Geography Is More than Scenery

For the week of October 12, 2019 / 13 Tishri 5780

Ein Gedi National Park. Israel

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

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The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge, my savior; you save me from violence. I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies. (2 Shmuel/2 Samuel 22:2-4)

I recently got back from my third trip to Israel. While there it struck me as never before how much the land itself is a key aspect of God’s revelation. The circumstances recorded in his Word took place in real time in a real place. That real place has unique geographical characteristics that provide more than just the scenery for its stories but help mold the divinely inspired experiences of its characters.

I am on a search for the perfect three-dimensional topographical map of Israel that I want to make an integral part of my Bible teaching. The dramatic geographical diversity within this relatively small country is breathtaking. It astounds me that in just over an hour you can drive from Jerusalem, which is about 750 meters (2,500 feet) above sea level to the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth at about 400 meters (1,300 feet) below sea level. So much of the land north to south is mountainous, with exquisite, fertile valleys between. Israel is beautifully framed by the fertile Jordan Valley to the east, snow-capped Mt. Hermon to the north, the beaches of Mediterranean Sea to the west, and the resort town of Eilat on the Red Sea to the south.

The stories of the Bible take on greater depth as we understand them within their geographical context. For example, seeing the environment in which King David spent much of his time shows us that the way he describes God in some of his closing words is not the product of abstract spiritual musings disconnected from everyday life. On the contrary. David’s referring to God as his rock, his fortress, his stronghold is reflective of the very terrain in which he sought protection from his enemies.

On more than one occasion David fled to the Judean Hills for refuge. These hills are rugged, difficult to traverse with steep ravines. They contain caves perfect for hiding. Now nearing the end of David’s life, having experienced God’s protection and faithfulness through a great deal of trouble, he extols the protection God provided him in such places. He describes his experience of God in terms of the geography in which he sought safety. The vividness of these metaphors for God and what he did for David is fueled by the actual terrain. When David sought protection, he didn’t stand in an open field with his enemies encircling him as he called upon God’s angels to protect him or make him invisible. Rather he purposely went to the most secure locations he knew of. Yet in the end he didn’t give credit to the interesting geography, nor did he thank God for providing it. He rightly understood that the effectiveness of the natural lay of the land was from God. If God hadn’t guided him and protected him, then the highest mountain and most complex cave would not have helped him.

David had a deep understanding of God as creator. To know God was to know him within the world he made. At the same time, he never confused the creation with the creator. While serving God was something to be lived out in the physical world, life’s meaning and purpose could not be derived from what God had made, but from God himself. Yet to know God as David did, allowed him to stand within the creation in such a way that it vividly reflected the character and power of God without ever taking his place.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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God’s Recipe for Life

For the week of October 5, 2019 / 6 Tishri 5780

Recipe book with vegetables on wooden table and the words "God's recipe for life" superimposed.

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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Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take with you words and return to the LORD; say to him, “Take away all iniquity…” (Hosea 14:2-3; English 14:1-2)

I like to remind people that life has no formulas, but that’s an overstatement. The world as God made it certainly includes effective standard procedures that the vast majority of the cases result in expected outcomes. Baking recipes are a good example of such a formula. If you follow the instructions, including the listed ingredients and the specified quantities, mixing as described, and baking at the right temperature for the precise amount of time, the result should be a good one.

The problem with formulas for life, unlike recipes, is that there are too many variables at play. Even the most complicated baking recipes are simplistic compared to the lives of human beings. That’s why I am cautious about presentations that claim to provide ten steps to whatever. While such content may include some timeless and practical wisdom that may be beneficial, there is no way that someone who doesn’t know me personally can guarantee outcome.

Years ago, a friend recommended a doctor who had developed a treatment for general malaise. So I thought it would be a good idea to check him out. After a while I realized that his treatment of certain vitamins in relatively large quantities and avoiding certain foods worked extremely well for some people, but not for others. This didn’t stop him, however, from thinking that he had come up with a perfect diet for a large portion of the population. Even though I was not seeing the near-to-miraculous results others had experienced, he encouraged me to stick with it. In fact, he told me that if it didn’t work for me, then I was doing it wrong.

