For Our Children’s Sake

For the week of July 2, 2016 / 26 Sivan 5776

Photo collage of children

Shela Lekha
Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24

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And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness. (Bemidbar/Numbers 14:33)

There are few values in many societies today greater than that of autonomy. In Western-style cultures, self has become the chief determinant of all things: What’s in it for me? What do I get out of it? How does it make me feel? are the biggest questions many of us ask. Self-expression and self-actualization are the highest goods. Community and the common good have become incidental amidst the priority of self. It is no wonder, therefore, that laws that seek to limit self’s supremacy are viewed as oppressive.

The problem with the obsession with self should be obvious. Human beings do not exist as independent agents. No one is absolutely self-sufficient. No one brought themselves into the world, no one sustains themselves through infancy or any other stage of development for that matter. We are communal beings. It should strike us as strange how we have so elevated self, while at the same time continuing to find ourselves so very much connected to others. We cannot escape the fact that we are relational beings. Yet that doesn’t stop people from relating to others on the basis of a selfishness never seen before.

No one suffers more from the pursuit of self than our children. This week’s Parsha tells us how the people of Israel’s lack of trust in God to enter the Promised Land two years after God’s miraculous rescue from Egypt didn’t only prevent them from obtaining it. Their self-focused fear resulted in their children having to wander in the wilderness for an additional thirty-eight years.

We don’t need the Bible to know the perils of selfishness. Experience tells us again and again that self-seeking people cause extensive damage to others, not to mention themselves. But this doesn’t seem to stop us from going deeper and deeper into the delusional rabbit hole of self.

When parents fail, the kids suffer. Don’t like that? Too bad. It’s the way life works. You can try to blame others as much as you like, but the fact is how you live affects others, especially your children. I am not saying that parents are the only factor with regard to the welfare of children, but it should be obvious that we play the biggest role with regard to their welfare.

There is another unhelpful extreme that puts so much focus on our children that they are exalted to the position of gods and goddesses. But this is actually another form of self-focus. Not only is this approach often the result of personal pride and doesn’t have the best interest of the child at all, it is teaching them to be the kind of selfish brats that will continue to perpetuate the problem.

At first glance, the story of Israel’s unbelief in this account doesn’t appear to be about self and selfishness. But think about it. God had called them to do something very difficult. The scouts who checked out the Land were all in agreement that they were going to have to face some pretty difficult situations. The difference between the ten who were freaked out and the two who remained confident was where their focus was. Those who were focused on self couldn’t grasp what was best for the community, resulting in even greater difficulty for their children. Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, were focused on God. While they, too, had to endure the additional hardship because of the majority’s misguided focus, they were the only ones who were able to enter the Land along with their children.

We can put an end to the ongoing fragmentation of our families and our culture by turning our sights away from self and onto God. If you are interested in how to do that, let me know. For our children’s sake.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Timing Is Everything…Almost

For the week of June 25, 2016 / 19 Sivan 5776

Analog stopwatch with green check on white background

Be-Ha’alotkha
Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English: 2:10 – 4:7)

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And whenever the cloud lifted from over the tent, after that the people of Israel set out, and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the people of Israel camped. At the command of the LORD the people of Israel set out, and at the command of the LORD they camped. As long as the cloud rested over the tabernacle, they remained in camp. (Bemidbar/Numbers 9:17-18)

One of the most unhelpful pieces of advice that otherwise spiritually minded people regularly give is “Don’t pray for patience; God might give it to you!” This fear-based misguidance is based on two very wrong notions. First, prayer isn’t a magical incantation. It’s not as if saying particular words will result in the forces of the universe (whether God or anything else) responding accordingly. Second, prayer is a request to a sovereign free agent. And thankfully this sovereign also loves us and always has our best interest in mind. So if he so chooses to answer such a prayer, it’s only because it is both his will and for our good. Therefore, to caution someone against praying such a prayer is an attempt to keep us from acquiring one of life’s most essential qualities. How many things have gone wrong in the history of the world (including your life and mine) due to lack of patience? Good intentions, pure motives, and noble goals can never make up for a bad sense of timing.

