The Speed of Life

For the week of September 22, 2018 / 13 Tishri 5779

Concept art of business man riding on top of a missile

Ha’azinu
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:1-52
Haftarah: 2 Samuel 22:1-51

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If they were wise, they would understand this; they would discern their latter end! (D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:29)

One of the fascinating things science has demonstrated is that everything is always moving. When we are sitting or standing still, our sense of non-motion is only relative to the other creatures and objects around us. But we are moving at an astounding rate. Not only is the earth rotating at about 1600 km/hr (1000 mph), while orbiting the sun at 107,000 km/hr (66,000 mph), the earth and the sun are both moving within our galaxy at approximately 70,000 km/hr (43,000 mph). In addition, our galaxy is spinning while it itself is moving within the universe (see https://astrosociety.org/edu/publications/tnl/71/howfast.html). You get the point. I am so glad that while I have trouble sleeping on airplanes, I can dream away in my bed, while flying at unimaginable speeds.

The earth is on a trajectory to somewhere. Exactly where we don’t know. It’s like our lives. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are constantly developing as we move at lightning speed to the future. Time may feel slow depending on what we’re going through, but like the earth in space, it’s moving. Within our bodies, cells are dying and replenishing. At any moment we are not identical to the person we were a split second ago. Only death can put an end to that.

Until then, every momentary thought, action, and reaction is an investment in our future. Not only are we never truly physically still, we are moving toward a personal destination, a destiny. And that destiny is largely dependent on us.

This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) contains Moses’ song to the Israelites not long before his death. It’s not a very happy song as he speaks of their inevitable demise. Over time, things will not go well. They won’t go well because they were clued out about where they were heading. Like most of us, they would live in the now, blind to how they were setting themselves up for failure.

Moses didn’t sing the blues to make them feel bad. It was to help them (and us!) learn to look where they were going. Wisdom, Moses chants, would put them on a very different trajectory. Wisdom, the skill of effective living based on God’s ways, would set a course to a wonderful destination. Wisdom perceives the course of the trajectory. Wisdom knows there’s a destination. Wisdom plans accordingly. Foolishness ignores that we are moving at all. Foolishness drones on and on: life is meaningless; nothing changes; we aren’t going anywhere; there’s no destination; live for the moment; now is all there is.

It’s so easy to fool ourselves. Apart from life moving at an imperceptible pace, the consequences aren’t immediately apparent. No alarm bells. No sirens. Yet, all the while, we are molding the person we become. Every intention, every action, sculpts a finished product we don’t know we are crafting. Until it’s over. Before we know it, we reach the destination, when we see God and discover how it all ends for us. You might think you are standing still, going nowhere. But that’s only an illusion. Your life is speeding along like lightning. What will you have to show for it? Not only will you have to give an account for what God has entrusted to you, your eternal quality of life will be based on what you have done with yourself.

You can change your trajectory. The momentum you have built up needn’t carry you down the path of destruction any longer. God will help you make that sharp turn right now and set you on course for a most wonderful finish. Why wait?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Be the Miracle

For the week of September 15, 2018 / 6 Tishri 5779

Silhouette of man jumping over gap between two cliffs.

Vayelech (Shuva)
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 31:1-30
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2-10 (English 14:1-9); Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-17

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Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 31:6)

My coming to know God through Yeshua the Messiah just over forty-two years ago completely transformed my life. A few months before my nineteenth birthday, I started having panic attacks. They abated over much of the summer but came back with a vengeance as September approached. I had no interest in spiritual things and so was being nothing more than polite when I started up a conversation with the first Jewish follower of Yeshua I had ever met. Over the course of an hour and a half I encountered the prophecies about the Messiah in the Jewish Bible (Old Testament), learned about the significance of sin, discovered my need to repent, and was invited to ask Yeshua into my heart and life. While I had a strange sense that something significant was happening, it wasn’t until the following evening that I realized I had experienced a miracle, having not had a panic attack for an entire day. For months I was on cloud nine.

The emotional high didn’t last, however, as the specters of my past returned. Until recently I understood this to be God at work, calling me to deal with unresolved issues. The extreme positive nature of my early days in the Messiah was due to its being new, I thought. However difficult my life seemed to be as a youth, that was nothing compared to the challenges of adulthood with marriage, children, work, and so on. That I began with a honeymoon period is wonderful. But it takes a certain level of maturity to accept that God wasn’t as real in my life as I thought he was. The last thing I want is to live in a fantasy of spiritual deception.

