The Global Mosaic

For the week of October 13, 2018 / 4 Heshvan 5779

Concept art of satellite earth image with people of different races superimposed

 

No’ah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 6:9 – 11:32
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1 – 55:5

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So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth. (Bereshit/Genesis 11:8-9)

According to this story, which takes place early within the Torah’s timeline, the people of the earth originally lived in the same geographical vicinity. The motive behind the Babel project was not what I was told when I was a child back in the days when Bible stories were still read in public school. I was led to believe that the people wanted a high tower to keep them safe in case another flood similar to Noah’s would occur. The biblical text records nothing of the sort. The actual reason is clearly stated: “lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Bereshit/Genesis 11:4). This was in direct opposition to God’s earlier directive to do just that (see Bereshit/Genesis 1:28).

The people were also looking for identity in their building project’s goal of corporate security. What they thought was to their benefit God regarded as inevitably destructive. And so, he deemed it necessary to intervene for their good and that of future generations. He disrupted their ability to communicate. Until then all people of the earth spoke the same language. The resulting confusion led to the people gathering in separate communities that eventually migrated to different geographical regions. Thus the people groups of the world came to be.

The circumstances behind the development of nationalities may lead some to conclude that language and cultural differences between peoples is a negative thing. That the steps to this disparity began with disobedience to God is clear. Moreover, since then until now, language and cultural differences have certainly contributed to conflict between peoples. But is peoplehood diversity in and of itself bad? Let’s consider what would have happened if people would have “filled the earth” without the God-imposed confusion. Is it reasonable to assume that the people of the world would have retained the one original language forever? As distinct communities formed in various regions of the earth, accents and dialects would have quickly developed. Also, diverse geographical regions demand unique vocabularies. For example, sea-faring people create tools unknown to mountain folk and vice versa. Clothing common to one climate is often unheard of in another. Differences in language emerging from such contrasting needs and challenges are foundational to the formalization of culture and distinct peoplehood. Therefore, the development of diverse people groups would have happened even without the Babel project.

The complex mosaic of cultures was destined to occur under God’s providence with or without our ancestors’ initial cooperation. That the development of people groups over time is of God is not to imply that everything about every culture is always good. The curse has tainted the creation including culture. But in spite of the ways culture has been corrupted, the fact of national diversity is by God’s design.

False notions about what the Bible calls the “age to come” (see Mark 10:30, Hebrews 6:5) have also tended to undermine our appreciation of the global mosaic. Imagining the human story as moving toward the re-establishment of a unified nation of one language and culture creates an ideal that is contrary to God’s expressed purpose for humankind. In the Bible’s version of the age to come, following the Messiah’s return, the resurrection, and the final judgement, when sin and death are no more and global peace is permanently established, nationalities continue. The description of the New Jerusalem includes: “By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (Revelation 21:24). These are not individuals formerly of people groups or kings who used to be of distinct nations. The development of nationalities as overseen by God in history is retained.

This is not to say that there is no room for the mingling of nations. From economic trade and cooperation to intermarriage, there is no indication in Scripture that national distinctions are to be closed and outsiders kept out. At the same time, cooperative ventures should show respect for cultural differences of all parties.

Beware therefore, of noble sounding global unity movements. Any attempt by church or state to homogenize people groups is to undermine the will of God and robs the complex and diverse human family of our distinct and unique histories and the special contributions we have to share with the rest of the world.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Avoiding the Devil’s Trap

For the week of October 6, 2018 / 27 Tishri 5779

The words "It's a trap" in the center of a bear trap

Bereshit
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 1:1 – 6:8
Haftarah: Isaiah 42:5 – 43:11

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So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. (Bereshit /Genesis 3:6)

When many fans of the Bible read the early chapters of Genesis, it is often to establish little more than a theological framework. Our first parents’ act of disobedience is viewed as simply the basis of the human predicament from which we require deliverance. While the happenings in the Garden of Eden certainly set up the unfolding of God’s salvation plan, there is much more to be gained by noting the details of this tragic tale.

The text provides us with insight as to Eve’s internal process as she pondered the serpent’s crafty suggestion. First, we are told she “saw that the tree was good for food.” As someone who was just born yesterday (I know she wasn’t “born,” and the event timeline isn’t clear), how did she so quickly become such a pomologist (fruit expert)? While Eve, like Adam, was created innocent, she didn’t possess all knowledge. As a human being made in God’s image, she was graced with great intelligence potential, but at this point, she was still quite naïve. Remember their lack of shame was not due to their being comfortable with their unclothed state, as much as their not knowing they were naked (compare Bereshit/Genesis 2:25 with 3:7 & 11). Over time, God would mature the human family. Be that as it may, Eve thought she knew better.

Not only did she confidently determine the goodness of the fruit, she found it to be “a delight to the eyes.” Looking at it evoked a sensation of pleasure. It made her feel good and excited her. Nothing like powerful positive vibes to entice someone.

Finally, she also saw that it “was to be desired to make one wise.” In other words, she felt that it was just the thing to enhance her life. Wisdom is more than knowledge or experience. It is the ability to harness knowledge and experience to fully and effectively engage the world around us. Eve was sufficiently conscious of the fact that there was much for her to learn and concluded that consuming the fruit would enable her to live a wonderful life.

It’s hard to miss that Eve was subject to the same tactics that propagandists and advertisers have always used. The serpent set her up to be vulnerable to the lure of the fruit. It was both beautiful and powerful. And perhaps there would be a time to engage it, but not for Eve nor Adam, not yet, if ever.