There are two ways we tend to use the term “patience” in the English language. One has to do with enduring hardship. The older term for this is “long-suffering.” It’s having the fortitude to not give into discouragement when going through painful periods of life. The second is the way I am using the word here. It’s the quality of not reacting too quickly to life’s circumstances, whether it be a painful situation or not. This kind of patience is often required when we perceive there are great opportunities before us – and indeed, there may be – but instead of waiting for the right time to act, we undermine the opportunity by not being patient.

Learning to wait for God’s timing was a key component to the training God instituted for Israel in the wilderness years. He reserved the right to dictate to them when to break camp and move to the next location. It could take a day or years. In between there was no indication at all when that might be. If the cloud remained over the tent of meeting, they stayed put. If it moved, they moved. Pretty straightforward. Hard to do.

Timing is everything…almost. I say “almost,” because effective godly living is not only about timing. Learning to walk in God’s ways requires first and foremost trust in God, particularly as expressed as loyalty to his Son, the Messiah. We also need to grow in the knowledge of his will in every area of life. But unless we learn patience, we will continually find ourselves doing the right thing, but at the wrong time.

Learning God’s timing also frees us from a great deal of anxiety. We often find ourselves in situations that require change of some kind. Being aware of the need for change is important, but expecting immediate resolution can cause all sorts of unnecessary grief. God’s solutions may occur suddenly, but often his strategy for change requires a long process over time. Being aware of that synchs us to his timeclock and allows us to keep in step with him instead of fretting.

Learning God’s sense of timing can be challenging. Our tendency to react in the moment instead of patiently waiting for the right time to respond can be a very difficult lesson to learn. I don’t imagine it was easy for the Israelites to wait for the cloud to move, or to pick up and go when they hardly had time to settle. But once we understand how utterly crucial this kind of patience really is, how could we not earnestly ask him for it?

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Connections

For the week of June 18, 2016 / 12 Sivan 5776

Network connections

Naso
Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 13:2-25 

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So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them. (Bemidbar/Numbers 6:27)

It’s been relatively recently that I have noticed how much I value connection. Few things move me more than to discover that something really good happened due to the outcome of complex relationships over time. When one of our daughters was in ballet training in Mississippi (far away from where we live in Ottawa, Canada) she was rooming with another young lady who was the daughter of one our daughter’s first dance teachers in the Vancouver area more than ten years earlier. Now that same daughter is co-owner of a dance studio here along with a person whom we know because she worked with another daughter of ours in a dancewear store in Calgary (also far from here). Every time I tell stories like these I get choked up, all the while invisibly scratching my head, wondering what it is that affects me so. My conclusion: meaningful connections.

God designed us for connection. Every human being shares the same parentage, beginning with Adam and Eve and then again through Noah and his wife. That means we are all related, though distantly. But that distance doesn’t undermine the sense of connection when it surfaces as illustrated through this video about the effects of a DNA study upon its participants.

Moreover, the having of children is not simply the product of sex, but the purposeful outcome of the institution of marriage as established by God in the Garden of Eden. From the very beginning, children were to be nurtured within a household led by one man and one woman bound together permanently under God. Later we learn that holistic education of children was to be under the direction of parents (see Devarim/Deuteronomy 6:7; 11:19). This deepens the natural connection between parent and child.

The interconnection within and between families is by design. Lack of connection is a result of human rebellion against God beginning with our first parents and demonstrates itself through envy, bitterness, and violence. The alienation we experience from one another at so many levels is counter to God’s original plan for the global family and is only truly restored through faith in the Messiah Yeshua. To see God’s hand of blessing through unusual connections is a taste of what should have always been and will one day be again. Perhaps that’s why it makes me cry.

Last week, I attempted to explain how the census under Moses was an exercise in connection. God appointed certain people to reach out to the community in preparation for the next stage of its development. Knowing God is not only about individuals connecting directly to him. Rather he prefers to make himself known through one person to another.