A few months ago, I was challenged to rethink this. Not that deception is okay, but perhaps I misinterpreted the loss of joy and excitement I had at the beginning. Instead of my issues being the kind of reasonable pain that comes from facing personal weakness, might it be that I responded to the challenges of adulthood by reverting to the ungodly habits of my youth? Perhaps my struggles were not due to my need to be honest about my deficiencies, but rather because I had become distracted from the power and goodness of God.

`Don’t get me wrong, we need to honestly deal with our deficiencies, what the Bible calls “sin” – all the ways we think and live that are not in keeping with God’s standards. But that’s the point. It’s one thing to be honest about sins’ remnants in our lives, it’s another to allow them to continue to control us.

Even though I have no doubt my miracle was real, there was something about it that I now believe I misinterpreted. I had been an anxious and hopeless mess until God burst into my life. From my perspective, I was like the people of Israel in bondage in Egypt. In my case the bondage was emotional, but no less oppressive. I was trapped until God rescued me. Where I went wrong, I think, is that I have interpreted the vestiges of emotional bondage through the lens of my earlier victimhood. Just as I couldn’t do anything about it until God showed up, I expected I needed to wait for him to come through time and time again. Until then, there wasn’t anything I could do about it. That’s what’s called a victim mentality.

It was a victim mentality that prevented the generation that left Egypt from confidently entering the Promised Land. Even though God miraculously rescued them and demonstrated his love and power to them over and over again, they couldn’t trust him enough to face the later challenges of acquiring their inheritance.

Now as the second generation had the same opportunity, they were called to be “strong and courageous.” God was not going to simply wipe out their enemies and transport his people into Canaan. They themselves had to do it. It’s not as if they were on their own, of course. God would be with them. God guaranteed victory. But they still had to fight. In order to fight and win, they had to trust God. Trusting God means not giving in to fear. To do that requires no longer thinking like a victim. It means to purposely turn from fear and actively trust God, instead of waiting for him to take the fear away.

There are times, such as my introduction to Yeshua, where God overwhelms us with his miraculous power, doing for us what we in no way can do for ourselves. But these miracles are not designed to create passive misguided overdependence on God in the name of faith. Rather they are to equip us to be “strong and courageous,” trusting him to confidently fulfill the exploits to which he calls us. How many times are we waiting for a miracle when what God really wants is for us to be the miracle?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Crazy Peace

For the week of September 8, 2018 / 28 Elul 5778

Face of a man wearing peace sign sunglasses

Nitzavim
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20 (English 29:10 – 30:20)
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9

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Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the LORD our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, “I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 29:17-18; English: 29:18-19)

Last week, we looked at how Moses regarded the new generation of Israelites as truly embracing their identity as God’s people, something at which their parents had failed miserably. Still, as further developed in this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion), they needed to be reminded not to take their relationship with God for granted. Instead they were to be conscious of the danger of turning away to other gods.

Moses explains that this danger can be subtle, since the pull towards falsehood didn’t solely exist in the external world around them, but also within their own hearts. Unless they were actively aware of this, they could easily deceive themselves. The subtlety, however, was not due to the possibility of temptation toward ungodly behavior, but how individuals may relate to that temptation.

It’s one thing to feel drawn toward illicit behavior. Fighting temptation can be overwhelming at times. In those times, we can tend to overly identify with the temptation, thinking we have no choice but to fulfill desires we normally loathe. But that’s not Moses’ concern. It’s not the false gods themselves that are the problem. It’s that there is something worse at play here. It’s an attitude. The presence of this attitude almost certainly guarantees succumbing to the lure of ungodliness in its innumerable forms.

This attitude is expressed in Hebrew as “hitbarech bilvavo lemor shalom yi-ye-li” (“he will bless his heart saying, I have peace in me”). In the translation I quoted at the beginning, shalom, the common word for “peace,” is translated as “safety.” The word shalom refers to completeness – everything in its right place, which is often best expressed as peace. In this context, however, the person claims to have peace in himself. In our day, we might say, “I’m okay” or “I’m good,” as an expression of feeling inner peace or safety.

