“Do you drink, little lady?” the rabbi asks, eyeing me.
He pours a shot of Glenfiddich and pushes it toward me. “There you go.”
I pick up the glass and admire the dark amber nectar swirling around its crystal belly, sniff at its honeyed headiness. It goes down like smooth fire, and instantly stops a cough that’s been bothering me for almost 2 weeks.
Growing up in Malaysia, I’d never met a Jew until I migrated to a Western country. I read about them and studied their Scriptures, but knew very little of them as a people. And I’d never sat with so many of them at once (not that there were very many; there couldn’t have been more than a dozen people present that winter’s eve, gathered around the long dining table).
I was attending Friday night Torah study at an Orthodox rabbi’s home for the first time in my life. Z, a friend of ours, invited us. He lived in a city several hours away so we didn’t see him often, but we happened to be in the neighbourhood that day and he wanted us to come along.
It was a singular experience for me, to say the least. I’d been to many Christian small groups and become quite familiar with the kind of focus and dynamic they tend to possess. But this was markedly different.
The people in this group approached the Scriptures differently, and related to each other differently. And there was something about them… it’s hard for me to put my finger on what it was exactly, except to say that it was like I could sense destiny on them. That they were, in a real sense, marked out for God because the blood of Abraham ran in their veins.
Next to them, I felt callow and awkward, like the newly adopted child of an illustrious family who’s yet to learn the household rules and isn’t sure what to do with herself, or how to do it. I felt like I could almost belong… yet was so very far removed at the same time.
So I sat quietly, and listened as the elderly man who’d come all the way from Israel to shepherd the local congregation expounded on the chapter we were reading. His wife sat next to him, knitting a delicate woollen kippah. Pictures of their children and grandchildren dotted the spacious, comfortable home.
Rabbi D spoke about the fact that God often chose the younger instead of the older in many Biblical families. He explained that it teaches us an important lesson: it’s not what we’re born with that determines whether God favours us, but how we live our lives.
God constantly chose younger sons, he said, because He wanted us to know that He is the One who chooses, and He chooses based on what’s in our hearts, not our earthly status. It didn’t matter to God that the younger-born were not technically entitled to blessings like the firstborn – because He knew what they were going to be like as people, that they would strive to be righteous, God chose them. Jacob and Esau were an example of this.
Then he looked around the table, and began asking us Bible questions pertaining to what he said.
The room fell silent.
I glanced around, wondering if the group was worried about giving a wrong answer. But the expressions I saw indicated otherwise. The people didn’t look like they were thinking, but uncertain. They just didn’t seem to know what the answers were.
… I did, because I’d been following the Torah cycle for a couple years by then and I made it a point to remember certain things. But it wasn’t really appropriate for an interloper to speak up, was it? … Surely someone else would say something?
I waited. … Hesitated. Then gave a reply when no one else seemed to be forthcoming.
The rabbi looked at me with the slightest hint of surprise, and asked another question.
I answered it; he asked another.
I don’t remember what the questions were now… I only know that he asked several of them in quick succession, and they all had to do with what was written in the Bible, so they weren’t too difficult. I answered them all.
He stopped, and there was a little gleam of satisfaction in his eyes. Then he moved on with the study.
Afterwards, we sat around the table to fellowship. One of the men brandished a fine bottle of whiskey he brought, and the rabbi poured us a drink (which to me, was a delightful novelty… imagine doing that after a Christian Bible study! :p). He asked if I knew the things I did through self-study, or whether I’d attended a special school.
“Self-study,” I said. Then I allowed myself to wax ecstatic for just a moment, and intoned fervently, “I love the Scriptures.”
When it was time to go, the rabbi’s wife saw us to the door. She’d been quiet for most of the evening, but now she looked me full in the face and said with sincere warmth, “Good luck to you.”
We walked away into the brisk night air, and as the memory of her smile, beaming with what looked like approval, settled slowly into my thought processes, I started to realise that I might’ve stumbled into a Romans 11:11 moment.
Paul wrote that salvation came to the Gentiles to provoke the Jews to jealousy. And even though I was too self-conscious at the time to register how the other members of the study group might’ve been reacting to our being there, I did get the sense at the time that I was sitting in the presence of a people who were ancient, yet empty… vessels made for great glory, but who yet didn’t contain it as they should.
And before I go any further, I want to make it very clear: I’m not writing any of this as some kind of backhanded boast. Paul told believers not to boast or be haughty, but to fear (Romans 11:17-22). But I’m writing this because for a moment, I managed to look at the situation from outside of myself, and it made me wonder if the fact that an unlearned Gentile would profess love for the Hebrew Scriptures and take the trouble to know them, would’ve spurred any of the Jewish people present to want to know their own book better?
The rabbi and his wife were clearly pleased to see a non-Jew respond to the word of God the way I did… did their delight have anything to do with the fact that their own congregation hadn’t shown the same level of enthusiasm?
… I can’t say for sure. But that evening did bring home to me, very strongly and clearly, why it’s important for Gentile believers to learn and appreciate Moses. It’s a witness to God’s own people that He’s worshipped and valued among the nations, and that His word is precious, still, today. It’s a bridge between us and those individuals among His covenant people who do love the Torah and take it seriously – who, for far too long, have only known the name “Jesus” to be associated with anti-Semitic persecution and a disdainful apathy toward all things Old Testament. It’s proof of the fact that you can be Christian and possess reverent, abiding love for the word of God – all of it.
For the rest of that night, my chest was warm… not just from the fiery drink I’d sampled, but the little glow of gladness that’d been kindled in it.