Jewish tradition has some things to say about a mediator between God and mankind. A prize student of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Yaakov Joseph of Polnoy, described a mediator as a person who: …stands between heaven and earth. His relationship is twofold. On the one hand, he is the means by which heaven reaches the people. On the other hand, he is the means which the people reach heaven. He brings heaven to earth and raises earth to heaven.”1
This rabbi understood the poverty of Eastern European Jewry during the 1700s was more than merely physical. There was an economic destitution perpetuated by horrific and systematic oppression on the part of gentile governments and the gentile religious leaders. But Jews were also afflicted by spiritual bankruptcy. The fire from the altar that could kindle learning was missing. Unless someone could compassionately reach the people with a heavenly light, they could not improve the quality of life. No one seemed able to communicate the presence of God to lift people from their dreary lives. Torah study was not neglected, but neither was it was driven by “love and fear that it might rise heavenwards. Instead, the motivation for study,” according to Rabbi Joseph, “was for pride and vain glory.”2
To contrast this dismal picture, Rabbi Joseph declared that the Tzaddik or mediator is the one who opens the channel between heaven and earth because “he draws the Holy Spirit down over mankind.”3 Only the Tzaddik could open the heavens; he is the one who “reaches upward, touches the heavens, is transformed and turns to transform others.”4 A Tzaddik must share with others what he receives from heaven. If he fails to do so, he himself will lose it.
The Tzaddik not only brings heaven down to ordinary people, he also “acts as a means by which people rise upward toward heaven.”5 The person of God has the task of bringing people to God. According to tradition, the learned can acquire the world to come through the study of Torah and performing mitzvot, but the primary objective is “to acquire the rung of drawing close to me.”6 This drawing near and clinging to God is called devekut. “Hold fast to him”7 is interpreted by the rabbis as clinging to the learned. The Tzaddik is therefore the one who helps people to reach heaven—at least according to one Jewish tradition.
While some consider a belief in Yeshua (Jesus) as mediator between heaven and earth distinctly untraditional, how does Yeshua compare to the traditional understanding of the Jewish Tzaddik?
Jewish life in Yeshua’s day
By the time Yeshua became a public figure, there was no lack of religious leaders. Two great houses of Pharisees existed side by side. The house of Shammai was known for strict observance of the Torah and careful protection of the Scripture. Shammai followers were legalistic in the strictest possible application of the Scriptures, at times showing contempt for the common people.8
The other, which was the house of Hillel, represented the more moderate Pharisees, such as Gamaliel and Nicodemus. These leaders were more gentle with people, but were often too preoccupied with their tasks to notice people’s needs.
The Sadducee rulers of the nation (who rivaled the Pharisees) were a separate society far above the average person, politically, economically and socially. They couldn’t involve themselves much with the common people.
Most Jews lived in poverty and labored under a despotic Roman tax system that cleverly used Jewish tax collectors. What hope did ordinary people have? There were great minds among the religious leaders, but who could be the Tzaddik to give himself unselfishly to common people? Who would bring them to God? Who would have the fire from heaven’s altar to set the Torah aflame in their hearts?
Yeshua Assesses the Desperate Need
Yeshua began his public ministry, going about the cities and villages, teaching in the synagogues. He assessed the local situations and took note that people had no one to care for them, especially not the religious leadership.
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless (thrown down), like sheep without a shepherd.”9 What could be more pitiful than lost, hungry sheep without a shepherd? They would be desolate without someone to lead them to food and water. Likewise, the common people needed a powerful person to listen to their cries, care for their needs, give them counsel and minister to their spiritual and physical well-being.
On another occasion, when Yeshua was in a solitary place, people discovered where he was and quickly crowded around him. Why would they seek him out, unless they saw in him not only a learned man who knew Torah, but also one who had the power to touch their hearts? When Yeshua saw their desperate physical needs, “he had compassion on them and healed their sick.”10
Yeshua Brought Heaven Down to the People
There are five major transcripts of Yeshua’s life that demonstrate how he met peoples’ needs. A common thread runs throughout his dealings with people: They instinctively sensed the fire of heaven and knew that he was different from other religious leaders.