In spite of feelings, this is an absolute denial of reality. Turning from God’s word to pursue the lies and perverted behaviors of false gods creates havoc for those who do such things as well as for their relationships. It’s not as if these people are ignorant of what they are doing. They have heard God’s Word. They understand the warnings. They even know they are stubbornly refusing to do what God says. Yet their sense of peace creates a self-centered false security that prevents them from doing what is good and right, blinding them to the inevitable doom that awaits them.

You might be surprised if I told you that the basis of this deceptive peace is fear. Human beings can be so afraid of fear that we shut it out completely. In order to avoid terrible consequences, we convince ourselves that everything is okay, when it is anything but. We prevent ourselves from feeling fear by feeding ourselves falsehoods, such as what we are considering isn’t all that bad, our situation is an exception to the rule, or that God doesn’t really mean what he says. The positive feedback from these lies is so strong that it instantly becomes reality to us. At that point the deception is complete and we’re living in a world of our own making. In that world, God’s truth appears as false.

Feelings of peace on their own indicate nothing. Both good or bad feelings may or not reflect the reality of our hearts or the world around us. Confidence is a good thing, but not when it’s ill-informed. The only trustworthy indication of truth and reality is God’s Word. To think that we can get away with misbehavior on the basis of a personal sense of peace is nothing less than crazy.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

But what about “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding”? Is that crazy too? Find out on TorahBytes Live, scheduled for Thursday, September 6, 2018 at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time. Recorded version will be available immediately following:

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Being and Becoming

For the week of September 1, 2018 / 21 Elul 5778

Potential success concept as a full-grown tree as a reflection in water of a sapling

Ki Tavo
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8 (English 26:1 – 29:9)
Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1-22

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Then Moses and the Levitical priests said to all Israel, “Keep silence and hear, O Israel: this day you have become the people of the LORD your God. You shall therefore obey the voice of the LORD your God, keeping his commandments and his statutes, which I command you today.” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 27:9-10)

Why do Moses and the priests say to the people of Israel: “This day you have become the people of the LORD your God”? Were they not already God’s people? Didn’t God direct Moses and his brother, Aaron, almost forty years earlier to tell Pharaoh, King of Egypt, to let his people go (e.g. Shemot/Exodus 5:1)? God’s considering Israel as his people was based on an already established relationship, rooted in their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That’s why God said to Moses when he first spoke to him at the burning bush: “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Shemot/Exodus 3:8-9).

Much had transpired since that time. This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) takes place about forty years later. The bulk of the generation who had been slaves in Egypt have died by now. They died, not simply due to natural causes, but God’s judgement upon their faithlessness when first faced with the prospect of taking the Promised Land (see B’midbar/Number 13-14). Could it be that due to the previous generation’s obstinance, Israel’s peoplehood status was lost, and that it was not restored until Moses and the priests made this pronouncement? Could it be that they are not only being given a second chance to take the Land, but also in terms of their divine chosenness?

It is difficult to overstate how farfetched such a conclusion is. From God’s promises to the forefathers to his continued involvement with Israel in spite of their attitude and behavior throughout their wilderness wanderings, God couldn’t make it any clearer that he was absolutely committed to them. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be reading about their getting ready to enter the Land again.

If their status as God’s people isn’t in question, then what’s with this kind of wording? Could you imagine, my taking one of my adult sons aside and saying, “Today you have become my son”? Or maybe you can. Relationship is a complex thing, whether it be of a very personal nature as in me and each of my children or on a broader scale as in a leader and his or her community. My children will always be my children, but they may or may not grow up to embrace their heritage and their destiny. That’s up to them. That which establishes the parent-child relationship is one thing, that which fully expresses it is another.

This generation of Israel was different than the one before. Tragically, their parents didn’t reflect the reality of who they were as God’s people and suffered as a result. Their status as God’s chosen was no different from the next generation, but their children embraced who they were in a way they (the previous generation) did not. The reality of this difference would be evident in the days and years ahead.

