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Yael Eckstein, IFCJ President and CEO, oversees all ministry programs and serves as the international spokesperson for the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
Prior to her present duties, Yael served as Global Executive Vice President, Senior Vice President, and Director of Program Development and Ministry Outreach.
Born in Evanston, Illinois, outside of Chicago, and well-educated at both American and Israeli institutions — including biblical studies at Torat Chesed Seminary in Israel, Jewish and sociology studies at Queens College in New York, and additional study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem — Yael Eckstein has also been a Hebrew and Jewish Studies teacher in the United States. Based in Israel with her husband and their four children, Yael Eckstein is a published writer and a respected social services professional.
As a writer, Yael Eckstein has contributed to The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, and other publications, and is the author of three books: Generation to Generation: Passing on a Legacy of Faith to Our Children, Holy Land Reflections: A Collection of Inspirational Insights from Israel, and Spiritual Cooking with Yael. In addition, her insights into life in Israel, the Jewish faith, and Jewish-Christian relations can be heard on The Fellowship’s radio program, Holy Land Moments, which air five times per week on over 1,500 radio stations around the world.
Yael Eckstein has also partnered with other global organizations, appeared on national television, and visited with U.S. and world leaders on issues of shared concern. She has been a featured guest on CBN’s The 700 Club with Gordon Robertson, and she served on a Religious Liberty Panel on Capitol Hill in May 2015 in Washington, D.C., discussing religious persecution in the Middle East. Her influence as one of the young leaders in Israel has been recognized with her inclusion in The Jerusalem Post’s 50 Most Influential Jews of 2020 and The Algemeiner’s Jewish 100 of 2019, and she was featured as the cover story of Nashim (Women) magazine in May 2015.
In this interview, Yael Eckstein from IFCJ reviews the power of service and going against the crowd.
Each week we explore the Jewish roots of your Christian faith and nourish those roots with inspirational insights and ancient teachings that are so relevant to our lives today.
We explore verses in the Bible and I share some Jewish teachings that have transformed my life and brought me to where I am today.
For example, as human beings, we can’t help but be affected by the way other people think of us. It’s natural to want to please other people and win their approval. But that can create a lot of pressure and confusion in our lives. So today, we’re going to talk about how we can shed the need to impress people and shift our focus to pleasing God so that we can be free to live our best and most authentic lives.
There is a parsha (weekly Torah portion read by the Jewish people) we read in August or September called Re’eh, which means to see, and it covers Deuteronomy 11:26 through 16:17. In the parsha, Moses continues to prepare the nation of Israel for their amazing grand entrance into the Promised Land. At the start of the reading, he tells them that they have the ability to choose blessings or curses — blessings if they obey God’s commands, and curses if they choose to disregard them.
The Scripture that I want to focus on today is Deuteronomy 12:28. It reads:
“Be careful to obey all the regulations that I’m giving you, so that it may always go well with you and your children after you, because you will be doing what is good and right in the eyes of the LORD, your God.”
In this verse, Moses tells the children of Israel that if they obey God’s commands, life will be good for them because they will be doing what is right in God’s eyes.
But when we translate the verse literally from the original Hebrew, we learn that the last part of the verse isn’t just an elaboration of the first part, but a separate idea altogether. In the literal translation, the word “because” doesn’t appear in the verse. So instead of reading the phrase as, “Because you will be doing what is good and right in the eyes of the Lord, your God,” the phrase stands completely on its own and it reads like this, “Do what is good and right in the eyes of the Lord, your God.”
This is a small difference, but a world of difference in messaging and what we can get out of it. The rabbis explained that this verse contains two directives. The first is to obey God and keep His commands, knowing that it will be good for us. The second is to obey God and do what is right in His eyes, even when it conflicts with how other people might see us.
So you are reading this phrase in a whole new way, directing people to put their service to God ahead of their need for acceptance by their peers?
It is one thing to obey God when everyone else around us is doing the same, but it is something entirely different when we are required to obey God when everyone around us is doing something different. It’s human nature to want to find favor in the eyes of other people. But as people of faith, we are called to find favor in the eyes of God, and His eyes alone.
