Have You Ever Really Prayed?

For the week of June 22, 2019 / 19 Sivan 5779

A man pondering the question, "Have You Ever Really Prayed?"

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

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If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness. (B’midbar/Numbers 11:15)

I was recently chatting with a waitress in a restaurant about some weaknesses in the overall service there. It was exactly what I had read in an online review and thought she should know. She wholeheartedly agreed with me yet could do little about it since she was new at her job. So I suggested she pray. She looked at me funny for a moment. So I repeated myself, not knowing where she was at on this subject. I told her that praying was simply talking to God and that not only does he have infinite resources at his disposal, he is generous. She made it clear to me I gave her something to think about.

As believers in Yeshua we know this (though some may want to have a discussion on the theology of prayer and whether it is appropriate to describe prayer like this to a stranger). Be that as it may, what I shared with this stranger included an essential dynamic. I offered no formulas; I didn’t tell her what to say. At the same time, I made no promise as to what God’s answer might be. All I did was encourage her to start the conversation. The conversation would be on a particular topic, which in this case was help in resolving a need which she could not resolve on her own. Since right at the beginning I defined prayer as talking to God, the conversation had to start with her personally and purposely talking to him. There’s so much more we can say about prayer, but without this dynamic, I don’t know if much of what we call prayer is actually prayer at all.

Moses knew how to pray. That he did is vividly illustrated in the brief verse I quoted from this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion). Moses found himself being a waiter extreme. The whole nation of Israel whined like children for food. He had seen God do so much, yet the pressure of the people’s demands had completely overwhelmed him. He was done, and he told God so in no uncertain terms. Talk about a prayer from the heart! Moses held nothing back and told God exactly what he thought and how he felt. Thankfully, however, answered prayer isn’t always getting the items on our list. It’s about God meaningfully engaging us in response to our requests and desires.

I don’t know about you, but the best way I can describe some of my prayers is muddled. Even though I set aside some time each day to pray, am I really praying? To be honest, it’s not too unusual for me to do some sort of combination of wondering, thinking, wishing, and muttering. I’ll catch myself daydreaming of who knows what before I realize what I am doing. At that point I try to focus and really pray, which sometimes I do. When I do, it’s as if I shift from muddled to clear. I know who I am talking to and what I am trying to say.

This is why I remind myself what I encourage others to do: pray out loud. While I cannot discount all silent prayer, there is very little Scriptural basis for it. Even if there were, attempting to project thoughts to God from our heads is very difficult, if not impossible. How would we differentiate thinking from praying when silent? Praying out loud reminds us that we are actually speaking to another being who is not us.

Many years ago when I was in Bible college. I had a roommate from Africa. He would wake up before me and have a time with the Lord at his desk. I would hear him whispering in prayer. I thought, he really believes he is talking to someone! It encouraged me to do the same.

Realizing we are truly talking to God makes all the difference. And that’s just the beginning. Unless we intentionally do so, then whatever else we may be doing, we are not praying. Why not start right now?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Smiling God

For the week of June 15, 2019 / 12 Sivan 5779

Collage of many smiling faces

Naso
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 13:2-25
Originally posted the week of May 31, 2014 / 2 Sivan 5774 (revised)

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The LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. (B’midbar/Numbers 6:25)

The cohanim, the Jewish priests of ancient Israel, were given the responsibility to bless their people. Blessing is an essential biblical concept which has to do with the impartation of life in all aspects. The pronouncement of blessing is not magic. The words given to them to say in themselves don’t cause blessing to occur. This blessing was but one of the many functions the cohanim performed as part of their role as intermediaries between God and the people. Just as they represented the people before God through the offering of sacrifices on their behalf, so God spoke to the people through the priests. The priests didn’t cause the blessing of God to come upon the people. God had already determined to bless them and appointed the priests to communicate that blessing on his behalf.

An interesting statement included in this blessing is “The LORD make his face to shine upon you.” What does that mean? Does God have a face? If so, how does it shine? And when shining, what does it mean to shine upon someone? When the Torah refers to God as having body parts, this is what is called anthropomorphism. It’s a way of speaking about a non-human being in human terms. Not only is God not human, he isn’t physical. There are times when he reveals himself in human form, however. In fact, the Haftarah portion for this week includes an example of that (see Shoftim/Judges 13:2-25) and most importantly, in the Messiah. But most of the time, when we read about God’s hand, his arms, or, as in this case, his face, the words we read are expressing something about God that is best expressed in this sort of way.

