Good Wishes

For the week of May 26, 2018 / 12 Sivan 5778

Illustration of positive words emanating from an open hand

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

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The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them, “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.’ So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” (B’midbar/Numbers 6:22-27)

My understanding of dominant religious thought during the period of Israel’s wilderness wanderings is that most ancient peoples believed that the gods had to be appeased. Their rituals developed as a way to ensure (in their minds at least) that they might be able to keep their health, remain safe, and that their crops would grow. The underlying concept driving them was that spiritual forces were, for the most part, out to get them. Fear of harm and/or disaster kept them in line.

Regrettably many people think of the “Old Testament” in similar terms as if the sacrifices, for example, served a similar purpose. After all, didn’t God through Moses and the prophets clearly warn the people that if they didn’t abide by the rules, they would be in big trouble? This misconception is further tainted by the supposed contrast between the testaments, where the New Testament features a much nicer deity who so loves us that he is blind to our misdeeds.

Perhaps you never noticed that the Torah sacrificial system doesn’t contain the notion of appeasement. The people were severely warned of disaster, but only when the essence of their lives became defined as contrary to God’s ways. The consequences of ignoring God’s directives were not a result of ticking off God, but of ignoring life’s design, which God had graciously revealed to them. Sacrifice was far more an expression of an already established relationship with God than an attempt to draw his favor. In fact, engaging the sacrificial system as a means to make up for the kind of appropriate heart attitude which bears the fruit of a good and righteous life is regarded as extreme hypocrisy.

Far from being negatively predisposed toward his people, God’s heart for Israel was fundamentally positive. Look at the blessing he gave the cohanim (English: the priests) to speak over the people blessing, protection, and grace. That his face may shine upon us and that his countenance would be lifted upon us, are ways of saying, may God be positively disposed toward us. You may think that if such a blessing was necessary, then these words constitute a wish contrary to God’s normal posture. It’s as if my wishing that God might do good to you necessarily means his intentions toward you are bad. But that’s not it at all! Who gave these words to the cohanim to speak in the first place? This blessing is the way God was putting his name upon the people. To know him, was to also know that God truly wished them well.

God is not out to get you. He is not out to get anyone. That doesn’t mean that he is a simplistic “nicey nice” God. (I couldn’t think of a more technical term). Some of the same folks who skew the Hebrew Scriptures by mischaracterizing the God of Israel as an angry, vengeful dictator, do similarly with the New Covenant writings as they misrepresent him as a doting grandmother (no offense to doting grandmothers). An intelligent reading of the whole Bible reveals a great consistency in God’s character as someone who wants the absolute best for each and every one of his human creatures, but on his terms, not ours.

To ignore God’s ways is to invite harm to ourselves and those we love. He cares enough about you and me to tell us so. Pretending otherwise is to live an illusion – a fantasy that becomes a nightmare when we take the negative consequences of our lives that are due to our ignoring a loving, all-powerful God and read back into him malintent.

If we are constantly looking over our shoulder wondering when God is going to mess up our lives, we have believed a lie. Again, if we have not dealt with the seriousness of our misdeeds, we will be out of sorts with him. If left unresolved, we will find ourselves on a permanent road to destruction. But even being aware of that prospect is a gift from the One who has gone out of his way to bring us back from the brink.

God wishes us well. God wants to bless us. It’s time we stopped missing out on the abundant life he yearns to give us and receive the blessings he desires to speak over us.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Climate Change

For the week of May 12, 2018 / 27 Iyar 5778

Climate chance concept image

Behar & Bechukotai
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34
Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19 – 17:14

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If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. (Vayikra/Leviticus 26:3-4)

There are few issues today that capture people’s attention as much as climate change. Climate change is far more than whether the global climate is significantly changing. It’s the great concern over its apparently inevitable devastating effects and that human beings are its chief cause. For many the climate apocalypse has taken the place of the threat of nuclear war as the world’s biggest fear. Destructive storms, unstoppable fires, and coastal flooding are lurking just around the corner.

There was a time that talking about the weather was considered polite small talk. Now it’s the stuff of international summits and overarching government policies. According to many leaders unless we drastically decrease our consumption of fossil fuels immediately, the world as we know it will no longer exist. It might even be too late.

The Torah includes insights to help us effectively deal with this issue. First, that we should care about the environment is a concern all people should share. This may come as a surprise to some people of biblical faith, especially those who mistakenly detach things spiritual from things material. God placed human beings on earth as caretakers of the planet, a responsibility never rescinded, superseded or redefined. From the Bible’s perspective, the importance of spiritual matters is deeply connected to the material realm. Spirituality in all its expressions, good and bad, is lived out in the physical world, not apart from it or in denial of it.