I have seen this in other areas of life. People who have gotten help via a formula, be it a special diet, a health product, a business idea, or particular advice, often think that if it worked for them, it’s going to work for everyone else. It might work for some others, but not for everyone.

I delight in how the wisdom of Scripture is not formulaic. It somehow captures the complexities of life in such a way that allows people to engage an intricate dynamic that is highly relational and very profound. While understanding the common makeup of human nature, the Bible makes room for individual differences, levels of maturity, and cultural contexts.

Yet, through the prophet Hosea, we are introduced to a basic formula through which we can experience a right relationship with God. Hosea served during the demise of what was known as the Northern Kingdom of Israel that split away from the south under the reign of Solomon’s son Rehoboam. As it turned out, the people didn’t listen to Hosea’s words and were overcome by the Assyrian empire.

Israel’s refusal to follow God’s recipe for life is no reflection on its effectiveness, however. Unlike the claims of other supposed life formulas God’s recipe through Hosea includes core elements that if followed with sincerity will result in the promised outcome of restoration with the Creator. God’s recipe is found in chapter fourteen, verses three and four (English: verses two and three) and can be summed up as follows. (The following is a condensed summary; for a fuller explanation, you can listen to my sermon on this passage that I presented a few weeks ago.).

Decide to stop living life your own way and turn to the God of Israel. Speak to him out loud, asking him to help you be free from all that is controlling you and from which you cannot free yourself. Renounce all dependencies on earthly powers and man-made inventions. Also renounce all loyalties to false gods and powers that control your life. Acknowledge that God is merciful to the oppressed and be willing to reflect this same mercy to others. Finally, ask God to accept you on the basis of what he has done for you. Hosea states this in terms of “accept what is good.” What is good and acceptable to God is the sacrificial offering of the Messiah. Our failure to live up to God’s standards alienates us from him. Saying the words in themselves isn’t sufficient to re-engage God. But because of Yeshua’s death and resurrection we can turn back to him and have the kind of loving relationship with him for which humans were originally designed.

As we are in the midst of the Jewish high holy days, there is no better time to follow God’s recipe for life.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Sharing

For the week of September 14, 2019 / 14 Elul 5779

Young boy and girl picking berries in a field

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

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If you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in your bag. If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 23:24-25)

The Bible is far more than a book about God, morality, and spirituality. It is a holistic, comprehensive, integrated reflection of God’s perspective of life. In other words, it is a revelation of reality. While scientific analysis and philosophical musings may offer all sorts of interesting suggestions as to the nature of things, the universe is not subject to opinion. Rather, it is what it is. And the Bible provides sufficient insight as to what life is really all about.

This in no way should imply that our understanding of scripture necessary adequately represents the truth it reveals. We cannot completely escape historical misinterpretations and personal presuppositions that hinder our access to its depths. There’s also the challenge of how to bridge the ancient text to our modern context. None of this should stop us from diving in, however. In fact, the more we allow it to speak on its own terms, the more we will be confronted by its complex but accessible wisdom.

I try to engage the Bible with a whole lot of humility and awe. When I do so, I am in a place where I can continue to be challenged by God’s way of thinking. That’s what happened when I read through this week’s Torah portion, particularly the verses I quoted at the start.

According to this, in ancient Israel, someone walking through someone else’s field could help themselves to fruit or grain as desired. They were not to take more than they needed at the time. So while people were not to harvest someone else’s field, they could satisfy their hunger in the moment. I have read this many times. It’s also referred to as part of an interaction between Yeshua and the religious leaders in the Gospels (see Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5). But I don’t know if I have ever really thought about it.