This is also what the special blessing in our parsha (weekly Torah portion) is all about. What God commanded Aaron and his sons to speak over the people of Israel wasn’t magic. The words of blessing on their own didn’t cause good things to materialize out of nowhere, they were connecting people with the goodness of God which he desired for them. The intermediating function of the cohanim (English: priests) illustrates God’s design for all humankind in that the potential for life (which is what blessing is) originates in God, but is to be manifested through fellow human beings to each other.

To live in isolation from others is to cut ourselves off from the blessings of God. This is not to say that all human connection is beneficial. Some connections we are better off without. But let us not allow the effects of sin to unnecessarily cut us off from those connections we so desperately need (or those who need us!).

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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You Count!

For the week of June 11, 2016 / 5 Sivan 5776

Illustration of globe superimposed on generic, colorful, human forms

Bemidbar
Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
Haftarah: Hosea 2:1-22 (English: 1:10 – 20) 

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Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by clans, by fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, head by head. (Bemidbar/Numbers 1:2)

The fourth book of Moses starts with a lot of counting. The English title, Numbers, reflects this, while the Hebrew title, “Bemidbar” (In the Wilderness), emphasizes Israel’s experiences from the time they left Mount Sinai through just before their entry into the Promised Land.

Sections of the Bible such as the early part of Bemidbar tend to bog readers down with what appears to be endless lists of names. But perhaps you feel like one of those names. As one of the seven billion people on the planet, do you ever wonder if you really count? There might be something here in our Torah reading that says you do.

God told Moses to take a census (or more literally a head count) of all the males twenty years and over of all the tribes of Israel except for the tribe of Levi. They are counted later on. But Moses was not to do this job alone. God appointed several men by name from each tribe to assist him. Get that? God appointed these men by name. God communicated the exact identity of each assistant to Moses. There is nothing in the text to signify that this is a metaphor. It was not as if each tribe voted on their census leaders and then submitted the list to Moses who validated them by using highfalutin spiritual language. It was not as if God called them out by name. He really did. Could you imagine being called out like that? By name?

It gets more interesting. Once the census team was appointed, they set out counting heads. But that’s not as straightforward as it first might seem. “One, two,… How old are you? You don’t look twenty years old. Really, you are? OK…three, four” and so on. It might have even been more complicated than that, since in addition to the age qualification they had to be “able to go to war” (e.g. Bemidbar/Numbers 1:3). It’s possible that simply being of age wasn’t sufficient, thus creating the need for a more thorough interview. The numbers of the qualified men were then submitted to Moses and recorded.

What makes this interesting is that if God was able to specifically name the assistants, wouldn’t he also be able to provide detailed census information? Assuming he could, obviously he didn’t. That had to be done manually, so to speak. But why? The most basic reason, of course, is because God said so. On one level that should be good enough. But that shouldn’t stop us from giving it some thought.

The Bible clearly teaches that God knows everyone. Yeshua said that he even knows the hairs of our heads (See Matthew 10:30). That statement is supposed to assure us of our Heavenly Father’s intimate love and care. For some of you, that’s not enough. Being told God loves everyone is too general, too unspecific. When we think in terms of everyone, we don’t think of being personally included but rather that we are nothing more than part of a big blur of unnamed humanity. God loves everybody, but does he really love me?

There’s something about the administration of the census that bridges this gap. Instead of God announcing the exact population figures himself, which he could have done, he sent out people to take note of everyone. You might say that not everyone was counted because they weren’t qualified for military service, but the only way to know that is to take notice of each and every person.