Whenever we act out of a desire to please others, even when we’re doing what God wants, we aren’t really serving Him. We’re serving the person or people that we’re trying to impress. It’s nice to be recognized for our good deeds, to receive compliments and awards for our generosity. But if getting praise from others becomes the main reason why we do those admirable things in the first place, our actions are not as great as they would be otherwise. The only one we should ever be concerned with impressing is the one God.
Trying to please others can diminish our service to God, but can it actually cause us to disobey God?
Yes. Everyone wants to fit in. But sometimes we are faced with the choice between doing what is popular and doing what is right. And it’s not always easy to make the right decision.
Going against the crowd is hard for everyone. Sometimes what the Bible says and what society tells us to do are not aligned. They’re not the same thing. But as people of faith, we are obligated to choose God’s Word over popular opinion every single time.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the term “kosher.” It’s a Hebrew word that is usually used to describe food that Jews are permitted to eat based on the criteria of the Bible. But kosher can also mean physically fit or proper or appropriate. Kosher is not just a label for food. It’s also a term that certifies the quality of a person.
When it comes to kosher fish, one of the requirements is that the fish must have fins, which allows it to swim upstream against the current. In the same way, the rabbis taught that when it comes to kosher people — people that are strong and proper servants of God — we must have the ability, just like the kosher fish, to go against the flow. We must be able to go against the crowd and do what God wants us to do, even when it leads us in the exact opposite direction that everyone else is headed in.
It’s at the root of both the Christian and the Jewish faiths. It can be traced back to Abraham, the father of our faith. Abraham was the first person to be called a Hebrew. In Genesis 14:13 he was referred to as “Abraham Ha’ivri,” or “Abraham, the Hebrew.” The term “Ha’ivri” literally means “he who stands on the other side.” According to Jewish tradition, Abraham earned this name of being a Hebrew because he stood apart from everyone else in the entire world at that time. While the culture around him believed in paganism and idolatry, Abraham believed in one God. That was something new for those times that had never happened before.
And what did Abraham preach about? Also something new — love, morality, kindness. It was a radically different outlook… and was extremely unpopular. Can you imagine how people must have been looking at him? That he was stupid, that he was different, that he wasn’t enlightened, that he wasn’t open to the blessings that they were getting from these idols. But you know what? Abraham wasn’t concerned about what anyone thought of him. He continued preaching about one God, about love, about justice, about morality. And you know why? Because his only concern was doing what was right in the eyes of God.
And because Abraham was willing to go against the crowd and to stand up for what he believed in, he was able to change the whole course of the world. As Christians and Jews, we are heirs to Abraham’s faith. Like Abraham, we need to have the ability and willingness to be a Hebrew, an Ha’ivri — to stand on the other side, to stand with God, even if we stand alone.
You may wonder if you’d really be able to stand up against the popular opinion like Abraham did. But here’s the secret. When you make God your only source of approval, you free yourself from needing the approval of anyone else. It may seem difficult to withstand the pressure of other people, but do you know what’s even harder? Living life according to other people’s opinions instead of your own.
What advice has helped you to live your life in service to God, and not based on what someone else wanted for you?
When I was 23 years old, I joined my father and The Fellowship to meet a group of Christian tourists in Israel. I went to the dinner and they were singing and they were worshiping and they were reflecting on their first trip to Israel. It was so inspiring to me, just to watch this amazing group of faithful individuals stepping foot on the Holy Land for the first time.
I told my father how awesome it was to be there with him and to see this. And he suggested that instead of him addressing the group, that I should get up there and speak to this group of Christian friends in Israel.
As I agonized over the speech that I was supposed to deliver in just a few minutes, I was sitting next to my husband. I turned to him and told him how I was feeling. I told him that I was so nervous to get up in just a few minutes to address this crowd. I told him how insecure I felt and how at the same time I really wanted to do it. I wanted to impress my father. I wanted to make my father proud. I wanted to tell this group of people how I was feeling. And I wanted, of course, to do well at public speaking. I felt called to speak to this Christian audience, but I wasn’t confident in my ability to do it.