His teachings: Yeshua spoke humbly to humble people. He had personal knowledge of his listeners’ sufferings. For example he described the desperate plight of a woman who, having ten coins, lost one. She would diligently sweep up the floor, looking for that one lost coin, because it might be the difference between whether her family would eat or not. It could very well be that Yeshua observed a neighbor frantically looking for a coin that was of little consequence to some, but was of tremendous value to her. Out of that lesson comes the spiritual lesson that when just one lost soul repents of his or her sins, he or she will be “found” by the Lord Almighty and will be the cause of much rejoicing in heaven.11 Yeshua touched people’s hearts with the lesson that they were valuable in the Almighty’s sight. He began by telling of a situation well known to the impoverished.
On one occasion, a teacher of the law came to Yeshua and announced: “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”12 That teacher was a perfect example of a learned man who, after hearing Yeshua speak, realized something was missing in his own heart. Hence his enthusiastic declaration that he would follow, no matter where Jesus might lead.
But Yeshua, realizing all the prestige with which he was held by the community, quietly explained the cost of such devotion. “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”13 Why did Yeshua respond in that way? The scribe needed the fire from heaven’s altar to help him realize that he must not serve for the sake of prestige or any earthly gain. Jesus was himself homeless but never powerless. He chose the humble way of life to reach humble people.
His Healing touch: The Tzaddik is also the man of God who can bring heaven to bear on physical needs. On more than one occasion Yeshua reached out to help a desperate father and mother struggling with a sick child. A father came to Yeshua, knelt before him, and with a trembling voice, asked for mercy for both himself as well as his family. His demonically distressed son was racked with seizures. At times he fell into the fire or water. The family had constant fear that their son would not survive. The constant dread of losing a child must have drained all joy from their lives. Yeshua, bringing heaven down to the sad hearts of these parents, rebuked the demon and the son was instantly healed.14
Yeshua frequently healed people who were afflicted and many knew that his touch brought heaven closer to their lives.
His gift of encouragement: Yeshua not only brought heaven down to so many despairing, lonely, heartsick people, he also was the means of encouraging people to live triumphantly in God’s light. Consider the scene in the temple courts where “the teachers of the law and the Pharisees” brought a woman caught in the act of adultery before Yeshua.15 Imagine the woman’s shame; perhaps she was brought to the court without the opportunity to clothe herself. Think of how much terror that filled her heart as she realized she was about to be stoned to death.
Consider also the hollowness of the hearts of those who were so bent on trying to catch Yeshua in some theological error that they were willing to use this woman’s shame if it would give them reason to accuse him of heresy. The occasion was not so much about the woman and her situation as it was a test to see if Yeshua would ignore the law of Moses concerning adultery.
Yeshua appeared to act in quite a strange manner as he stooped to write on the ground with his finger while the religious leaders kept badgering him for an answer. Yeshua’s silence must have heightened the tension.
Finally, he straightened himself up, and in a soft, somber tone said, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”16 The atmosphere became charged as the fire from heaven’s altar redirected God’s Word in a way the leaders would never have conceived. The Spirit of God not only brought conviction to those men, but showed them that there were other ways of carrying out the teaching of the Torah apart from a legalistic and lifeless application.
Of course, none could qualify to cast the first stone, and so they left. The woman who had been left ashamed, lonely and empty might not have even raised her head to watch everyone leave. Then Yeshua asked her if anyone was left to condemn her. With her head still bowed, she replied none were present, and with that answer, this Tzaddik told her he did not condemn her either. Instead, he told her to leave behind her life of sin. Yeshua neither condoned sin, nor did he compromise the Mosaic covenant. He demonstrated to the religious leaders as well as the adulterous woman that deeper levels of heaven’s love and compassion existed.