The counting of heads, initiated by God, but performed by people, brought God’s knowledge of the people to the individuals themselves. But isn’t this how the intimacy of God usually works? While God does from time to time interact with us directly, he most often reaches out to us through others. It’s possible that our sense of being distant from God comes from not allowing ourselves to get close enough to those through whom he wishes to make himself known to us.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Covenantal Foundations

For the week of June 4, 2016 / 27 Iyar 5776

Tablets of the Ten Commandments (roman numerals only) on a stone floor

Be-Hukkotai
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34
Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19 – 17:14

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But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, so that I walked contrary to them and brought them into the land of their enemies—if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land. (Vayikra/Leviticus 26:40-42)

Here in the last weekly portion of the third book of Moses, we read of the conditions under which God would restore the people of Israel to a right relationship with himself and return them to their land. The covenantal reference in the quoted verses above is key in understanding God’s unique arrangement with Israel.

This week’s portion describes the blessings of obedience and the consequences of disobedience under the covenant arrangement established through Moses by God at Mt. Sinai. As long as Israel would adhere to God’s commands, they as a nation would thrive. But should they reject God’s ways, breaking this covenant, they would experience terrible circumstances, culminating in oppression by their enemies and removal from their land.

Should this occur, which indeed it did, God made provision within the Sinai covenant for restoration to himself and to the land. But note that this provision is not based on the Sinai covenant, but on the earlier one made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Israel’s existence as a people, its habitation, and its role among the nations of the world were established, not by Sinai through Moses, but through God’s unconditional promise to Abraham (see Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-3) and passed down to Isaac and Jacob. The Sinai covenant with its conditions of blessings came about as a result of God’s deliverance of Israel from their oppression in Egypt, a deliverance also rooted in his earlier covenant with the patriarchs. This is what we read in Shemot (the Book of Exodus):

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. (Shemot/Exodus 2:23-24)

The earlier covenant is the driving force behind all God’s dealings with Israel. So that even if Sinai resulted in failure, which it did, the covenantal foundation would survive. That’s why God’s judgement upon Israel could never be his final word to them. Even after rejecting God by turning to other gods and suffering the threatened consequences, there would always remain a right of appeal to unconditional promises that predate Moses.

This is also why a new covenant would one day be necessary. Jeremiah in chapter 31 of his book looked beyond the day when these words of judgement would be fulfilled to a new covenantal arrangement that would finally resolve the sin problem that continually beset Israel under the Sinai arrangement (see Jeremiah 31:31-33). That God’s affirmation of his ongoing faithfulness to Israel is based on their being the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is stated a couple of chapters later (Jeremiah 33:23-26).

The establishment of the New Covenant on the foundation of the patriarchs provides hope for Israel’s full eventual restoration (see Romans 11:28). More than that! Knowing that the New Covenant is rooted in unconditional promises assures all its participants, whether Jew or Gentile, of God’s ongoing faithfulness to them.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Jubilee

For the week of May 28, 2016 / 20 Iyar 5776

Text: Jubilee

Be-Har
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2
Haftarah: Jeremiah 32:6-27
Originally post for the week of May 20, 2000 / 15 Iyyar 5760;
Revised version as appearing in the book “Torah Light”

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And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan. (Vayikra/Leviticus 25:10)

I love the way the Torah confronts conventional thinking. Far from being irrelevant or outdated, the Bible addresses many of the same issues we face in our own day. Yet how it deals with these issues is so very different from the dictates of popular thinking.

This week’s Torah portion is a great example of this. God commanded that every fifty years was to be a Jubilee year. At that time, everyone among the people of Israel was to return to his ancestral property. If anyone had sold their land to someone else or lost it due to debt, they would get it back. God says, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Vayikra/Leviticus 25:23).

What a different way of looking at property! First, in ancient Israeli society, no one actually owned land; it belonged to God, who allotted portions of the Land to the various tribal groups and specific clans. Because it was his to give, the tribal inheritances could not be lost permanently. As the people went about their daily business, they could lose their land temporarily. After every fifty years, however, the land would revert to the original owners.

In God’s economy, the highs and lows of economic fortune are balanced by the Jubilee. Every fifty years the nation would basically start over. This would have prevented the poor from becoming completely destitute and staying that way from generation to generation.

This reminded the people that what they had was entrusted to them by God, something that every society would do well to realize. We wrongly think that all we have has come to us by our own efforts rather than by God’s blessing.