The Torah is clear that the health of the environment is dependent upon human activity. Some of that is obvious as in those things where our actions have immediate consequences. We have learned to burn wood in our fireplaces and natural gas in our homes in such ways so as to not poison ourselves with fumes. The industrial revolution caused great pollution, and smog was a major health hazard. I wonder how many people are aware of how cites like London and Los Angeles have effectively addressed such problems. Climate change is much more difficult to analyze because we don’t readily observe its effects or what the causes might actually be. The Bible however shares the concern of climate change proponents, though not necessarily what’s fueling it (pun intended).

According to the Bible the prime factor controlling the environment is morality and plays out in two ways. First, cause and effect – not in a way readily observable, but more obvious than we may think. While there are large regions of the world that are very poor, history has never seen the level of affluence many of us take for granted. Who thought even a few years ago, that it would be common for young people to carry (in their back pockets no less) a device worth hundreds of dollars that gets completely replaced every one to two years. The demand for individual convenience, pleasure, and status has resulted in overly excessive consumerism and waste. Yet, tragically, many people of faith refuse to consider greed and selfishness as issues to be concerned about. We produce far more than we need and in such a way that results in mind-boggling waste. Do we really think God will allow us to get away with this forever?

That brings us to the second way morality affects the environment. The Torah is clear that there is more than simply direct cause and effect going on. The well-being of the planet is dependent upon a relational dynamic. The earth belongs to God, and it matters to him whether we live according to his ways. When we do, the environment cooperates; when we don’t, it doesn’t.

I would suspect that many of those so very concerned about climate change would scoff at my tying spirituality and morality to the environment. But that connection may not be as mysterious as some may assume. Can we not see, for example, how sexual liberation, by undermining the traditional family as the basic building block for society, greatly contributes to the ever-increasing production of goods with its accompanying waste? Then we are told that if only there were less people, we would be better off, failing to understand that while humans contribute to the world’s problems, we are still God’s chosen solution. We can only make a short- and long-term positive difference if we live God’s way.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Cultural Appropriation

For the week of May 5, 2018 / 20 Iyar 5778

Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, & family on an official government trip to India, February 2018

Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, & family
on an official government trip to India, February 2018

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

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Thus Moses declared to the people of Israel the appointed feasts of the LORD. (Vayikra/Leviticus 23:44)

Something we frequently hear about lately is “cultural appropriation,” the concept that it is inappropriate in some, if not all, circumstances to take on foreign cultural forms and expressions. The Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, was taken to task for this very thing on his trip to India earlier this year. When cultural appropriation first came to my attention some time ago, I frankly thought the strong objection to it was a bit strange, not because I don’t understand the concern, but because I am so used to it (sort of).

As a Jewish believer in the Messiah, whose spiritual relationships are mainly among non-Jews, I encounter cultural appropriation constantly. In fact, Christianity is and has always been an exercise in cultural appropriation. Generally, Jews and Christians are not aware of this, however, since most Christian cultural expression wouldn’t be recognized as Jewish. The fact is there is almost nothing within Christianity’s core beliefs that isn’t derived from the Jewish world. Some are more obvious than others. The primary document for Christians is the Bible, both Old and New Testament written almost exclusively by Jews and focused on activities happening to or done by Jewish people. Even as global outreach developed, its development and implementation was in Jewish hands. The God of the Christians is the God of Israel. The religious and theological concepts adhered to by Christians are all Jewish in origin, such as sin, righteousness, sacrifice, and holiness. Then there’s the very center of all core concepts, the Messiah. While the Jewish and Christian worlds have traditionally been divided over the Messiah’s identity, Christianity is founded on the conviction that Yeshua (Jesus) is the Jewish Messiah. Using Greek-oriented instead of Hebrew-oriented terminology obscures the cultural connection. That many Jews and Christians aren’t conscious that Christ and Messiah, for example, are synonyms doesn’t negate the Jewish nature of the messianic concept.

Other key Jewish components of Christianity are not as obvious. Most people don’t realize that baptism was originally a Jewish custom that was done as part of the conversion process as well as when an estranged Jewish person wanted to return to God. The development of the church as the place of community teaching and prayer was based on the synagogue. Communion, also called the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, is taken from Passover. The hope of the resurrection of the body was an exclusively Jewish concept. We could go on.

The early Jewish believers went out of their way to allow the Good News about the Messiah to function freely and fully in a non-Jewish context. Through God-given wisdom they freed the core of biblical faith from Jewish cultural control, allowing the nations to work out the essentials of biblical spirituality within their own contexts. What I don’t think the early believers envisioned is how far from a Jewish frame of reference the Church would go.