Relationship with God must not be taken for granted. Remember, the ones who survived the ten plagues, celebrated the first Passover, crossed the sea, ate the manna, received the Torah, and on and on, failed to trust God when it was time to enter the land of promise. Peoplehood in and of itself doesn’t guarantee embracing it. This is why the next generation needed to hear this affirmation. The true essence of their peoplehood was not solely based on their past, but upon the reality of who they were at that moment, a moment that needed to continue from that day onward.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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For further discussion, watch this episode of TorahBytes Live, scheduled for Wednesday, August 29, 2018 at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time. Recorded version will be available immediately following:

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Being Responsible

For the week of August 25, 2018 / 14 Elul 5778

Flat roof installation

Ki Teze
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10

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When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 22:8)

I hate being wrongly accused! I remember when this first happened to me. My mom didn’t ask me if I did whatever it was. She demanded to know why I did it, and I blew up. I was too young at the time to fully understand the complexity of this injustice, but that she would attach to me something I had nothing to do with was absolutely scandalous in my eyes.

I take my responsibilities very seriously. I am not saying that I always successfully deliver on what’s required of me. It’s that I am very aware of what’s happening around me and am constantly asking myself if the burden of action is on my shoulders. Perhaps this is why I find it hard to handle when those close to me appear to insinuate that I am not doing my part.

What I didn’t realize until recently, however, is that what I thought was an overly developed sense of responsibility clouded my perception of the world and crippled my ability to accept what actually comprises my God-given roles. It wasn’t responsibility that motivated me after all; rather it was the fear of guilt and shame. I can’t say for sure, but it might be the accusation incident with my mother years ago, that instilled in me the perceived need to defend myself against the threat of disapproval. I am now beginning to understand that biblically based responsibility is an act of obedience to God built on a foundation of trust based on God’s love and goodness.

God gives his children responsibility. This stems back to the beginning when Adam and Eve were made stewards of the creation. It is what is behind every human being’s calling to make a positive difference in the world. Yet due to our alienation from God, the gift of being caretakers of the planet has been twisted in all sorts of ways. Instead of sharing in the splendor of God’s mission on earth, we are driven to find our identity in what we do instead of in who we are as God’s children.

As believers in Yeshua this can take on all sorts of spiritual overtones. In my case, I could be so intent on doing the right thing or saying what needs to be said that I may not be sufficiently sensitive to the people around me. The irony is I claim to be the “big picture” guy, quick to point out the implications of things that apparently others are missing. Yet, at the same time, I miss the big picture of life around me, oblivious to how my sense of urgency may be negatively affecting others.

In this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion), we learn about the need to take responsibility. God directed the people of Israel to make a protective barrier around the perimeter of their roofs to avoid injury. How often are we so keen to build our lives without taking the time to care for the welfare of others. We drive ourselves in the pursuit of our goals and neglect those things that we should be most concerned about.

Notice that the protective barrier was only necessary if and when a house was built. No house, no barrier. Houses can be dangerous. That’s why God directed the adding of the barrier. While I might focus on the building and neglect the protective barrier, your preference might be to avoid building at all. That way you keep yourself from ever being in the position where danger is a remote possibility.

Both approaches amount to similar things. Just because I might be really intense, expressing concern about almost everything doesn’t mean I am doing what I am supposed to be doing. Building wrongly and not building at all are both ways to skirt our responsibilities. Let us not be afraid to fulfill whatever it is God is calling us to do. As we do, let us remember to include those things that care for others along the way. We are responsible for both.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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For further discussion, watch this episode of TorahBytes Live, scheduled for Wednesday, August 22, 2018 at 4:30 p.m. Eastern Time. Recorded version will be available immediately following:

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Living Like a King

For the week of August 18, 2018 / 7 Elul 5778

Elegant ballroom with grand piano, couch, and gold columns

Shofetim
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12

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And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes (D’varim/Deuteronomy 17:19)

When we think of the elite of society, whether it be in our day or in ancient times, we tend to focus on their perks and privileges. Their houses are bigger and nicer, their modes of transportation are the best of the best. Everything about their lives is above and beyond the comforts and pleasures of the rest of us. But that’s not the whole picture. You have most likely heard the saying that goes something like: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Many ascribe this to the fictional Uncle Ben of Spiderman fame, but it’s much older than that, probably going back to the time of the French Revolution (see https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/07/23/great-power/). The truth contained in this statement is rooted in Yeshua’s words: “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48).

Positions of authority include more than privilege, power, and responsibility, however. It is this additional ingredient that makes all the difference between leaders successfully fulfilling their crucial roles and causing unnecessary destruction and harm. It’s the need of a good education. I am not talking about acquiring degrees from prestigious institutions. There are ways to do that while not learning anything useful along the way. I am also not talking about career skills, since those are relatively easy to acquire. I am talking about learning how to become a good person. Without that, all the prestige and skills in the world won’t amount to anything. This is especially the case for those called to positions of authority as their lives have far greater impact on others.