Another thing the Jubilee teaches us is that when we truly know God, we don’t have to think that our future is dictated by the present. We too can start over. God is a God of restoration. He longs to see his beloved creatures restored to the place he intended for us. Just like he provided a physical inheritance for the clans of Israel, so he has an inheritance for all people. He wants to restore each person to the quality of life he intended before our first parents’ rebellion in the garden of Eden. When Yeshua went public, he read a passage from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue—words reminiscent of the Jubilee:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18–19, quoted from Isaiah 62:1–2)

Through Yeshua, every one of us can experience a Jubilee. No matter how destitute we have become, we can be restored to the kind of life God originally intended for us.

In the Jubilee, for anyone to be restored to their land, they had to get up and go there. No one was forced to return to his God-given inheritance. Each person had to take it upon himself to reacquire what was rightfully his.

It is the same for us today, but how do we do that? Pray and ask God for your rightful inheritance. Then trust him to answer that prayer. It might mean a major change in your life, but you will finally find yourself where you were truly meant to be all along.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Blasphemy

For the week of May 21, 2016 / 13 Iyar 5776

Passage from Hebrew Bible

 

Emor
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 21:1-24:23
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-31

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Whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death. (Vayikra/Leviticus 24:16)

This week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion) includes a very serious injunction to impose violent capital punishment upon a person who “blasphemes the name of the LORD.” We may hear the term “blaspheme” mentioned from time to time, but what does it actually mean? And why is it so serious?

Depending on the English translation blaspheme is used when translating a variety of Hebrew words that apparently refer to the dishonoring of God in one way or other. The word here is “naqav,” which has a variety of meanings depending on the context. It can mean blaspheme or curse, pierce something with holes, or even select people for something. At first glance, these usages may seem to have nothing to do with each other. In fact, some scholars propose that while the word is the same, they may derive from a different semantic history. While that is possible, these usages may actually help us understand what blasphemy really is and why it is so serious.

Whether one is selecting people or boring holes, it assumes a certain kind of relationship between the person doing the action and the object. Selecting people assumes a level of authority and power on the part of the person doing the selecting. Boring holes assumes superiority and control over an object. It could be that in a context such as our parsha that naqav is describing a person taking a place of superiority over God and treating him like an object to be controlled for one’s own use.

The injunction against naqav here was in response to the misuse of God’s name in the midst of a fight between two men. It is possible that the offending party was attempting to utilize God’s name in order to gain the upper hand in the fight. Such a thing was deemed to be so wrong as to warrant the man’s execution.

This is not exactly the same as breaking the third commandment, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain” (Shemot/Exodus 20:7). To take God’s name in vain is to treat it lightly especially in relationship to taking oaths. Naqav, on the other hand, is invoking God’s name to manipulate others for one’s own benefit.

While under the New Covenant we (as opposed to the state) have no jurisdiction to enact capital punishment, the Torah portion encourages us to take the prohibition against naqav very seriously. Are there ways in which we seek to use God to control others, and thereby commit naqav? It is too easy sometimes to invoke God’s name in hopes that people will do our bidding. We forget that every individual is answerable to God, not to us. This is something to remembered especially when dealing with those closest to us. Even when our goal is to honor God and accomplish his will, we must never think it is permissible to use God’s name against those whom we are called to love and serve.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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The God of Israel

For the week of May 14, 2016 / 6 Iyar 5776

Israel independence day and abstract flag icons

Kedoshim
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27
Haftarah: Amos 9:7-15

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I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob (Amos 9:8)

A significant feature of the Hebrew prophets is doom and gloom. After all, these spokespeople of God emerged as the nation of Israel fell into deeper and deeper decline. God had warned the nation from its beginnings that rebellion against him would result in judgment, culminating in foreign oppression and exile.

Israel is not the only target of biblical prophetic warnings. Israel’s enemies also faced the prospect of dire consequences due to their evil ways. While the threat of harsh judgment hung over the heads of both Israel and these other nations, there was one huge difference between them. Israel could be confident that judgment was never God’s final word to them. Interwoven within so much doom and gloom are the unbreakable threads of restoration.