Many non-Jewish believers over the past hundred years or so have sought to re-contextualize Christianity within a Jewish frame of reference. Some correctly understand that the freedom to adapt biblical teaching within foreign cultures, while helpful in many ways, can tend to skew biblical truth, especially when cut off from its Jewish roots. At the same time, however, the passion to restore biblical faith to its ancient roots can go overboard. This is where appropriate cultural adaptation can become misappropriation. This happens in two ways: first, by confusing Jewish culture with biblical truth. Not everything that is Jewish is necessarily biblical. Much of Jewish culture found in the world today is recent in origin. While we don’t know the tunes of King David’s psalms, we are fairly certain that they were not anything close to what is thought of as Jewish music today. Similarly, Jewish foods are normally adaptations of local fare throughout the world where Jewish people have lived. Apart from the limits of kosher laws, there is nothing intrinsically biblical about the vast majority of Jewish cuisine.

The second type of misappropriation is in regard to actual biblical material. For example, take the feasts as listed in this week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion). It is tragic that this key component of the Books of Moses, like most of the Hebrew Scriptures, has been virtually ignored by Christians. There is so much to learn from the feasts as they teach us about God’s character and activities. Yet it is easy to go from a healthy renewed focus on Scripture to a misguided emphasis on cultural expression. Much of Jewish festival observance today is based on tradition, not Bible. Tradition isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is culturally bound to the people who developed it. People don’t often possess the level of sensitivity necessary to adapt cultural forms. That doesn’t mean it should never be done. Perhaps we need to meaningfully get to truly know the people whose culture it is before we treat it as our own.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Intentional Design

For the week of April 28, 2018 / 13 Iyar 5778

General Instruction Manual

Achrei Mot & Kedoshim
Torah:  Vayikra/Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27
Haftarah: Amos 9:7-15

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And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the LORD your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the LORD your God. You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 18:1-5) 

This week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion), specifically chapter eighteen, contains a list of forbidden sexual behaviors. The word to describe God’s take on these things is “tō-ei-vah’,” most often translated into English as “abomination.” It is a very strong word, describing God’s abhorrence of such things, including bestiality, homosexuality, incest, and intercourse during menstruation. That these prohibitions are to be taken as universal principles for all people for all time is clarified by what God says at the end of the chapter. It was because of such behaviors that the previous inhabitants of the Promised Land were judged.

I have the impression that many people regard such directives as arbitrary, as if there is no reason for them apart from God’s authority – something like the kid who owns the soccer ball saying, “My ball, my rules. Do it my way or you don’t play.” It doesn’t matter that his rules are solely based on his personal preferences or that they undermine the true nature of the game. His position of power allows him to dominate others just because he can. For many people that’s exactly how God operates. Some try to put a positive spin on it by clinging to God’s goodness and love: “I have no idea why we have to do this, but I know he has our best interests in mind.” Others accept God’s rules begrudgingly: “I don’t know why I have to do this silly rule, but I guess I have to anyway.” Still others, just reject them as archaic: “I guess they may have had some sort of purpose in times past, but in our modern world they clearly don’t apply anymore.”

If anyone in the universe has the right to arbitrarily set the rules of the game, it’s God. But I don’t have any reason to assume that any directive he has ever given to anyone at any time has been arbitrary. While we may not understand the reasons for God’s directives, whether more general universal ones such as those in our passage, or the more specific ones given to individuals in particular situations, it is far more reasonable to conclude that it’s only our inability to fully understand God’s ways that makes them appear arbitrary.

Why am I so sure? The Bible expresses itself within its own context. It is not a collection of disconnected abstractions: good ideas of life spouted by enlightened ones. Rather, it is an epic story of God’s workings within real history in order to rescue human beings from the oppression of evil. Foundational to this epic is that God designed and implemented the universe.

Connected to the idea that God’s directives are arbitrary, is regarding the creation in the same way. It feels like a necessary tenet of biblical faith to assert that God could have made the world any way he liked; that the way things are is only one of infinite possibilities. But even if that is true, if God would have done it differently, matter and existence would be of a completely other kind than what we currently know. I can say this, because even miniscule adjustments to things like the earth’s spin, orbit, and distance to the sun would mean we couldn’t exist. And that’s only three finely tuned factors of the universe we inhabit. The actual list upon which the universe depends is beyond comprehension and is evidence of anything but the creation being arbitrary.

The Book of Proverbs reminds us “The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens” (Mishlei/Proverbs 3:19). He didn’t make things just ‘cause. He made it according to his infinite understanding, knowledge, and ability. That he spoke everything into existence reflects that it is an outcome of supreme intelligence. We marvel at the creation, not just because of its intricate beauty and divine origins, but as a display of what happens when the only God makes a universe.