It’s not as if the Torah disregards private property. From “Do not steal” (e.g. Shemot/Exodus 20:15) to the directive to return your enemy’s cattle (see Shemot/Exodus 23:4) to the importance of retaining one’s tribal inheritance (see B’midbar/Numbers 36:7), Israel was not set up to be a share-and-share-alike society. There was no legislative attempt to completely smooth out economic differences. There are clear guidelines to prevent the poor from becoming destitute, and people were encouraged to be generous, but no one had a right to take what belonged to someone else. Or maybe they did. Isn’t that what this says? There is also the principle of gleaning at harvest time when the poor were allowed to help themselves to the edges of a person’s field and to the grain dropped by the harvesters (e.g. Vayikra/Leviticus 19:9-10). This meant that field owners were not to fully exploit their fields for their own gain.

On one hand this is such a nice thought, but to be honest it makes me uncomfortable. Let’s say I have berry bushes growing along my backyard fence. If my property bordered a pedestrian pathway and my bushes protruded beyond the property line so that some berries were available within what would be deemed public, I would have no problem with people helping themselves to some berries. But the thought of them walking through my property and doing so, I find distasteful (excuse the pun).

But it’s not distasteful to God. Far from it! God wanted farmers (who were the bulk of that society) to allow for this kind of freedom. While people were not to treat other people’s stuff as if it was their own, God wanted a culture that freely shared. This really challenges me to rethink my concept of private property. While Torah affirms a level of property rights, they may not be as absolute as many of us prefer.

As I mentioned earlier, getting from biblical principles to the modern day can be challenging. But before we give thought about the appropriateness of how God’s directive here can be worked out in our neighborhoods and towns, I need to start with my heart and rethink my relationship to my stuff.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Unknown Passages

For the week of September 7, 2019 / 7 Elul 5779

Hidden stone passageway in Malaga, Spain

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

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Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? (Isaiah 53:1)

Each week TorahBytes provides what is known in Hebrew as a D’var Torah, “a word from the Torah,” the term Torah used here to refer to the Five Books of Moses. My intent is to bring the inspired word of the ancient text to the hearts and minds of modern readers and listeners. The Torah is foundational to the entire Bible, providing the basis for God’s perspective on life and living. The schedule I follow is the same as used in synagogues around the world that publically reads through the Torah on an annual cycle. The weekly Torah reading is chanted during services each Monday, Thursday, and Shabbat (English: the Sabbath/Saturday). On Shabbat and festivals an additional reading is chanted, referred to as Haftarah. That Haftarah sounds similar to the word Torah is a coincidence; it actually means something along the lines of “to leave” to designate it as the concluding reading. Through the years as I have been providing TorahBytes, I have sometimes opted to comment on that week’s Haftarah.

The Haftarah readings are taken from the section of Hebrew Scripture called Nevi’im, meaning the Prophets. How the prophetic books are organized in the Hebrew tradition is different from the vast majority of English translations because the English follows the order from the Septuagint (the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). Nevi’im has two subsections, the Former Prophets and the Latter Prophets. The Latter Prophets are almost the same in both the Hebrew and the Greek, while the Former Prophets are often known as historical books, and include Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings. As for why these books are considered Nevi’im is likely due to how they lead to the emerging role of the prophet in the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel.

The Haftarah schedule is fixed with an excerpt from Nevi’im read alongside the same associated Torah reading every year. There are also set special Haftarah readings for various special occasions that preempt the normally associated one. How the tradition of Haftarah began, no one knows. There is a story told that it began at a time when Israel, under foreign oppression, was forbidden to read the Torah, and so other parts of Scripture were read instead, but that theory emerged over a thousand years afterwards, and there is no other evidence to support it.

Not only do we not know when such readings became adopted, we also don’t know the criteria for choosing which passages were to be read. It is pretty obvious, however, that passages were chosen on the basis that they contained elements that are reflective of the associated Torah portion.

Interestingly the earliest recorded account of synagogue readings from Nevi’im is found in the New Covenant Writings. In Luke chapter four, we see Yeshua given the scroll of Isaiah to read. Whether it was a set scheduled reading similar to what is done today or chosen by a synagogue official or Yeshua in the moment we don’t know. What we do know is that this passage, beginning with the words “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me,” which Yeshua applied to himself to inaugurate the messianic era, is not part of the Haftarah schedule today.