This is why God required kings of Israel to be life-long students of Torah. As a leader, he was not to regard himself as being above the law, but rather be subject to it. In order to do that, he was not to rely upon his advisors and teachers to know God’s written revelation. Not that he wouldn’t have teachers and advisors, but their role was to equip him to be able to read the Torah for himself. That would include not only learning to read the text but reading it intelligently.

Personal reading of Scripture would have been very rare. Not only were copies of the Torah not in abundance, the people wouldn’t hear it read that often. God directed the cohanim (English: the priests) to read the Torah to the people once every seven years during the Feast of Sukkot (English: Tabernacles or Booths) (see D’varim/Deuteronomy 31:10-11). It would be many centuries before the synagogue would provide weekly Torah readings within Israelite society. This meant that only certain people required the ability to read. Kings may have been the only non-cohenim to personally read the Books of Moses.

The greatest obstacle to having direct interaction with the divine writings was that access to books in general was highly restricted. Not because it was forbidden for common folks to read the sacred text, but because so few copies were available. It’s almost impossible for us, who live almost six hundred years after Gutenberg’s inventing the printing press, to imagine life without books. We have a hard-enough time remembering what it was like to not have ready access to much of the world’s writing in our pockets, let alone the pre-Gutenberg days when owning a copy of a book was the unique domain of royalty and the rich.

But these are not those days. Today we can all live like kings. God’s directive to kings regarding the reading of Torah was not a symbol of privilege or an initiation rite. It had no ceremonial function at all. It was practical. He was to read the Torah “that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes.” To be a good king required being a good person. To be a good person required reading the Torah. We all have the exact same need. The only difference between ancient Israelite kings and ourselves is access.

There’s nothing magical about reading the Bible. It is God’s equipment to enable us to live effective, godly lives. As one of the greatest Torah scholars of all time writes:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

To not take advantage of what was at one time the privilege of the few is to rob ourselves of God’s provision for living an abundant life. So, let’s pick up a Bible and live like kings!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

For further discussion, watch this episode of TorahBytes Live (scheduled for Thursday, August 16, 2018 at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time (recorded version will be available immediately following):

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When in Rome, Don’t

For the week of August 11, 2018 / 30 Av 5778

Castel Sant'Angelo, Parco Adriano, Rome

Castel Sant’Angelo, overlooking the Tiber River in Rome

Re’eh
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17 & B’midbar/Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24

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When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 12:29-31)

There is a good deal of wisdom in the saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Before venturing into a foreign culture, we are well-advised to learn as much as we can about local customs and conventions to avoid misunderstanding and cause unnecessary offense. This principle doesn’t only apply to travelling to distant places. Interacting with neighbors and co-workers may require crossing very long cultural bridges in order to communicate effectively. Many years ago, the young lady who would one day become my wife had a roommate, the daughter of Canadian parents, who grew up in a South American country. The roommate was aghast when she first saw someone use the common gesture of making an “o” with their thumb and forefinger to signify “okay.” This was because where she grew up, such a gesture was vulgar (it didn’t mean “okay”!). Obviously, should we ever venture to that country, we would avoid the gesture, even though to us it is completely innocuous.

Tragically, many well-intentioned (and not-so-well-intentioned) people have caused a significant amount of damage due to ignoring the sage advice of “when in Rome, do.” Oft times it’s due to ignorance, other times to moral superiority. There is no excuse for the former, though hopefully such sins are worthy of patience and forgiveness. Moral superiority, on the other hand, is far more complex.

It is too simplistic to apply “when in Rome, do” to every context, however. For example, while eating and drinking like a local is a wonderful way to connect with people of other countries and cultures, it can be deadly. Locals have adapted to their environment over time. And while “when in Rome, do” may be a lovely gesture, it is not okay in this case. But accepting one’s inability to immediately acclimatize to a foreign environment is also no excuse for showing arrogant disdain towards cultural differences. Business people and missionaries have often been infamous for this kind of insensitivity. Perhaps they have good things to offer that would indeed greatly benefit the target culture, but carrying one’s self with an air of superiority tends to offset whatever potential benefits there may be.