Therefore, when the Creator reveals to us how life is to be lived, he is not simply asserting control to show us who’s boss. He is generously and lovingly providing us with aspects of his design specifications in order that we might live good, healthy, and productive lives. To ignore his instructions is to unnecessarily put ourselves and others in great danger.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Follow the Evidence

For the week of April 21, 2018 / 6 Iyar 5778

Neil deGrasse Tysons' "Cosmos" show

Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Tazria & Metzora
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33
Haftarah: 2 Melachim/2 Kings 7:3-20

So they took two horsemen, and the king sent them after the army of the Syrians, saying, “Go and see.” (2 Melachim/2 Kings 7:14) 

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Disclaimer: Bible is my specialty, not science. Not that I don’t appreciate science. First, like most people, I am the happy benefactor of all sorts of scientific advancements from medicine (thank God for anesthetics!) to the technology enabling me to both write and distribute this message. The list is virtually endless. Second, I love hearing explanations of the intricate and complex wonders of the physical world. From the smallest of the small to the biggest of the big, and everything in between, the universe is mindboggling.

A few months ago, I took up the challenge given me by an atheist friend to watch the 2014 science documentary series “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” with Neil deGrasse Tyson, the follow-up to the 1980’s “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” with Carl Sagan. I am glad I did. The way it takes the viewer into the wonder of God’s creation is most impressive – not that Tyson acknowledges the universe’s divine origins. Far from it! The purpose of the challenge after all was to convince me of his naturalistic evolutionary perspective.

I was struck by some of Tyson’s closing comments when he stated science’s commitment to going wherever the evidence leads. He may believe in what he is saying, and I understand that science-minded people see themselves as bastions of reason. I don’t have an issue with the importance of reason as a key ingredient in our journey towards truth. But the tendency among people like Tyson to give the impression that they live in a realm defined by strict observable and provable analysis is hypocritical. Forgive me for making such a negative statement, but when our postulations are self-contradictory, what are we left to conclude? Perhaps Tyson and others are sincere in their convictions. If so, then they are self-deceived.

How dare I be so sure of my assessment? Watch Cosmos; listen to Tyson. Listen to him say that we don’t know what initiated the big bang or how life began. Those are really big foundational unknowns. Yet that doesn’t stop him from making all sorts of confident claims about how the universe and life developed over vast periods of time. Where does the evidence lead when some of the things they are most sure of are unknowns?

The atheist’s naturalistic approach to origins and life’s development shuns any hypothesis that might include God. They must, therefore, compel themselves to fill in great gaps with naturalistic explanations. They can’t seem to admit that physical evidence only takes a person so far. Science is limited to tools of observation. But not everything that is real is observable, including the past. Even our modern advances in recording events are incapable of actually taking us back in time or – even if they could – give us the eyes and ears of the past’s contemporaries to sufficiently understand what happened then. How much more are we unable to make scientific determinations about the ancient past? Rock layers and fossils are evidence, for sure. They love to tell us the rocks speak, but they don’t. There may be much we can learn from careful, intelligent analysis, but we cannot formulate an accurate picture of the processes through which their current state came to be. Make guesses? Yes. Be certain about our resulting answers? I don’t think so.

I was intrigued by the Cosmos segment where the apparent evolutionary development of the human eye was presented (You can watch it here, but don’t forget to come back!). The eye was chosen, because they are aware how intelligent design proponents use it as an example of a complex system that could not evolve over time, no matter how long. Tyson dismissed that by explaining that original simple cell organisms were blind, but eventually certain bacteria developed indentations sensitive to light, giving them an advantage over other bacteria. As time went on, this most basic eye, became more complex until eyes like our own came into being.

You can watch the “Eye” segment here:

Where does the evidence lead? For Tyson and others, such an explanation dismisses the concept of creation. But does it? He offers nothing to demonstrate that any of this actually happened or how. Just because there indeed exists in the world of today a great variety of eye complexity doesn’t necessarily mean that one type of eye naturally evolved into another. What’s really going on is the atheistic worldview prejudices the conclusion.

If only Tyson and company would actually follow the evidence where it leads. I shook my head almost every time he drew me into creation’s wonders. Both he and I were equally awestruck, yet he couldn’t admit how science reveals how unknowable the universe is even though he was making a case for it.

What does any of this have to do with our weekly portion? The Haftarah occurs during a time of great famine due to being under siege by the Syrians. Four outcasts, lepers, decide to surrender to the enemy. Arriving at the Syrian camp they find it deserted with all their bountiful provisions left behind. When showing the evidence of this to the city officials, the leaders tentatively conclude it’s a trap. But thankfully they decided to investigate further and adjusted their thinking accordingly.