Some might be inclined to claim that the reading was purposely removed since it would be one of several readings from Nevi’im used by Yeshua’s followers to refer to him (e.g. see this article). The same is sometimes claimed for another passage from Isaiah, chapter 52:13 through 53:12, that speaks in graphic terms of the suffering and rejection of a righteous servant of God. The details appear to foretell with great precision exactly what happened to Yeshua and why. For example:

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:5-6)

Contributing to the suspicion over the non-inclusion of this passage is that this week the Haftarah reading is Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12, while next week it’s Isaiah 54:1-10. This may give the impression that one of the most important and clearest predictive passages pointing to Yeshua being the Messiah was purposely skipped. The problem with this theory is that there is no evidence of an older list of Haftarah readings that include this or other passages, such as Isaiah 61 from which Yeshua read, that he fulfilled. What we do know is that whoever settled on the readings didn’t deem these passages sufficient for the purpose desired. There is no justification to assume any kind of conspiracy to keep this and other passages from the Jewish community.

In spite of whatever motive was behind the selection of Haftarah readings, it is tragic that the Suffering Servant passage and others that clearly point to Yeshua as Messiah are not more widely known. Yet to blame unknown ancients for what they didn’t list is misguided, especially since access to the whole Bible is available as never before. Not only can millions of people read the entire Bible in paper or digital form in their own language, those who know the truth of the messianic prophecies have it within their power to share these hitherto unknown truths with everyone around them, Jewish or Gentile. In this, the information age, virtually no one is prevented from encountering the truth – if we would only take the time to share it.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Is the New Testament Anti-Semitic?

For the week of August 31, 2019 / 20 Av 5779

Dr. Michael Brown & Rabbi Shmuley Boteach debate "Is the New Testament Antisemitic?", August 8, 2019 in New York City.

Re’eh
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17 &
B’midbar/Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5; Isaiah 66:1-24; 1 Samuel 20:18-42

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If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, “Let us go after other gods, ” which you have not known, “and let us serve them,” you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 13:1-3)

I recently watched a passionate debate between Messianic Jewish scholar and talk show host, Dr. Michael Brown and celebrity rabbi Shmuley Boteach on the topic “Is the New Testament Antisemitic?” I was struck by the collegiality between the two in spite of their sharp differences, many of which predate these two men by approximately two thousand years. They consider each other friends, which I found a little hard to believe, given the level of emotion on Boteach’s part. To me, he seemed downright angry, especially in his opening remarks. Not that I blame him. Everyone agrees that the New Testament has been used to perpetrate anti-Semitism. I am angry about that too.

According to Boteach, however, certain New Testament passages have not simply been leveraged for nefarious purposes, they are intentionally anti-Jewish. While Boteach admirably seeks to reclaim Yeshua’s Jewishness, he does so by disassociating passages he deems to have been inserted many years after the events of the New Testament. He claims that that the later church community sought to distance itself from the Jews to the point that God is depicted as having finally and forever rejecting his covenant people. Therefore, any passage critical or deemed negatively inclined towards the Jewish people or the Jewish leadership in any way must be, according to Boteach, a later insertion.

Brown disagrees, claiming (rightfully so) that there is no substantial difference between Jewish critiques in the New Testament and those from the Hebrew Scriptures as spoken by Moses and the prophets. Boteach doesn’t deny that the prophets could be pretty harsh but isn’t offended by them because he has no doubt that they possessed a fundamental, unshakable love for their people. And this seems to be where the bone of contention actually lies. In spite of Brown’s attempt to establish otherwise, Boteach is not able to accept that the heart of New Testament critique of Israel is of the same essence as that of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Again, I can’t blame Boteach. In spite of his misrepresentation of New Testament intent, I have to accept that the vast majority of Christian interpretation of the New Covenant Writings through the generations until now is exactly how he describes it. And if that is what the critical passages are about, he is right to denounce them. Tragically, after two thousand years of anti-Jewish church sentiment, it is next to impossible to engage the words of the New Testament any other way.