My husband — in his wisdom, and in his relaxed, amazing, loving way — calmed me down. He put his hand on my shoulder, and reminded me of the words in today’s Bible verse. He said to me, “Yael, you’re thinking too much about what everyone else is going to think. Instead, focus on one thing. Speak as if you only care about God‘s opinion. Make God proud. And as long as you do your best, you will be doing what is right in God‘s eyes. And that’s all that matters.”
I looked at him like I had just heard prophecy from the mouth of Moses because it made so much sense. He continued talking to me: “If your measurement of success is how you look in the eyes of people, you’ll never feel like you did a good enough job. You’ll get up there and you‘ll give an amazing talk and everyone will be standing up and clapping for you and saying how wonderful you did. But if one person sitting in the corner wasn’t clapping, wasn’t impressed, if all you’re doing is trying to impress man, then you will leave that speech feeling like a failure.
“But,” he said, “if you get up there and you only care about how you appear in God’s eyes, then whether everyone claps or no one claps at all won’t affect you. You‘ll feel fulfilled. You’ll feel happy because you’ll know what you did was holy and right in God’s eyes. And that is all that matters.”
It’s easy for me to put myself out there and do things that make me uncomfortable when it’s for God’s honor and not my own. Fast forward almost 20 years, and today, as the President of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which is the largest philanthropic organization in all of Israel, I’m in a very public position and I can easily be scrutinized and criticized. I address some very sensitive topics like Israel, Israel’s security, and bridge-building. My passion is in uniting Jews and Christians on shared values and communication and respect. Unfortunately, that could be a controversial topic. But I have to speak my truth because I need to do what’s right in God’s eyes.
I know that I need to say what God wants me to say. I need to be his vessel.
When I consider what I will or will not say on a radio interview, on a television interview, or on social media, I no longer ask myself, “What will people think of me?” Instead, I now ask myself, “What will God think of me? How can I make God proud?”
I no longer ask, “Will people like my message?” Instead I ask, “What message does God want me to give?” I ask myself, “Will this message bring more unity or more separation? Will it bring more love or more hate? Will it bring more glory to God’s name and people of faith?”
What I want — and what I believe God wants — is to bring more unity, to bring more love, to bring more glory to His name and to people of faith. And then I know what I’m saying and doing is right.
Sometimes I’m not so sure how people will react to what I say, but I believe if God wants me to say something, I say it anyway, and I let the chips fall where they may. And here’s the thing — and it’s an amazing, miraculous thing — the more I am in-line with God, the less I am criticized. You would think the opposite. But no… when I do what I believe is holy and right, I don’t get criticized. When the world recognizes that you aren’t trying to please people — but rather are trying to please God — they’re less likely to attack you because they realize consciously or subconsciously that they don’t have any power over you.
It’s been said that he who fears one fears none, but he who fears many fears any. Someone who is afraid of man can be intimidated by anyone. But when we fear only God, no man can ever make us afraid.
There is a tremendous power and freedom in making God’s opinion the only opinion that matters. If we live to please people, we might hold ourselves back from being our best and most authentic selves. And if we live to please others, we will never be successful. Because it’s not possible to please everyone. But if we aim to please God, He will lead us to the boldest, bravest, and best version of ourselves. We will become everything that He created us to be. And as long as we do our best and have the right intentions, God will always be very pleased with us.
It doesn’t mean that we can’t mess up. We have to check ourselves and make sure that indeed what we’re doing is for God. But there’s always a way to return. There’s always a way to go back to God, to turn our hearts to Him, and to take the action that follows Him. Life is too short to waste it trying to please others. But a life that is right and good in the eyes of the Lord, our God, will bring us everlasting glory.
Proverbs 16:7 says, “When the LORD takes pleasure in anyone’s way, he causes their enemies to make peace with them.” When we live to please God, we won’t have to worry about pleasing anyone else.
This week, take some time to think about where you might be trying to please people and how you might become more aligned with what God wants from you. Ask yourself, “What might I do if other people’s opinions really didn’t matter to me? Are there things I might say that I hold myself back from saying now? Would my priorities be different? Or would I spend my time differently if I had no need to impress others?” And ask yourself, “What would God have me do today? How can I please Him?”
Because you know what, my friends? He does care.