Where did Eve go wrong? She shouldn’t have listened to the serpent, I know. But there’s more to this dark tale than that. It might surprise you that Evil had a voice in the Garden at all. But it did, and it has been speaking ever since. Like Eve, we can’t completely ignore Satan’s temptations. Are we then doomed to succumb? It would be nice if “getting saved” would inoculate us from the devil’s schemes, but too many genuine Yeshua followers have been entangled by his trickery to claim such a thing.

Taking note of the dynamics of Eve’s own entrapment can help guard us when facing temptation. Her biggest mistake, replicated by millions since then, was to entertain the possibility that God could not be trusted. She opened herself to the possibility that God was not only lying, but that he was purposely and selfishly keeping her from what was truly best. The result was that her heart was twisted away from God her creator to herself, the creature. Transitioning from being God-focused to self-focused, she became her own god. Thinking she could accurately assess her environment and make her own life determinations didn’t liberate her from God’s apparent arbitrary limits as expected, but instead imprisoned her under her own mastery.

Such has been the condition of all since then. While turning to God in Yeshua breaks the chains of self-focus, it doesn’t automatically prevent us from returning to its trap. Whenever we prefer our own perceptions, desires, and feelings over and against God’s word, we play out the first sin all over again. The devastating effect of our first parents’ misguided actions should remind us to resist the lure of our perceptions, the deception of our desires, and the untrustworthiness of our feelings. Rather by fueling our lives with the truth of God through the Scriptures and nurturing an intimate relationship with him in the Messiah, we give ourselves the best opportunity to avoid the devil’s devices.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Don’t Leave Home Without It

For the week of September 29, 2018 / 20 Tishri 5779

Sukkah before roof and decorations are added

This year’s sukkah before adding the roof and decorations.

Special note: I am posting this earlier in the week than I normally do. On Erev Shabbat (Sabbath eve), September 21, 2018, two tornadoes touched down in the Ottawa, Ontario/Gatineau, Quebec region. While we were slightly affected by the general weather event in that we only lost power for eight hours, others were not so fortunate. Some homes were completely destroyed and thousands may not have power for days. The beginnings of our little sukkah above surprisingly survived unscathed. I take this as a reminder of how most of the time we, vulnerable as we are, get through the challenges of life. May those who are still dealing with the aftermath of Friday’s storm be comforted and get back to normal soon.

By the way, the following message was composed prior to the weather event above.

Sukkot
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 33:12 – 34:26; B’midbar/Numbers 29:26-34
Haftarah: Ezekiel 38:18 – 39:16

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And he said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here.” (Shemot/Exodus 33:15)

One of the most successful advertising campaigns of all time featured the slogan, “Don’t leave home without it.” American Express claimed to provide security in the midst of the unknown. To leave home is to be unsafe. You never know what is going to happen out there in the wild of the outside world. What are you going to do if you encounter the challenges of life? You don’t on your own possess whatever resources you may need. But don’t worry, American Express will take care of you!

This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) is special as it falls in the middle of the week-long festival of Sukkot (English: Booths or Tabernacles. A key aspect of these days is that they address the same human need that the Amex campaign exploited: vulnerability. During Sukkot, the people were to move out of their permanent dwellings and live in temporary shelters to remember how their ancestors dwelt in the wilderness for forty years prior to entering the Promised Land. The Torah reads:

You shall dwell in booths (Hebrew: sukkot) for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God (Vayikra/Leviticus 23:42-43).

For a week every year, they were to leave home. They were to journey from security to insecurity. By purposely making themselves vulnerable, they relived, to some extent, the sense of vulnerability experienced for decades by an earlier generation. This was an object lesson to learn that their security was not in their permanent dwellings, but in the same God who miraculously took care of their predecessors. This was so that upon returning to their homes, they would understand that their security was not due to the work of their own hands, but because of the Master of the Universe. God is our security, taking care of us by any means he chooses, whether it be within buildings of our making or in the desert.

Moses understood this. Following the debacle of the Golden Calf, when the nation was at risk of complete destruction, Moses was receiving instructions from God in preparation for the next stage of their journey. He had a non-negotiable. You might think it strange that a human could relate to God like that, but perhaps you haven’t really read the Bible. The name Israel means, “he who strives with God,” hearkening back to God’s word to Abraham’s grandson Jacob: “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Bereshit/Genesis 32:28). God invites us to struggle with him. Moses knew that. So he insisted: “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here.” (Shemot/Exodus 33:15). Moses anticipated the challenges ahead. He was willing to face them, but not alone. Without the presence of God, he wasn’t going anywhere.

We don’t have to go out of our way to recreate wilderness experiences. God leads us into all kinds of situations where we are vulnerable, unsafe, and insecure. It’s natural when that happens to protect ourselves accordingly. But do our humanly devised solutions truly give us the protection we need? It can look that way at times, but do they really? Whether it be literal walls of defense or the innumerable emotional survival techniques we devise, we are far more vulnerable than we care to admit. Without God’s presence, we are in grave danger.

The good news is that we don’t have to go it alone. As God was with Israel in the wilderness, he is willing to be with us in whatever impossible situation we might find ourselves in. His miraculous presence is available to anyone who places their trust in the Messiah Yeshua. But something I am learning, is that we shouldn’t take his presence for granted. While we can be confident that he is with us, we can easily default to self-reliance. We offer a little prayer over our shoulders, while actually finding security in our abilities and possessions, not to mention our credit cards. Perhaps, we are well advised to take the time to stop and make sure we are not leaving home without him.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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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

TorahBytes Live

Are you ready to be a miracle? Find out how on TorahBytes Live, scheduled for Thursday, September 13, 2018 at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time. Recorded version will be available immediately following:

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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

TorahBytes Live

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

TorahBytes Live

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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