God’s word to ancient Israel was clearly, “When in Rome, don’t.” However offensive this is to modern readers, God was establishing a morally and spiritually superior culture in what had been known as the land of Canaan. The wickedness of the people Israel was to dispossess was so extreme, Israel wasn’t even to ask about it.

However you might think about such an approach, this chapter of God’s epic story was unique. Israel was to establish a new culture untainted by other spiritual and moral influences. That this failed is a different chapter for another time. Skipping over the failure chapter for now, God’s story eventually sees Israel moving beyond its borders into the rest of the world. This is a key aspect of the epoch launched by the coming of the Messiah. Following Yeshua’s resurrection, the time had come to venture toward Rome (actually and figuratively).

So, when in Rome, is it “do” or “don’t”? On one hand it was “do,” as it was necessary to enculturate the truth of God. On the other hand, it was “don’t,” as it was also necessary to preserve the essence of that truth. The challenge in those early years was how best to embody God’s word within foreign cultures without compromising it.

Today, there tends to be more emphasis on cultural adaptation. As a result, those components of Scripture deemed problematic are downplayed or completely discarded. Israel’s earlier call to absolute purity is regarded as obsolete if not altogether misguided. This fails to appreciate the necessary preparation God’s people needed to experience in order to equip them one day to make the positive difference among the nations in the name of the Messiah.

The early Jewish believers wisely embraced the delicate balance of communicating the uncompromising truths of God within foreign, not to mention hostile, cultural settings. They understood those elements of Scripture that were uniquely Jewish, while identifying those which were universal. They knew “when in Rome, do, but sometimes don’t.”

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

For further discussion, watch this episode of TorahBytes Live (scheduled for Thursday, August 9, 2018 at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time (recorded version will be available immediately following):

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The Whys

For the week of August 4, 2018 / 23 Av 5778

The word "why" written on multiple road signs

Eikev
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25
Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14 – 51:3

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Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, “It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,” whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 9:4-5)

Getting the facts straight about what’s going on is difficult enough, but understanding why they happen is just about impossible. But that doesn’t stop people from constantly trying to determine the reasons behind the circumstances of their lives. Whether it be informally with friends or through the media, we don’t always notice how supposed facts are overlaid with opinion. That’s because human beings have an insatiable hunger to go beyond the plain facts and grasp the “why”s behind them.

It’s ironic to me that this is still a question in a world that more and more rejects the existence of personal spiritual forces in favor of a naturalistic worldview. I purposely mentioned personal spiritual forces, because, while some people are pure materialists who deny that spiritual forces exist at all, spirituality in various forms is obviously nonetheless popular. What is usually rejected today is a spiritual dimension that purposely and intelligently engages human affairs. Philosophically, the belief in impersonal spiritual forces is not different from atheistic naturalism as far as meaning is concerned. The only people who can legitimately expect an answer as to why something happened are those who accept the reality of a personal spiritual realm.

Let me explain. Let’s take the story of Noah’s ark. The simple facts as the Bible reports them are as follows. After Noah and his family along with samples of each animal kind enter the enormous boat-like structure he built, heavy torrential rains plus underground water eruptions occur. The result is a world-wide flood that kills all the people as well as the land and air creatures. After a year, when the water subsides, Noah, his family, and the animals repopulate and recultivate the earth. Upon hearing of such a calamity, there are two types of whys we tend to want to answer. First, what caused these events in terms of natural causality. This is the kind of information offered to us by meteorologists as in, “a low-pressure system combined with a fast-moving cold front will produce significant precipitation and possible severe thunderstorms.” I made this up for illustrative purposes only and has no reflection on Noah’s weather. Noah’s flood was likely proceeded by unique weather patterns. I would call this kind of “why” a “what.” It’s a description of what circumstances occurred that resulted in another set of circumstances. While we may find this informative and provides a sense of understanding, it’s not really a why. If I total my new car in a crash, my asking, “Why did this happen to me?” is not a question about the cause and effect of physical properties that led up to my situation. Your telling me about road conditions, mechanical failure, and human distraction will not satisfy my why.

Whether it is the story of Noah’s ark or Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land as discussed by Moses in this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion), the Bible provides the whys we often look for. Whether it is the whys we like or agree with is another matter. Unlike the human opinions we are constantly bombarded with every day by friends, co-workers, and journalists, the Bible gives us the actual whys.