Science’s inability to determine life’s origins is not because they don’t analyze evidence, it’s that they don’t analyze it enough. If they would be more honest about the unknowns and their implications as well as work harder to not be controlled by their prejudices, they might be surprised to discover where the evidence will lead them.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Understanding Tragedy

Special note from TorahBytes’ director & writer: On Friday, April 6, 2018, the day after I wrote the first draft of this message, tragedy struck the small Canadian town of Humboldt, Saskatchewan, when their hockey team’s bus collided with a tractor trailer, killing fifteen and injuring the remaining fourteen others, some critically. The meaninglessness of a such a great tragedy is one aspect of this very difficult subject that follows. May the God of all comfort comfort the families and friends of the deceased and bring healing to the injured. – Alan Gilman

For the week of April 14, 2018 / 29 Nisan 5778

"Why Me?" handwritten on a plastered brick wall

Sh’mini
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 20:18-42

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Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. (Vayikra/Leviticus 10:1-2)

There are two insights into human tragedy that I would like to share from this grim incident. The first is straightforward; the second not so much. The first is that God isn’t someone to be handled lightly. Dealing with him is serious business and fooling around with his way of doing things can cost you your life.

Many people avoid this aspect of God’s character, preferring a one-sided version of him that is nothing but nice. He not only loves us unconditionally; he accepts us unconditionally as well. That is nice, perhaps, but definitely not good, not to mention unjust. Making the Supreme Being supremely agreeable actually turns him into a monstrosity of infinite proportions. That God would put up with anything human beings conceive of is tantamount to abuse by passivity.

What happened to Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu is a tragic story like so many tragic stories of abuse of place and position for selfish purposes. The consequences here reveal to us what God thinks about misuse of his directives. This is a dramatic picture of how serious religious and spiritual misdeeds really are. Instead of being offended at what happened to Aaron’s sons, we should wonder why God doesn’t bump off more of their kind.

I think one of the reasons why God is often taken to be a softy towards sinful behavior is that the plight of Nadab and Abihu is an exception rather than the rule. It’s not that their wrong was greater than everyone else’s; it’s that most of the time, God doesn’t zap us when we do wrong, even great wrong. Otherwise, we’d all be dead by now.

The New Covenant writings sum this up as “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4). This echoes Israel’s entire biblical narrative. It’s libelous how some misrepresent the Hebrew Bible by claiming it reveals an angry, wrathful God, who punishes people left, right, and center. An accurate depiction of the Master of the Universe is that, if anything, he is too patient. The vast majority of judgement upon his people is after centuries of waiting for change. Only after a very long time of continued obstinacy, does he finally punish.

While what happened to Nadab and Abihu was the exception, not the rule, it is not unique. From time to time, God responds to wrongs quickly and suddenly. Why he deems it necessary to do so, we don’t know. So, let’s not be fooled into thinking that God’s hesitancy to act in the majority of cases implies they are not as serious.

What makes what happened to Aaron’s sons unique is the second, not-too-straightforward, insight. Tragedy is common in the human experience. People die unexpectedly. Most people don’t. Even though most people in the world will return safely to their beds tonight, tragedy will strike in innumerable ways within the next twenty-four hours. What then makes Nadab and Abihu’s tragedy unique? It’s that we know why it happened. We know in their case, because we are told that they made an illegitimate offering. Yet most of the time when tragedy strikes, we have no idea why. And most of the time, we would be absolute fools to think we can figure it out.

Not everyone who is killed due to a mysterious outbreak of fire is being judged by God. Much of human suffering is simply due to the sin-cursed nature of the creation. Bad things just happen sometimes. Other times, there is cause and effect at work. Impaired or distracted driving is mortally dangerous for example. Still, even when every precaution is taken, things can go wrong.

In many tragedies, our natural cry to know why is a question that may never be answered. But in tragedy, we need more than answers. It’s no wonder that God’s peace is described in Philippians 4:7 as something that surpasses understanding with the effect of guarding our hearts and minds. More than anything, this is what we need when everything else falls apart.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Bread of Affliction

For the week of April 7, 2018 / 22 Nisan 5778

A stack of matza (Jewish unleavened bread)

Pesach 8
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 14:22 – 16:17; B’midbar/Numbers 28:19-25
Haftarah: Isaiah 10:32-12:6
Originally posted the week of April 11, 2015 / 22 Nisan 5775

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You shall eat no leavened bread with it. Seven days you shall eat it with unleavened bread (matza), the bread of affliction – for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste – that all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt. (D’varim / Deuteronomy 16:3)

If you attended a Pesach (English: Passover) Seder the other day, or any other time for that matter, you most likely heard the following words when the matza (English: unleavened bread) was uncovered near the beginning of the evening: “This is the bread of affliction that our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt.” But perhaps you didn’t know that calling the matza “the bread of affliction” is taken directly from the Torah.