His attitude toward women: Jesus differed from many religious leaders of his day in the respect that he showed for women. The Torah depicted the woman’s position in the family and society on a much higher level than what was the norm in parallel cultures in the Middle East. Jesus raised the standard even higher. He treated women with the same consideration he accorded men.
For example, there was the woman who was healed when she touched the edge of Yeshua’s cloak. He singled her out and spoke to the crowd about her because her faith in him was exemplary. Yeshua honored Martha and Mary with a close friendship and allowed himself to be anointed with perfume by a woman who then used her hair to wipe his feet.
But the one woman Yeshua particularly honored was the widow he observed at the Temple treasury, who put in “everything all she had to live on.”17 Yeshua had seen the rich who gave much more out of their wealth, but recognized that the widow had given far more, for she had given her all. He found no fault with the offerings of the rich, but it became a matter of public record to this day that the impoverished widow had been touched with heaven’s fire and knew what it was to give out of a pure heart.
His exhortations: Yeshua preached musar, that is “correction,” or “admonition.” When applied to preaching or teaching, the idea of musar is to “preach in a strong manner.”18 With the learned who have the advantage of knowing Torah, the preaching will be sharp, while for downtrodden people, the reproof will be mild. And yet, in either case, people must listen when such words come from lips that bring heaven’s fire to light their hearts. According to Rabbi Yaakov Joseph, musar was to be an appeal to remind people to return to the King’s table from which they had strayed.”19
Long before there was a Rabbi Joseph, many, including Yeshua preached musar to their people.
A memorable example was when Yeshua entered the temple on the occasion of his followers’ announcement of the Messiah, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Hosanna in the highest!”20 But as soon as Yeshua entered the temple, he was appalled by hawkers irreverently advertising the sale of animals, and hustling to get people’s attention to change money. The services they were offering were intended to help worshippers prepare for their worship experience, yet the din they created in the process made it difficult for a person to enter in the proper frame of mind and heart for worship.
Yeshua took very seriously the announcement that he was the Messiah. His response to the unwarranted noise in the temple was immediate. He drove out the animals, overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the benches of those selling doves. Then in an authoritative voice of musar, he cried out, “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.”21 His challenge was directed to the Temple authorities who permitted such activities. Did money made from such concessions take precedence over preparing peoples hearts for worship?
Yeshua could and did preach musar with a heart aflame for the needs of his hearers so that they, too, would taste of heaven’s fire. Note that the Temple authorities did not rebuke Yeshua for his words that day. Evidently, they acknowledged that musar was necessary on this occasion.
Yeshua Also Brought People to Heaven
Not only can the Tzaddik, through devekut, enable people to cling to the LORD by allowing them to cling to himself but in joining themselves to him, they are also raised with him to heaven! Even those who are wicked, filled with doubt, and fearful—if they continue to cling to the Tzaddik—can be delivered from their sin and raised to heaven.
That was the purpose for which Yeshua came. He did not come merely to be an example, but to be the actual means by which people could come to the Creator. Nor did he come merely for the good and respectable people. When learned men accused Yeshua of eating with tax collectors and sinners, he replied with anguish of heart, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”22 Was a Tzaddik to turn his back on the very ones who needed help? God forbid.
The worst offenders can be changed, and Yeshua the Tzaddik came to effect that change and bring such people to heaven. On one occasion, as he passed through Jericho, a tax collector named Zaccheus was so desperate to see Jesus that he climbed a tree to have a better view of the person to whom the crowds clung. As Yeshua passed by, he stopped right under the tree where Zaccheus was hidden. He looked up, and commanded: “Zaccheus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”23 Why did he do it? Did he see the heart of one who was sick of the reproachful business with which he was engaged, one who dearly wanted peace of heart?
Zaccheus obeyed immediately. In response to the generous acceptance of the Tzaddik, he declared his intention to give half of his possessions to the poor and pay back fourfold to anyone he had cheated.