God anticipated Israel’s why regarding their soon-to-be accomplishment. Understanding human nature, he knew that Israel’s success would be interpreted by them to mean that they were better than the peoples they conquered. Wrong! Their victory was solely based on two things. First, the current inhabitants were so wicked, that, similar to the vast majority of people in Noah’s day, they had to be wiped out. It’s so easy for survivors, not to mention conquerors, to think they are morally superior than the conquered. But looking at the plight of others in order to puff up our view of ourselves is completely misguided. The second reason for Israel’s accomplishment was that God was fulfilling his land promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Both whys undermine any attempt at interpreting God’s blessings as a sign of personal superiority.

I wonder how many of our whys are informed by a false sense of self. Whatever our life’s circumstances are, we are not better than anyone else. Most of the time, we don’t know why things happen. Tragically, that doesn’t stop us from spouting off misinformed opinion. It seems we are more interested in answers that satisfy us than in the truth. Why is that?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

For further discussion on this topic, watch this edition of TorahBytes Live:

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Your Story in Two Acts

For the week of July 28, 2018 / 16 Av 5778

Crimson theater curtain slightly parted with bright light showing through with the words, Act 2 will begin shortly

V’etchannan
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26

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Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1-2)

One cannot overstate the drama of Isaiah’s comfort call. The contrast of these words with what comes before is so great that scholars tend to assume that they are authored by a different speaker/writer. The contrast of tone isn’t the only reason for the common scholarly determination of more than one “Isaiah,” but I don’t find such a conclusion compelling. What we really have is the start of a sequel or a new act.

Act One had ended with the stage gone dark. All hope is lost, because Israel had spiraled down to the apparent point of no return. The narrative closed with a most cynical tale of King Hezekiah, one of the greatest of all Jewish kings, receiving God’s message from Isaiah that even though he successfully overcame the Assyrian siege and was miraculously cured of a lethal illness, Babylon, the empire to succeed Assyria, will vanquish his dynasty and take the people into exile. If that’s not bad enough, the hitherto noble king, comforts himself with the news that this won’t happen until he is long dead.

Act Two begins with a brilliant explosion of good news: “Comfort, comfort my people,” says Israel’s God – judgement has run its course, warfare has ended; sin is forgiven. The Hebrew word for “comfort” is “nacham” and has two meanings, depending on how it is used. Either way it denotes change. It could mean “to relent,” a change of intention – one plan of action replacing another. The meaning in this context, however, is “to comfort” or “to be comforted” – an emotional change, where one feels a certain way, usually bad, and is consoled, shifting their outlook on life.

Against the backdrop of despair and cynicism, is the promise of comfort. The diagnosis was devastating, the sickness far worse than imagined. Under normal circumstances, such a road leads to nothing but complete destruction. But not in this case – not as far as God’s people are concerned. The God of unconditional covenant love always has a positive future in mind for his precious people in spite of relatively short-term hardship.

Israel’s desperate plight at the end of Act One typifies our own day in many ways. In spite of previously unknown levels of affluence and the exceptional quality of life experienced by so many, societal and personal darkness pervades. From old and new terminal illnesses to political instability to grand-scale people displacement, to increasing violence, and the threat of nuclear annihilation, one little spark can set the entire world ablaze. We are becoming unglued as a cloud of meaninglessness and hopelessness saturates the global psyche. What’s the point of being human anyway?

God’s word to Israel was that the day was coming when their suffering would cease, creation would be renewed, and peace would reign forever. The Jewish people’s incessant angst and anguish would finally and forever be transformed, when chaos turns to order, destruction to rebuilding, sickness to health, death to life. Therefore, be comforted. The darkness will not last forever. Light will not only return but will never fade again.

These words of comfort are not for Israel alone. For God’s heart for the Jewish people as expressed at this stage in their history is a reflection of his desire for all peoples. Every human being has a story like Israel, albeit with a different cast of characters and unique sub-plots. Yet, whatever our heritage, the human story is the same: tragically dark and often hopeless, especially if we are honest. Yet, like Israel, your story needn’t end there. With God, there’s a second Act for you too.

You may have thought that your story ends with Act One. You may think there’s nothing beyond the darkness of your life. Or, like Hezekiah, you comfort yourself with short-term vision, making the best of your situation. “It could be worse,” you say. Yet you know if you would look beyond yourself, you couldn’t handle the state of the world.