What does any of this have to do with the passage I quoted from this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion)? The Torah is clear that no matter how impressive or convincing a prophet might be, if he seeks to turn the people of Israel unto other gods, they should not be listened to. As far as I can tell, Boteach never asserts that the Christian God is a false god. In fact, he would be happy to retain New Testament  passages that he understands to be in line with the Hebrew Scriptures. His bone of contention are the so-called anti-Semitic passages in spite of their similarity to messages given by the Hebrew prophets. The New Testament in its current form – in spite of elements that Boteach respects, affirms, and admires – misrepresents the true God by denying his ongoing relationship with the Jewish people. Therefore it should be rejected.

In my opinion, Brown does not adequately satisfy Boteach’s concern. At approximately the 101-minute mark, Brown gets Boteach’s attention as he begins to repudiate supersessionism, commonly referred to as “replacement theology,” rightly indicting this false teaching for being the basis of much of Christian anti-Semitism. Boteach reacts as if surprised by this, but the discussion is regrettably redirected by the moderator due to time. This is the crux of the issue. The New Testament needs no revision; it’s the church’s teaching that does. As long as the god of the church is a god who rejects Israel, people like Boteach are right to resist.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

Video of the full debate is available here:

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Get the Picture

For the week of August 24, 2019 / 23 Av 5779

The title "Get the Picture" superimposed on an arrogant man wearing a crown

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

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Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 10:16)

I am fascinated by words. To think that God created the world through words. And then, he shares the gift of verbal communication with us by giving us the ability to share our thoughts with others (and himself through prayer) via this complex audible code. It’s wonderful when our words make a positive difference in the world. Words can give people a reason to live: words of encouragement, words of warning, words of instruction, words of love. Words can also destroy. Misrepresentation of truth of any kind can break relationship, cause paralyzing discouragement, and lead to disastrous outcomes.

Negative outcomes to words are not always the intent of speakers, of course. Accurately interpreting what people say is easier said than done (pun intended!). Concrete objects are easier to describe because they are clearly represented in the world. The word “dog,” for example is simply clarified by referencing an actual dog. Abstract concepts, on the other hand, such as emotions or philosophical ideas, can only be conveyed with words alone. If the speaker and hearer understand different things by those words, effective communication will not happen.

Figures of speech, what we might call “expressions,” are especially problematic. Some may remember the 1960s spy-comedy, entitled “Get Smart.” One unforgettable character was the humanoid robot Hymie. Hymie had issues with expressions. If told to “grab a waiter” in a restaurant, instead of getting the waiter’s attention, he picked him up and carried him to the table. “Kill the light, Hymie,” resulted in his shooting the light bulb instead of turning it off. We find that sort of thing humorous, but in real life misunderstanding expressions like this can have disastrous results.

While English has a great many expressions such the ones Hymie misinterpreted, it uses far more abstract terms than Biblical Hebrew, which is more concrete. This is illustrated in the verse I started with taken from this week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion). Moses is instructing the people to resist their natural inclinations to not listen to God and humbly submit to his directions. But that’s not how Moses put it. Closer to the Hebrew would be: “circumcise your heart and be not stiffnecked.” What would someone like Hymie do with that? The first half would kill you and the need for the second would be denied by those with flexible necks. Obviously, this was not to be taken literally. Yet the concrete tendency of Hebrew, which in this case vividly expresses otherwise abstract notions such as arrogance and stubbornness gets the point across most effectively.

There are all sorts of reasons why a translator would attempt to explain a concrete expression with an abstraction. Would readers know what circumcision is and if they did, would they understand that God wasn’t directing his people to do open heart surgery? Both elements would have to be properly understood for this to be the powerful statement it is.

As I look over English translations, I am surprised by how many, such as the one I am using, retain the first expression while opting for an abstraction for the second. Wouldn’t readers who get the point of heart circumcision also understand the warning against being stiff-necked? Maybe not.