God desired that his people would experience his shining face. As best we can tell, a shining face is a smiling face, as if to say, may God look at you with a smile.

Sometime ago I posted the message, God Is Dangerous, where I emphasized that the God of Israel is the most powerful force in the entire universe. Therefore we cannot approach him any way we wish. Approaching God on our own terms may result in an untimely death. So what’s this about “The Smiling God?” How could the same God be depicted in both these ways?

That’s one of the most wondrous things about the true God. The dangerous God is the smiling God. Not that he is necessarily smiling all the time. The wonderful thing is that the only all-powerful, Supreme Being, who made the entire universe and holds our lives in his hands, may actually smile at us.

To live under the smiling face of God is to experience the reversal of the alienation experienced by our first parents in the Garden of Eden. Having been designed to be his co-workers as stewards over his creation, they turned their backs on him through mistrust and rebellion, no longer beholding his smiling face. Thankfully that wasn’t the end of it. God determined to restore relationship with his human creatures, culminating in the redemption brought about through the Messiah’s death and resurrection. Because of what Yeshua has done, we can experience the cohanim’s blessing in its fullness and see God’s smiling face again.

To have God’s smile upon us means his posture towards us is favorable. We are objects of his graciousness, which is explicitly mentioned in the next phrase in the blessing. Don’t forget, the biblical view of God is far more about his inapproachability, his grandeur, his nobility as the king of all kings. Such majesty doesn’t normally give commoners like you and me the time of day, much less a full-face smile.

But if we have been made right with him though Yeshua, God is smiling at us right now. As we get up each morning, we can be reminded that the good graces of the Master of the Universe are upon us. Not only can we enjoy intimate relationship with him, we can effectively represent him in the world. Like the cohanim of old, we now can bring the blessing of God’s smile to others.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Getting Right with the Environment

For the week of June 8, 2019 / 5 Sivan 5779

Illustration of a small green island with evergreen trees and a large sun in the background with superimposed words: "Getting Right with the Environment"

B’midbar
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
Haftarah: Hosea 2:1-22 (English 1:10 – 2:20)
Originally posted the week of May 31, 2008 / 26 Iyar 5768

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And she did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished on her silver and gold, which they used for Baal. (Hosea 2:10; English: 2:8)

What a world we live in! While I am well aware of the reality of suffering and tragedy, we live in a most marvelous place. I have heard that for many astronauts, their biggest thrill was not being thrust out into the darkness of space at unimaginable speeds, floating in zero gravity, or walking on the moon, but rather seeing the earth. When I take my daily walk, I can be so focused on my own thoughts that I miss what is around me. But every now and then I am struck by the beauty of nature: a magnolia tree in full bloom, a scarlet cardinal, or a pair of deer sitting on the forest floor. It takes my breath away to encounter nature’s beauty and intricacy.

Aside from beauty, nature provides us with so much, including our basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. It also enhances our lives through the pleasures of comfort and entertainment.

This might seem obvious, but we were made for this place. While the state that the earth is in is not what God intended, nor is it now what it will be one day, it is the sphere of our existence. I am aware that many people think that our destiny is in a heavenly, non-earthly sphere, but that is not actually what the Bible teaches. We look forward to a new heaven and a new earth, and those who are right with God will be resurrected to live on the new earth. Maybe we will come back to this subject some other time. Suffice it to say for now that we were made to live on planet earth.

One of the things that God has sought to teach us is how to understand our place on this planet. Because of the rebellion of our first parents against God, everything about life on earth has been out of sorts. We are surrounded by such bountiful beauty provided by God for our good, yet due to the disruption of our relationship with him, we tend to abuse nature.

The prophet Hosea speaks of this in this week’s Haftarah. God through his prophet says that Israel was ignorant of the fact that God was the provider of the good things of earth. The result of this ignorance is destructive. Having been blessed with precious metals, instead of using them appropriately, they became instruments of idolatry.

When we fail to acknowledge God as creator and provider of the good gifts he bestows upon us, we end up wrongly focusing on the very things he has graciously given us. God designed the elements of his creation for all sorts of good purposes, but when we fail to understand their true origins, they become destructive.