The word for “affliction” in Hebrew is “a’-nee,” and refers to being in an oppressive state, such as hardship or poverty. Matza as a key symbol of Pesach would always serve as a reminder of the great suffering in Egypt with or without referring to it as the bread of affliction. But the verse I quoted at the beginning makes it sound as if the matza is not a reminder of the slavery experience but of freedom: “eat it with matza, the bread of affliction – for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste – that all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt.”

Indeed it was the rush to leave Egypt following the tenth and final plague that is the reason for the eating of matzah. We read:

The Egyptians were urgent with the people to send them out of the land in haste. For they said, “We shall all be dead.” So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls being bound up in their cloaks on their shoulders (Shemot/Exodus 12:33-34).

So if the matza is connected with leaving Egypt, why is it not called “the bread of deliverance?” The answer is found a few verses later. Regarding the preparation of the unleavened dough they took with them,

And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, because they were thrust out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves (Shemot/Exodus 12:39).

Even though the exodus from Egypt was a momentous liberating event, in its own way it too was a hardship. Anyone who has been released from long-term personal or corporate abuse knows how difficult such transitions can be. Free from slavery, yes, but Israel had to endure a harsh, unknown wilderness with little to no prepared provision. This resulted in all sorts of next-to-impossible challenges to the point that some would eventually pine after their former slavery. Unless they learned to depend on God, they wouldn’t make it. And many didn’t. Almost the entire adult generation that left Egypt were kept from entering the Promised Land due to their unfaithfulness to God (see Bemidbar/Numbers 13 – 14).

After the initial euphoria of newfound freedom subsides, the harsh realities of strange and perhaps hostile environments, a lack of familiar social structures and personal and communal resources must be faced with tenacity and hope for a better future. Whether it be an immigrant from a worn-torn land or someone newly distanced from an abusive situation, denying the reality of the new challenges faced by freedom can create unnecessary obstacles to the benefits of freedom.

The matza does more than simply remind us of the hardship of liberation, however. It is assures us that the God who frees us will give us all we need to face the challenges of newfound freedom. It’s not always easy to walk in freedom, but he who rescues us from bondage, will also equip us to live free.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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No Bias

For the week of March 31, 2018 / 15 Nisan 5778

Concept art of avoiding bias

Pesach 1
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 12:21-51; B’midbar/Numbers 28:16-25
Haftarah: Joshua 5:2-6:1

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When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the LORD. Now I have come.” (Joshua 5:13-14)

The Torah and Haftarah readings for this week and next are special for Pesach (English: Passover). The festival begins this year on Friday evening, March 30. The first of the two Torah readings is from Shemot/Exodus and describes the preparations for and the events of the first Passover night, when the Angel of Death didn’t slay the firstborn of the Israelites in Egypt but passed over their homes due to the blood of the Passover lamb smeared on their doorframes. The devastating blow of this final plague released Israel from Pharaoh’s tyrannical control. The second reading from B’midbar/Numbers prescribes some of Passover’s special observances. The Haftarah from Joshua includes the first Passover celebration after entering the Promised Land. This reading also contains two other significant items, one before and one after the Passover reference that don’t seem to be directly related to the holiday. My guess is that they are included for the simple reason that the Passover reference is too short on its own. I don’t know if whoever chose this passage saw connections to Passover, but I do.

The liberation of the people of Israel at the first Passover was a defining moment for the people. Four hundred years earlier the fledgling clan of Jacob (whose name God changed to Israel), his sons and their families, numbering seventy in all, found refuge during a great famine. God used unusual and painful circumstances to bring this about. Not only did Egypt function as a means of salvation for Israel, their initial time there was good. During the next four hundred years the clan grew into a nation. However, this was a nation without a distinct identity, since at some point in the process, they became slaves under an oppressive Egyptian regime.

All those years they held onto the promise of return to the land of their forefathers – a land guaranteed to them by God himself as a permanent inheritance. When the day for their liberation arrived, it didn’t come about easily. Be that as it may, for the first time ever, the nation of Israel was free to pursue their God-given destiny.

Acquiring the Land also wasn’t easy, sometimes due to a wide variety of external challenges; other times due to their own faithlessness. Through it all God proved faithful. After forty more long years of living like nomads in the wilderness, Joshua, Moses’s successor, led them into the Land.

Before celebrating their first Passover in their new home, the males were circumcised for the first time since leaving Egypt decades before. Not only were they acting as a distinct nation in their own land for the first time, this procedure dramatically reminded them of who they were as the covenant people of God. Then they observed Passover, another reminder of their unique peoplehood under God. The strong sense of nationality emphasized by both circumcision and Passover is the backdrop for the unusual encounter Joshua was to have shortly thereafter.