I write this in between two key markers in the Jewish calendar. Thursday, May 5, this year, is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we remember the 6 million Jews who died as a result of Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies during World War II. Exactly one week later, Thursday, May 12, is Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, celebrating the re-emergence of the Jewish national home in 1948 after almost two thousand years of exile.

Whatever one thinks about the causes of the Holocaust or the political underpinning of the modern state of Israel, it is difficult not to be amazed at how a nation, dispersed and stateless for so long under great duress, could rise from the ashes of attempted genocide to become one of the greatest countries of the world. Sadly, many who only hear negative stories about Israel fed to us by the media are clued out as to the beauty and achievements of this most remarkable young ancient country.

Students of history should be confounded by this. No nation has ever withstood such hardship for so long only to be restored to its land, rediscover its language, regather and integrate literally millions of its people from the four corners of the earth.

The only reasonable explanation for the restoration of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is God’s commitment to them as a people rooted in his covenantal promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is the basis of the hope offered by the prophets of old. The Bible is clear that human rebellion against God leads to destruction. Anyone’s hope is only and always found in God’s intervention. And time after time throughout the Bible that’s what we see as God comes through for Israel.

It’s interesting how some people accept God’s faithfulness to Israel in the Bible while having a hard time extending that same faithfulness into modern times. For some this is due to a misunderstanding as to the relationship of God’s unconditional covenantal promises to the nation through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the conditional nature of the later covenant given at Mt. Sinai to Moses. While Sinai delineated harsh consequences for disobedience, God’s unconditional obligations to the people based on his promises to the patriarchs put himself in a situation where he could not leave Israel in an everlasting state of judgment.

Confusion over these matters is compounded by the New Covenant’s emphasis on the individual’s relationship with God and how personal salvation through the Messiah is for people of all nations, not Israel alone. Many fail to distinguish the national vs. personal aspects of God’s workings with humankind. God’s faithfulness to the nation of Israel as established through the Abrahamic covenant doesn’t automatically set individual Jewish people in right relationship with God. Salvation is always by faith. At the same time, the importance of personal faith doesn’t undermine God’s ongoing covenant faithfulness to Israel as demonstrated in its survival and national restoration. In fact, the God of Israel can only be fully known for who he is when we recognize his eternal faithfulness to Israel.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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The Feel of Clean

For the week of May 7, 2016 / 29 Nisan 5776

Vacuum cleaning dust on a floor

Aharei Mot
Torah: Vayikra / Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 20:18-42
Originally posted the week of April 16, 2011 (revised version as appearing in the book “Torah Light”)

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For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins. (Vayikra/Leviticus 16:30)

Do you enjoy the feeling of clean? You know what I mean. After working or playing hard on a muggy summer day, when you finally have a nice long shower, there’s nothing like that feeling of being free from the stickiness of sweat and dirt.

The Torah uses the terms unclean and clean to describe our state before God. The effect of sin in our lives makes us dirty in a very real sense. While this reality is spiritual, not physical, it is no less real.

Being dirty physically isn’t bad in itself, yet it can prevent us from participating in certain situations. While grease and grime may be appropriate for a car mechanic at a service garage, it wouldn’t do to be covered with dirt at his wedding. In the same way, spiritual uncleanness makes us unfit to enter God’s presence.

Our awareness or lack thereof is no indication of how physically dirty we may be. Human beings are quite adaptable and can get used to all sorts of things, including dirt. Getting comfortable with dirt doesn’t change the fact of dirt. It’s the same spiritually. How aware we are of our uncleanness may or may not be an accurate reflection of our spiritual state.

The Torah assumes that human beings get dirty spiritually and provides cleansing through the sacrifices. This is a foreign concept for most of us. We don’t tend to think of ourselves as spiritually unclean. But this is the very reason for our alienation from God. Due to sin, we are unfit to be in God’s presence, which in turn undermines human existence in every way.

