When Yeshua was asked what the greatest commandment was, He answered,
“The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment.”
He is, of course, referring to the Sh’ma in Deu. 6, which continues:
And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
What does it mean to bind God’s words on our hands and as frontlets between our eyes? Today, many Orthodox Jews keep this command quite literally, wearing leather boxes known as phylacteries on their hands and foreheads which contain tiny scrolls with the Sh’ma written on them–indeed, this practice was common even in Yeshua’s day (cf. Mat. 23:5). However, the exact meaning of this idiom is explained in the Scripture. In Exo. 13, God commands Israel to keep the Pesach (Passover) every year, and to use it as an opportunity to tell their children what the Eternal One did for them in freeing them from their bondage in Egypt. He continues:
And it shall be for a sign unto thee upon thine hand, and for a memorial between thine eyes, that the LORD’s law may be in thy mouth: for with a strong hand hath the LORD brought thee out of Egypt.
So what does it mean? The command is to do symbolic acts (a sign upon your hand) and to look upon symbols (a memorial between your eyes) that would continually remind you both of what God has done for you and of His commands. Wearing phylacteries in prayer is certainly one way to do this, but the command is not limited to such an action.
In most Christian churches, we sadly tend towards one of two extremes: We either confuse the symbolic act, whether it be communion or baptism, with the spiritual reality that they represent and start judging people’s salvation on whether they’ve done said act in just the right way, or in the process of asserting (rightly) that salvation is by God’s grace received by trusting Him in Yeshua that we do away with all but the bare bones of, well, communion and baptism.
As a Messianic, I’m discovering the joys of living a symbolic life, not for salvation, but to keep my Father’s blessings and commands continually before me.
When we keep the Feastdays, we participate not only in the Exodus from Egypt, but in our Exodus from sin in the Messiah Yeshua. When we blow the shofar at Sabbath, we look forward to hearing the shofar of God which will herald the Second Coming of our Lord (1 Th. 4:16). When we fill the kiddush cup with wine to the point of overflowing for Havdalah (closing out the Sabbath), we remember the overflowing of God’s graces.
This has carried over to my personal life as well. When I tie on my tzitzit (the fringes with the blue thread commanded in Num. 15:38) in the morning, it’s preparing my self to walk in the way God has commanded me to. When I come home at night and take the time to set up and light the candles on my altar of prayer, fill my own kiddush cup, put on my talit, and bless each, it’s making me slow down from our insane 21st century pace, relax, and focus my mind on our Father, who He is, and all He’s blessed me with. When I build my life around God’s appointed times, it keeps His calendar, His dates, and His plan of salvation–not just for the individual, but for the whole world–ever in my mind.
It’s not about legalism, saying that if you don’t do things the way I do you’re not saved or not “as good a Christian.” But there’s a reason why God gave Israel so many little symbols and told them to build their lives around them. The things we do both reflect what is already in our heart and affect the direction that our heart goes. If we build our lives around the symbols of God, then our heart, soul, and might all love God together; if we build our lives around the symbols of the world, or no symbols at all, our might (action) and souls (psyche, spirit) wander astray of the new heart that God has given us.