Why use expressions at all? Why say things like “grab a waiter” or “kill the light” anyway? It’s that the pictures expressions create in our minds provide communicative elements that abstractions tend to lack. It’s difficult to represent “circumcise your hearts,” in any way but as an expression. The implications are that people need to remove the coverings over their hearts so that their affections, thoughts, and desires would be fully open to God. As for the warning against being stiff-necked, the word “stubborn” may appropriately reflect God’s intention here, but how much more when you picture ourselves refusing to bend under the weight of God’s will for our lives. It’s being stubborn, yes, but describing it in graphical terms helps us to see the intensity of our tendency to resist God’s lordship.

Unlike Hymie, our failure to understand God’s expressions isn’t funny. But thank God we are not robots.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Teach Your Children

For the week of August 17, 2019 / 16 Av 5779

A father, mother, son, and daughter learning together

Va’etchanan
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26

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Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

The past couple of weeks I have been mentioning the tendency among some to distance themselves from the foundation of Hebrew Scripture, the Books of Moses in particular. One of the ways that is done is by taking statements by Yeshua and others and making them sound as if they are undermining God’s prior revelation, when they are actually clarifying what he said. A case in point is the “Great Commandment” that appears in the Gospels of Matthew (22:35-40) and Mark (12:28-34).

The exact wording of these two accounts are similar for the most part, yet different enough to indicate that this sort of interchange may have been common. In each case, religious leaders ask him what is the “greatest” or “most important” commandment. Today’s readers may scoff at such questions, but Jewish people then and now who take God’s Word seriously want to know how to best prioritize or summarize God’s directives. Yeshua’s answer is two-pronged, giving more than what was likely expected. Not only are we to love God with everything we’ve got (as contained in this week’s parsha); we are also to love our neighbors as ourselves (from Vayikra/Leviticus 19:18). In that day, putting treatment of others on par with loving God, especially since Yeshua made it clear that we are to be neighbors even to those whom we don’t like, was quite radical (see Luke 10:25-37).

While we still need to take to heart God’s sense of priority as stated by Yeshua here, it is tragic that many readers of the New Testament assume that this in any way diminishes or discounts anything else God said through Moses, the prophets, or other writers of Hebrew Scripture. I am not saying that everything for ancient Israel has direct application to all people in the same way that it did for Israel under the Sinai Covenant. It’s that statements of priority or summary such as the great commandment are not in any way geared to reducing God’s inspired teaching to only two commands.

In fact, it doesn’t even take much careful investigation of these two commands to see that there is so much more contained within them than the vaguely defined “love God and love your neighbor” teachings you may have heard.

Perhaps we forget that when scriptures were quoted in first-century Israel it was automatically understood within its broader context. People had long passages memorized. So to hear one line was to hear the passage it was a part of. Check out “Love your neighbor as yourself” in its original context. You might be surprised to discover what love for neighbor actually means (I discuss this in an earlier TorahBytes message). Same with “Love God.” We rarely hear the Mark version of the Greatest Commandment, since it is more complex than the Matthew one, providing some of the wider context. In Mark, Yeshua begins his answer with the Shema (“Hear, O Israel…”) as in the Torah-quote I started with. In actuality it makes no difference, because, as I mentioned, the hearers would have automatically connected “And you shall love the Lord your God” with the Shema that introduces it. To speak about our need to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind without specific reference to the God of Israel’s exclusivity is to misrepresent Yeshua’s intent.

Note what follows “Love God” in its original context: “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 6:6-7). Besides our need to take God’s words to heart, embedded within the greatest commandment is God’s ordaining parents as the prime educators of their children.

We don’t have time in this brief message to explore how to accomplish this. However it is done, God made clear that the household under the supervision of parents is the prime venue for our children’s education. To claim to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind while neglecting our God-given responsibility to educate our children is to neglect to love God.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Respecting National Diversity

For the week of August 10, 2019 / 9 Av 5779

Small world globe on top of a large open book

D’varim
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1-27

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And the LORD said to me, “Do not harass Moab or contend with them in battle, for I will not give you any of their land for a possession, because I have given Ar to the people of Lot for a possession.” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 2:9)

Throughout the years of my doing TorahBytes I have sought to demonstrate the ongoing relevancy of the Hebrew Scriptures as built on the foundation of the Books of Moses. At times I do that by noting a specific principle found in one of God’s commandments or a lesson derived from a story. We might explore an aspect of the character of God, the nature of human beings, or the dynamics of how humans are to relate to God. But there’s more to learn from Scripture than principles and lessons. In fact, the principles and lessons of Scripture are deeply rooted in its perspective on life in general. It’s in the soil of the Bible’s worldview that we discover how our complex existence is best navigated.