As Israel was preparing to face its first great challenge in their new land – overcoming the fortified city of Jericho – their leader and chief general was confronted by a man with a drawn sword. Unsure of the stranger’s allegiances, Joshua asked him if he was friend or foe. To which the as yet unidentified warrior replied (literally in Hebrew): No. He was the “Commander of the army of the LORD.” Joshua’s response to the Commander’s directive to remove his sandals due to the place being holy (similar to Moses’s experience at the burning bush) clearly indicates this Commander’s divine nature. Joshua’s immediate submission to him speaks buckets of his humble heart toward God. Even though he was God’s appointed leader of the people, he was quick to show deference, because he knew who was ultimately in charge

This interaction addresses more than just Joshua personally. The nation of Israel had been through so much for so long, much of which reinforced their special relationship to God. So, when God shows up here, it would have been reasonable for them to expect he would again confirm that relationship. But he doesn’t. Instead he reminds them that he is very clear that he is not biased toward them. Their confidence was not to be based on perception of favoritism or partiality on God’s part. Yes, they were (and are) his chosen people, but their chosen-ness is due to God’s plans and purposes for the whole world. God’s ongoing favor toward Israel is to fulfill his promise to Abraham: “Through you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Bereshit/Genesis 12:3; Galatians 3:8). Israel certainly benefits from this arrangement, but benefits aside, they needed to understand that it wasn’t that God was on their side, but they were called to be on his.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Realizing Reality

For the week of March 24, 2018 / 8 Nisan 5778

Five illustrations of a man in different states of realization

Tzav
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36 (English 6:8 – 8:36)
Haftarah: Malachi 3:4-24 (English 3:4 – 4:6)

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The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “If anyone sins and commits a breach of faith against the LORD by deceiving his neighbor in a matter of deposit or security, or through robbery, or if he has oppressed his neighbor or has found something lost and lied about it, swearing falsely—in any of all the things that people do and sin thereby – if he has sinned and has realized his guilt and will restore what he took by robbery or what he got by oppression or the deposit that was committed to him or the lost thing that he found or anything about which he has sworn falsely, he shall restore it in full and shall add a fifth to it, and give it to him to whom it belongs on the day he realizes his guilt. And he shall bring to the priest as his compensation to the LORD a ram without blemish out of the flock, or its equivalent, for a guilt offering. And the priest shall make atonement for him before the LORD, and he shall be forgiven for any of the things that one may do and thereby become guilty.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 6:1-7 [English: 6:8-14])

As you may be aware, I don’t normally begin with such a lengthy quote, but I couldn’t think of a more succinct way to provide the scriptural basis for what I want to address this week. It’s more important than usual due to the need to adjust some of what I said in last week’s message, The Ultimate Sacrifice. I had stated unequivocally that under the Old Covenant, there was no sacrifice for intentional sin. I referenced the book of B’midbar/Numbers 15:30, which uses the term “high hand” which apparently is a way to speak of intentionality: “But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people.” “Cut off” could mean either execution or banishment. At the same time, we saw that King David’s sincere and humble prayer of confession in Psalm 51 for his intentional sins was accepted by God in spite of there being no appropriate sacrifice for what he did.

Now to this week’s portion, especially its opening verses that I read. Here it appears there is sacrifice for intentional sin after all. How did I miss that? The intentional/unintentional distinction vis-à-vis sacrifice and forgiveness appears to be common among interpreters. But after taking a closer look at these verses, I am not sure that such a distinction is so cut and dried. Certainly, when someone realizes guilt it may imply that they were not previously aware of it. But is being unaware necessarily a sign of unintentionality? It could be. For example, if you fail to stop at a stop sign, the authorities are not to accept your claim of not seeing the sign as the basis of innocence. While it could happen that a stop sign may have been significantly obstructed, unawareness on its own doesn’t preclude guilt. Still, unawareness is a factor in determining unintentionality.

But is that what is going on here? Does realizing guilt necessarily imply lack of awareness and unintentionality? Let’s look closer at the passage. It begins with “If anyone sins and commits a breach of faith against the LORD by deceiving his neighbor in a matter of deposit or security, or through robbery, or if he has oppressed his neighbor or has found something lost and lied about it, swearing falsely…” Does this sound unintentional to you? Deceiving a neighbor regarding money or goods? Theft? Oppression? Lying? Swearing falsely? Do people not realize what they are doing when they do such things? Might they not be aware of how serious such things are? It’s possible, I guess. Certainly, they may not feel guilty about doing whatever they did. Those of you who suffer from constant guilt, this might be hard to believe. But it’s amazing how psychologically disconnected some people can be.

Guilt is an objective reality. Our wrongs place us automatically out of sorts with God and the world. Our realization of guilt is not what makes it real, however. The effects of guilt create havoc whether or not we are aware of it. Realization brings us to the place where we can finally deal with it. And that’s what the guilt offering provided to the people.

