7:1-2)2
In John, the aspect of judging is clarified further, as Yeshua plainly states,
Do not judge by appearance, but judge righteously. (John 7:24)
But surely there are times when we are required to make a judgment concerning another’s actions or blatant attitudes. HaShem, through the prophet Zechariah, gives these words of guidance.
These are the things that you are to do: Speak the truth one to another; administer the judgment of truth and shalomin your gates; do not let any of you devise evil in your hearts against your neighbor; and do not love false oaths, for I hate all these things,”—it is a declaration of ADONAI. (Zechariah 8:16-17)
Or as stated in Pirkei Avot, we need to be careful in our judgments.
Then there is the admonition to “raise up many disciples.” Once again Yeshua openly spoke similarly to his followers,
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, immersing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Ruach ha-Kodesh, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you. And remember! I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)
So now we can all agree that we need to be careful in judgment and to make disciples. But what about the aspect of “making a fence for the Torah?” There are two passages that many followers of Yeshua turn to as proof texts against “fences,” both from Deuteronomy,
You must not add to the word that I am commanding you or take away from it—in order to keep the mitzvot of ADONAI your God that I am commanding you. (Deuteronomy 4:2)
Whatever I command you, you must take care to do—you are not to add to it or take away from it. (Deuteronomy 13:1)
Both verses are quite clear that we are not to add to or take away from the words of the Torah. The thing is, the fences are NOT additions to the Torah but protections for each of us, to aid us in not violating the words of the Torah. A fence, no matter how high it might be or what it may be made of, is not the house it encircles. Picture a long driveway, lined with stately oak trees. Around the base of each oak tree is a small picket fence. No one expects the picket fence to totally protect the oak tree, but the fence does draw attention to the fact that there is something there to protect it. Equally no one would ever consider the picket fence an oak tree. A careless or out-of-control driver might well crash through the picket fence but hopefully, the damage to the tree would be minimal. Likewise, the fences created over the years by our sages are an attempt to protect the Torah while at the same time protecting the one who is trying to observe the requirements of the Torah as it is written,
So now, O Israel, what does ADONAI your God require of you, but to fear ADONAI your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve ADONAI your God with all your heart and with all your soul, to keep the mitzvotof ADONAI and His statutes that I am commanding you today, for your own good? (Deuteronomy 10:12-13)
Interestingly, we see the picture of this protection in this week’s parashah, B’midbar, Numbers 1:1-4:20. In Numbers 1:52 we read, “Bnei-Yisrael will encamp, each man with his own camp, each with his own standard, according to their own divisions.” With this, the picture begins to develop. In the very center of the camp is the Mishkan (Tabernacle) the visible representation of the presence of HaShem among his people (Number 2:17). Then the Levites are to arrange themselves around the Mishkan as a buffer between HaShem and the people (Numbers 1:53). Next is the arrangement of the rest of the tribes of Israel. Surrounding the Levites are the tribes of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun on the east side (Numbers 2:3-7), of Reuben, Simeon, and Gad on the south side (Numbers 2:10-14), of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin on the west side (Numbers 2:18-22) and of Dan, Asher, and Naphtali on the north side (Numbers 2:25-30). Thus, the Mishkan and, by inference, the Presence of HaShem was protected by two sets of fences, the Levites and the rest of the tribes of Israel. The fences were not the Mishkan or the Presence of HaShem, and no one would mistake them as such.
While it is true that for followers of Yeshua, we can “draw near to the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace for help in time of need,” (Hebrews 4:16) we still need to come before him with clean hands and a pure heart (Psalms 24:3-4). We must not suppose we can enter his presence in an unseemly manner. In Galatians, Sha’ul lays this out rather plainly as he wrote,
But I say, walk by the Ruach, and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Ruach, but the Ruach sets its desire against the flesh—for these are in opposition to one another so that you cannot do what you want. But if you are led by the Ruach, you are not under the law. Now the deeds of the flesh are clear: sexual immorality, impurity, indecency, idolatry, witchcraft, hostility, strife, jealousy, rage, selfish ambition, dissension, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, just as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit God’s kingdom. But the fruit of the Ruach is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—against such things, there is no law. (Galatians 5:16-23)
In essence, the way we walk and what we surround ourselves with become the fences around each of us. They can either enable each of us to walk with our God (fruit of the Ruach) or separate us from the Father (fruit of the flesh). To be sure, walking in the Ruach is not an easy activity; it takes making a conscious choice to do so. Loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself is a choice that has to be made each and every day, often multiple times each day. As we approach the Sabbath, let’s look forward to being in his presence. Then as the new week begins, let’s commit within ourselves to “be careful in judgment; raise up many disciples; and make a fence for the (Living) Torah” by walking in the fruit of the Ruach.
Shabbat shalom u’mevorach!
1 The Koren Siddur, Introduction, Translation, and Commentary by Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, Koren Publishers Jerusalem, 2009, p 641.
2 All Scriptures are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.