But the story isn’t over. God will come through. He has proven that through the resurrection of the Messiah. You may already believe that even though you have a hard time being comforted. It might be that you are still stuck at the end of Act One, thinking, in spite of your claim to faith, darkness has the final word after all.

Excuse me while I flick off and on the lights. Intermission is over! There’s more to your story, because there is more to God’s story. Not only does he win in the end, he invites you to be part of it. Perhaps that’s your problem. All the while you have been sitting in the audience when you are cast as a star in the show. You don’t only get to be part of the grand conclusion, you have an essential role to play.

I understand why you are sitting there. Life has been so painful and so confusing. You have tried to comfort yourself to no avail. But that’s the problem. Right now, God wants to heal and restore you. And he will if you cooperate with him. You will be comforted, once you allow him to comfort you on his terms.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

Further discussion is available on this edition of TorahBytes Live:

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Teachability

For the week of July 7, 2018 / 24 Tammuz 5778

Son on father's lap, both sitting on floor, thinking

Pinchas
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 25:10 – 30:1
Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3

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But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 1:7-8)

I love to teach about Abraham for many reasons. I’ll get to Jeremiah shortly. Abraham is the biblical exemplar of a person of faith (see Romans 4:16). And with faith so central to having a genuine relationship with God, there is much we can learn from his life. One of the essential lessons we learn from Abraham is that we are never too old to make a positive difference. We don’t meet him until he is seventy-five, well past the normal age for what God called him to: leave family and the familiar for a foreign land and have a baby, the latter not happening until he was one hundred. Abraham is not the only senior citizen that didn’t get going on his God-given mission until later in life. Moses, being the next great example, received his marching orders at eighty.

Unlike our day, old age is highly esteemed in the Bible. We read in Mishlei (English: the book of Proverbs): “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life” (Mishlei/Proverbs 16:31). The   Scripture places on the elderly may lead some to devalue youth except for its potential. Obviously, there are lessons inaccessible to the young, because they can only be learned through experience over a long period of time.

This is apparently what Jeremiah was thinking when God called him. He disqualifies himself from being God’s spokesperson (that’s what a prophet is) on the basis of his being, in Hebrew, a na-ar, which is a reference to the period of life from infancy through adolescence, pre-adulthood in other words. We can’t determine his exact age, but he was most likely in his latter teens. Even if he was older, it is clear that he saw himself as unable due to his lack of life experience.

From God’s perspective, however, Jeremiah’s experience or lack thereof was irrelevant. Age doesn’t matter, because the God of unlimited resources is the one who equips us to effectively serve him. Because God often calls us unto the impossible, taking personal inventory is not going to encourage us to rise up to the occasion. Does that mean, then, that this is a case of all of God and nothing of us? When God enables us to do his bidding, are we no more than empty shells that he animates for his purposes? For him to truly work through us, are we to disengage self and get out of God’s way? Is that what God calls us to do? Is that what he called Jeremiah to do?

Every person’s life, whether acknowledged or not, is completely dependent on God. We wouldn’t be here without him. We wouldn’t survive, much less thrive, without him. That said, are we to be completely passive while he overtakes our person like a body snatcher? Of course not. Obedience to God is accomplished by cooperating with him. He has endowed human beings with all sorts of abilities specially designed to fulfill his purposes on earth. Submitting our abilities to his will allows us to be what he made us to be.

Jeremiah thought he was lacking the necessary experience to be a prophet of God. That he lacked experience is correct. What he didn’t take into account – he may not have been aware of it – was that he did possess a, if not the, foundational qualification: teachability.

God knew that he could teach Jeremiah how to be a prophet during one of the most difficult and confusing times in Israel’s history. His lack of experience likely worked in his favor because the type of message God gave him was so different from the normal prophetic tradition. There was no precedent to tell God’s people to surrender to the enemy as Jeremiah had to do.

The story of Jeremiah may lead you to think that youth are more teachable than the elderly, but that’s not true. Abraham and Moses were two of the most teachable men who have ever lived. In fact, it can take many years of a great variety of life experiences before one finally becomes teachable. As a young person, Jeremiah may actually be an exception. Many young people are know-it-alls. But whether young or old, we will never become what God wants us to be unless we are teachable.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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