Spiritual cleansing as prescribed by the Torah was only a partial solution, in that it only allowed the people to participate in the religious affairs of the nation. It never really made the people fit to be in God’s presence. In fact, it actually served as a reminder of how terribly dirty we really are.

When Yeshua celebrated his last Pesach (English, Passover) with his disciples, he washed their feet to demonstrate (among other things) the humble attitude we should have toward each other (see John 13:1–20). As he was about to wash Peter’s feet, Peter understandably reacted to the Messiah’s performing the function of a common servant. Once he understood that this act was necessary for him to truly be part of the Messiah’s life and mission, he asked that Yeshua might also wash his head and hands. To this, Yeshua made a most profound pronouncement. He said to Peter, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean” (John 13:10). While it is still necessary to deal with the uncleanness of daily living, as signified by the need for foot washing, Peter was clean. He was clean but didn’t know it. He didn’t feel clean. He thought he was still dirty.

Do you feel dirty? Unlike physical cleansing, spiritual cleansing isn’t naturally or automatically felt. But if you, like Peter, have turned to Yeshua as your Master and Messiah, then you, like Peter, are clean. Ah, the feel of clean!

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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What’s in a Name?

For the week of April 30, 2016 / 22 Nisan 5776

A name tag with the words, "Hello my name is ?"

Pesach 8
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 14:22 – 16:17; Bemidbar/Numbers 28:19-25
Haftarah: Isaiah 10:32 – 12:6

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Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the LORD God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation. (Isaiah 12:2)

The special Haftarah (reading from the Prophets) traditionally chosen when the end of Pesach (English: Passover) falls on a Shabbat (English: Sabbath) is a high point in the Hebrew Scriptures. It speaks of a day when King Messiah will establish everlasting peace on earth. In response, people will celebrate God’s goodness with great joy. This is where the well-known song and folk dance, Mayim (meaning “water”), comes from: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3).

Salvation to many people has very spiritual overtones as if it is exclusive to the domain of the intangible.  This comes out of the false notion that God is really only concerned about our souls. The body, as is the rest of the material world, is temporary and decaying. Our only hope is if our souls connect with God adequately so that the essential non-tangible part of us might have the opportunity to exist in an eternally blissful state in heaven.

Biblically speaking, salvation is indeed a spiritual concept since it is rooted in God, but it isn’t only spiritual. The Bible doesn’t view the realm of God as completely detached from the other aspects of life. Scripture teaches that the spiritual and the material are integrated. Salvation is not a concern for only our souls, but for the whole person. Plus, it isn’t just for individuals, the salvation foretold by the Hebrew prophets is the salvation of the entire creation. That’s something to sing and dance about all right!

Almost forty years ago, when I was a new believer, I was working part time at a Jewish Community Centre. My fairly new faith in Yeshua as the Messiah (I normally called him Jesus back then) was not something that the administration valued, to say the least. One day, the Centre’s director thought we should have a talk. I don’t remember everything that was said, except for when he challenged me to show him where Jesus was mentioned in the Hebrew Bible by name. Obviously (or so I thought) the name Jesus is not in the Old Testament. So what could I say! I was aware of the many prophecies that so vividly predicted his coming (http://www.alangilman.ca/content/messianicprophecies.html), but his actual name? He thought he scored some points with that.

But, as many of you know, Jesus’s Hebrew name is Yeshua, which means “salvation.” If I would have known, I could have shown him the over three hundred and fifty occurrences of the noun and verbal forms of that word, including from this week’s Haftarah: “Behold, God is my yeshuah; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the LORD God is my strength and my song, and he has become my yeshuah.” (Isaiah 12:2). I know that salvation isn’t being used as a proper name here, but the name given the Messiah is repeated over and over again.

At Pesach we rejoice over God’s salvation of our people, delivering us from slavery in Egypt. Over and over again since then, God has been our yeshuah. It is fitting that this would be the Messiah’s given name. For he is our salvation, our rescuer, our deliverer. Let us draw water from the wells of Yeshua!

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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