Sinning with a high hand, therefore, may be more along the lines of a certain kind of purposeful intentionality beyond what’s described here, including overt rebellion against God. This passage, on the other hand, refers to “in any of all the things that people do and sin thereby.” Not to belittle any of these things, but we are encouraged to admit the commonality of such behavior. But unintentional? I don’t think so.

We need to take responsibility for the ungodly aspects of our lives no matter what our awareness-level is. Not feeling guilty is no excuse. People will use having peace about something as license to get away with sinning. That they are unaware of the seriousness of their wrong is one thing. That they and everyone around is suffering due to their resistance to the truth is another.

I can’t speak to individual situations, but perhaps some subconsciously remain unaware of their guilt because they are afraid of the consequences. When that’s the case, we would do better to be more afraid of not realizing our guilt. Once we allow guilt to rise in our consciousness, we can finally do something about it. First, we restore the intimacy of relationship with those affected by making amends as able. Second, we restore intimacy with God though sacrifice. Under the Old Covenant that was done by the method described in our Torah portion. Under the New, we receive the benefits of Yeshua’s ultimate sacrifice through faith.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Ultimate Sacrifice

For the week of March 17, 2018 / 1 Nisan 5778

Vayikra
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26 (English: 1:1 – 6:7); Shemot/Exodus 12:1-20
Haftarah: Ezekiel 45:16-46; Isaiah 66:1-24

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If anyone of the common people sins unintentionally in doing any one of the things that by the LORD’s commandments ought not to be done, and realizes his guilt, or the sin which he has committed is made known to him, he shall bring for his offering a goat, a female without blemish, for his sin which he has committed. (Vayikra/Leviticus 4:27-28)

For the New Covenant believer, the concept of sin and forgiveness is central. We understand that whatever the Old Covenant sacrificial system meant, it in some way points to the Messiah’s ultimate sacrifice. For that reason, it is understandable that we would search for parallels between the multi-purpose sacrifice of animals and Yeshua’s unjust death. The problem is it is difficult to draw exact parallels. First, not all sacrifice was for sin. At times people would offer something to express gratitude for example. In contrast, the Messiah’s death was altogether tragic. Even though Yeshua freely accepted his mission, however, there was nothing good nor celebratory about his having to die. While the results of his death were good, and the resurrection should be celebrated, the process of death itself was not good. Therefore, Yeshua’s sacrifice only parallels those sacrifices that were for sin of some kind.

Another dissimilarity is the animals didn’t unduly suffer when killed. They weren’t beaten beforehand as Yeshua was, and they were killed quickly unlike Yeshua’s slow, excruciating, humiliating death on a Roman cross.

There’s at least one more difference. We see it in the verses I quoted at the beginning. You might be surprised to learn that Old Covenant sacrifice for sin was only for unintentional sin. There were no sacrifices for intentional sin at all. The consequence for intentional sin, the Hebrew phrase for that being sinning with a “high hand” (B’midbar/Numbers 15:30), was either banishment or death. This could be why King David in his well-known penitential psalm says:

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise

(Psalm 51:18-19; English: 51:16-17)

This is not a New Testament-esque post-sacrificial system advanced theology of anti-animal sacrifice. It’s that there were no sacrifices to cover David’s intentional sins of adultery and murder. The only acceptable action on David’s part is what he did – honestly and humbly admit his guilt.

What was the point of sacrifice for sin if it was not to cover serious, intentional wrongdoing? It appears the loss of animal life was designed to make the people aware of their sinful condition. Most of us are conscious of our big sins, while tending to go through life blind to how much we really fall short. The sacrifices helped the people in ancient times to take even their unintentional shortcomings seriously. Sin is costly to ourselves and to those around us; it is also an affront to God who created us to serve him and his purposes. Instead of glibly saying, “nobody’s perfect,” we need to be made aware of the great chasm caused by our ever-present failings and the world as it was supposed to be.

It should be obvious that if unintentional sin was serious enough to require the killing of innocent animals, how much more serious is intentional sin? No wonder Yeshua’s offering was so different from animal sacrifice. It was the only sacrifice designed to truly take away sin. Old Covenant ritual wasn’t simply symbolically foreshadowing a similar, but greater, sacrifice, rather it prepared Israel and the world for a much different, far more effective sacrifice – one that would deal with sin once and for all.

In spite of the supreme effectiveness of Yeshua’s death for sin, its effects are not applied to us automatically. In order to experience the benefits of what Yeshua has done, we need to echo David’s words. On our own we have nothing to offer that could satisfy the great losses we have caused the world or the affront our lives have been to our Creator. Nothing apart God’s full giving of himself in the person of the Messiah is sufficient to resolve our alienation from him. Making it our own requires a turning of our lives in faith to Yeshua and personally accepting the precious gift of his ultimate sacrifice.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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