Yeshua the Tzaddik then made his pronouncement: Salvation had indeed come to this house when Zaccheus lived up to his name, (Zaki, or pure), and he, too, was a son of Abraham. Any who respond to heaven’s fire, no matter how great a sinner he or she might be, can also be lifted to heaven because Yeshua declared: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”24
One of the major qualities of the Tzaddik is humility. If one is to lift that which is low, one must first bend down. Yeshua’s humility stood in stark contrast to the pride of the religious leaders of his day. And so, when the disciples of Yeshua began bickering among themselves over who was the greatest, he declared that “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.”25
With this pronouncement on being a servant-leader, we see the greatest wonder of this Tzaddik, Yeshua. He planned to lift people to heaven—by becoming their ransom. This is a concept not found in the oral tradition of Judaism. For Yeshua to give himself as the price paid for the release of people from bondage to sin and death is a proclamation which Scripture alone teaches. And it was a task that no other Tzaddik could perform.
Yeshua is Much More Than a Tzaddik
Yeshua, in his humanity is the Tzaddik described in Scripture as well as in the tradition. He is a pious humble person who does not think of himself but is willing to reach down and lift up people and give them heaven’s fire. Jesus was a righteous mediator who was able to lift ordinary people from their emptiness and poverty; as well as give those who were learned new insight on what the Scripture say about righteousness. And still Yeshua is more.
He is life. While the Tzaddik is the only one who brings the light of God to needy people, Yeshua, the Messiah-Tzaddik had the power to bring new life and lead his people into eternal life. He could banish the darkness that causes men to stumble, sin and serve self.
“In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”26 Yeshua was not only the means to bring heaven’s fire down to people; he is the one who could say: “I am come that they may have life, and have it to the full”27 because he is life. Any person that becomes a follower of the Messiah knows his promise: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.”28
No wonder the early messianic Jews knew their Messiah-Tzaddik as he declared it of himself, literally, so as to emphasize the personal pronouns: “I am the Way, I am the Truth, I am the life.”29 Finally, when considering his death, we have the startling pronouncement: “I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”30
Yeshua, our Ransom?
Yeshua declared that he came “to give his life as a ransom for many.”31 Ransom means the price paid to redeem a slave. We are all slaves because we are bound by our sins and the sins of others who keep us in this condition. The idea of a person giving himself as a ransom is not found in the oral traditions of Judaism; it is a concept which Scripture alone teaches. Furthermore, when the passage says he gave his life as a ransom for many, the preposition, “for,” suggests “in place of,”—a substitutionary death on behalf of the many. Yeshua experienced in himself what the prophet Isaiah had declared: “The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”32 When Yeshua as the Messiah-Tzaddik paid that price, he became the one who came from heaven to lead the ransomed to heaven!
This means that Jesus not only claims to have mediated between heaven and earth, but in him, heaven was brought to earth, and in him, we can be transformed.
Some might feel that the concept of the Tzaddik is a good idea whose time has come. Others have never considered a Messiah-Tzaddik who can touch hearts, give hope, bring peace and change life forever. Why not examine what the Torah and New Covenant have to say about Yeshua as Tzaddik—and more?
- Samuel H. Dresner, The Tzaddik, The Doctrine of the Tzaddik According to the Writings of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoy (New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1960, p. 124
- Op. Cit., p. 29
- Op. Cit., p. 127
- Op. Cit., p. 128
- Deuteronomy 10:20
- John 7:49
- Matthew 9:36
- Matthew 14:14
- Luke 15:8-10
- Matthew 8:19
- Matthew 8:20
- Matthew 17:14-18
- John 8:2-3
- John 8:7
- Mark 12:44
- Op. Cit., p. 222
- Op. Cit., p. 227
- Matthew 21:9-12
- Matthew 21:12, 13
- Matthew 9:13
- Luke 19:5
- Luke 19:10
- Mark 10:43-45
- John 1:4-5
- John 10:10
- John 10:28
- John 14:6
- John 10:17-18
- Mark 10:45
- Isaiah 53:6