It’s tragic when belief in Yeshua as Messiah results in the collapsing of the breadth and depth of Truth as revealed in the Hebrew Scripture into a detached spiritualized, overly personal experience. There is almost nothing of life, big or small, that isn’t effectively addressed by Scripture. We’re going to look at something big this week.

I think it’s an astounding insight. It was brought to my attention while reading The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony, and it is reflected in this week’s parsha. Israel was preparing to enter the Promised Land and needed to journey through inhabited territory. They were given specific instructions as to what territory they could take and what to leave alone. In this case there were told to not “harass Moab,” because God allotted their land to the descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot. Israel’s acquisition of land was to be under God’s direction. We can look elsewhere in the Torah to see that God was very specific about Israel’s borders. They were given no mandate to expand beyond what was allotted to them.

Think about that. God made clear to Israel that they were not to build an empire but were to be satisfied with the geographical limitations imposed upon them by God. This is all the more astounding when we realize that Israel understood their God, rightly so, not as some sort of regional divinity, but the God of the whole world. The Bible begins with God creating the “heavens and the earth” (Bereshit/Genesis 1:1); God declares at Mt. Sinai, “all the earth is mine” (Shemot/Exodus 19:5); and Psalm 47 proclaims him as the king of all the earth and ruler of the nations. Be that as it may, instead of this “God of all the earth” commissioning his people to take over the whole world, he teaches them to respect national boundaries. And that in spite of the imperialistic tendencies of world powers both then and now.

This respect for nationality was firmly grasped by the leadership of Yeshua’s early community. In those first decades there were some who attempted to centralize the control of New Covenant faith within an exclusively Jewish context. As the leaders thrashed out the implications of how the Messiah’s message was reaching the non-Jewish peoples of their day, they realized that God was indicating that while the good news was for everyone, each people-group would be free through the power of God’s Spirit to work out how God’s kingship in the Messiah would be expressed within their cultural setting (see Acts 15).

Centuries later when messianic faith was co-opted by the Roman government, respect for national and culture differences faded and was replaced by age-old ungodly imperialist tendencies. Instead of continuing a de-centralized mosaic of nationalities, who were to find their way in God’s Truth with God’s help, church government aligned with political power to homogenize the nations under God.

In spite of this, God continues to regard the diversity of people groups while valuing national distinctions. We would do well to do the same.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Tell It Like It Is

For the week of August 3, 2019 / 2 Av 5779

Smiling bearded man with one hand on heart and the other raised.

Mattot & Masei
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 30:2 – 36:13 (English 30:1 – 36:13)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 2:4-28, 3:4

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If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. (B’midbar/Numbers 30:3 [English 30:2]).

I recently completed the book, “Irresistible” by Andy Stanley, who, in spite of his claiming to give a unique (at least since the third century) call unto a radical New Covenant faith, has fallen into the age-old trap of pitting faith in Yeshua against the Hebrew Scriptures. Even though he asserts several times that he values the older writings, he goes out of his way to cut any meaningful connections to anything revealed within an Old Covenant context. That Scripture should be read through a New Covenant lens is one thing, an essential thing in fact. But disengaging Messianic faith from its Scriptural foundation severs our God-given truth anchor, sending well-intentioned Yeshua followers into the oblivion of confusion.

Disassociating New Covenant from Old Covenant Scripture is nothing new and was already prevalent long before Stanley’s prophetic cry. It seems to me that a great number of believers through history have treated the Hebrew Scriptures as backstory, a book of promises over and done with. As a result there is so much good from God that is missed, such as what is conveyed in this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion).

I suspect many Christians get antsy around this section of Torah. Doesn’t Yeshua in what is called the Sermon on the Mount adamantly forbid vows when he says the following:

Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.” But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No”; anything more than this comes from evil (Matthew 5:33-37).

There is a tendency to treat this and other similar statements as if Yeshua is speaking against the Torah, but nothing could be further from the truth. He is providing God’s perspective, God’s interpretation of Torah. Through time the religious leadership skewed Torah’s intended meaning, which Yeshua effectively corrects here. To be fair, this particular section on oaths does sound as if he is forbidding God’s earlier words through Moses quoted at the beginning. But it’s the complicated, full-of-loop-holes, legalistic, likely dishonest system of oaths that had become popular by that time, that he is confronting, not valid solemn promises or vows.

Now that we got that out of the way, I want to go deeper into the soil of Torah’s warning about vow keeping. My explanation to this point was necessary because we needed to clarify the ongoing legitimacy of vows here. The roots of this warning are what drives Yeshua’s take on this when he says, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” It’s found in the statement at the end of our Torah verse: “He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” The warning regarding vow keeping is rooted in the importance of doing what we say we will do.

Words are more than sounds. They are audible representations of reality or at least they should be. When human beings speak words, we are engaging the same technique God used to create the world. Following through on what we say we will do builds up the world and those in it. To do otherwise undermines our relationships and the broader societal fabric around us.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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You Can Do It!

For the week of July 27, 2019 / 24 Tammuz 5779

Man facing wall with hands behind head

Pinchas
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 25:10 – 30:1 (English 25:10 – 29:40)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3
Originally posted the week of July 26, 2008 / 23 Tammuz 5768 (Revised)

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Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” 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 1:6-8)

A saying I have heard many times is “You can do anything you want, if you set your mind to it.” However, this only works when it does; otherwise, it doesn’t. It seems to me the purpose of this saying is usually to motivate someone to do something they really want to do but may fear they can’t. Fear is certainly an obstacle to accomplishment, and difficult tasks require that we determine as best we can to see them through to the end. But it is ridiculous to think that setting one’s mind on something is in itself a guarantee of success.

The prophet Jeremiah faced the difficult task of being God’s spokesman at a crucial time in the nation’s history. When God called him to this task, we don’t know if he understood the implications of his vocation, but what we do know is that he didn’t feel up to the job.

God’s response to him was not in the form of the kind of motivational speeches common in our day. God didn’t tell Jeremiah that if he would set his mind on being a prophet, he would be a prophet. Nor did God challenge him to visualize success and strive for greatness.

What God did do was first, he told him not to put himself down. Jeremiah felt that his youth somehow undermined his ability to accomplish the task at hand. This may sound like a “don’t be negative” pep talk, but it is deeper than that. It wasn’t as if a positive frame of mind would automatically enable him to do what God was calling him to do. It was simply that when God calls us to do something it doesn’t matter how old we are. Young people can be prophets too, if God so calls them.

Second, God said that Jeremiah would go where God would tell him to go and he would speak to those whom God would command him to speak. That may sound like, “You are going to do it, because you’re going to do it.” But that’s not really what God said to him. God said that Jeremiah would go where God sends him and speak what God commands. God determined that he would take charge of Jeremiah’s life, directing him and inspiring him. There is nothing we can’t do when God takes charge like that.

Third, God told him not to be afraid. But this wasn’t God just telling him to calm down as if he had no reason to be afraid. What God was telling him to do was truly intimidating. The reason Jeremiah was not to be afraid, was because God promised to personally take care of him.

God was not challenging Jeremiah to find power within himself to overcome the obstacles to his personal dream. Rather, because God called Jeremiah to be a prophet, God would also enable him to do it.

Whenever God calls us to do something, he enables us to do it. That doesn’t mean that everything God calls us to do will be easy as we see from the rest of Jeremiah’s life. Still, no matter how difficult a God-given task may be, we can do it.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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