The only way to fully appreciate and properly relate to nature, therefore, is to know the God of creation. Once we are restored to him through Yeshua we can see this planet through his eyes, discover our God-given place here, and learn to utilize the things of his creation in the way he intended.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Give It a Rest!

For the week of May 25, 2019 / 20 Iyar 5779

The words "Give It a Rest!" superimposed on a photo of a man sitting on the ground, resting, with his back against a tree in a green field.

Be-Har
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2
Haftarah: Jeremiah 32:6-27
Originally posted the week of May 16, 2015 / 27 Iyar 5775 (revised)

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Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the LORD. (Vayikra/Leviticus 25:2)

Everyone who believes that the entire Bible is God’s inspired and authoritative written Word faces the challenge of working out how to apply it to our lives today. It’s not as if the Scriptures are simply a collection of general spiritual sayings or a compilation of moral tales. While it includes such content, the Bible is much more than that. Almost all of Scripture was originally intended for a particular people at a particular time. From its stories, laws, prophetic utterances, and letters, and so on, we seek to deduce truths about God and life in an effort to determine how those truths apply today.

In both Jewish and Christian communities there is much controversy in particular over the section of Scripture called the Torah, the five books of Moses. Orthodox Jews claim to fully observe it but do so through the filter of rabbinic tradition. That includes making up for the impossibility of fulfilling key commands – including the offering of sacrifice – due to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem about two thousand years ago. Non-orthodox Jews tend to see Torah as ever evolving as they accommodate it to changing times. Christians, on the other hand, have tended to relate to Torah in one of two ways. Some claim that it has been rendered obsolete by the New Covenant, having been superseded by the teachings of Yeshua and his followers. Others insist it continues to be binding except for its ceremonial aspects, which have found their completion in the Messiah.

It seems to me that the root of the confusion has more to do with what Torah really is, both then and now. Contrary to much Jewish and Christian thought, the Torah and the Sinai covenant given through Moses are not one and the same even though the Sinai covenant is often called, “Torah.” The Sinai covenant was designed as the constitution for the nation of Israel. With the giving of the New Covenant through Yeshua (see Jeremiah 31:31-33; compare Luke 22:20) and the destruction of the Temple, the Sinai covenant was rendered obsolete along with the particular elements given to maintain it, such as the sacrifices.

But there was more to the Sinai covenant than its constitutional function. God used the giving of this covenant to reveal, first to Israel and then to the whole world, his ways regarding every aspect of life, including business, sexuality, justice, and so on. The establishment of the New Covenant in no way abolishes God’s eternal ways or his “Torah.” In fact under the New Covenant, Torah is internalized. For God says through Jeremiah: “I will put my Torah (English: law) within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” Discerning what of Torah was temporary, being limited to the Sinai Covenant, and what is ongoing until now is not always an easy task, but well worth the effort.

Sadly however, it seems that we often regard God’s directives as oppressive restrictions that get in the way of things we want to do. It’s too bad we are slow to see that our reluctance to embrace God’s will is due to the forces of evil that continue to get the upper hand in our lives. God’s ways as revealed throughout the whole Bible, and understood correctly, are always life giving. Take Sabbath laws for example. Under the New Covenant, it is clear that Sabbath laws were not to be imposed upon non-Jewish believers (see Galatians 4:10; compare Acts 15:19-20). But does that mean all believers must disregard God’s weekly rhythm and embrace the 365-day/year, 7-day/week, 24-hour/day lifestyle so prevalent today? It’s not that long ago that countries with strong biblical roots took weekly days off – real days off – when most businesses were closed and a majority of people attended worship services, taking time to rest and be with family. Perhaps we would do well to consider Sabbath again.

Or take the Sabbatical year as mentioned in the verse I quoted at the beginning. Covenantally, like the weekly Sabbath, we have no justification to enforce such a custom, but should that stop us from considering its possible benefits? Is the Sabbatical year strictly a ritual for the sake of the Sinai covenant only, or are there benefits in allowing farmland to take a rest one year in seven?

The sabbatical year is but one of many reminders in Torah that in our responsibility to be stewards of the planet (see Bereshit/Genesis 1:26) we must avoid exploiting our resources. It is so tempting to try to extract as much as we can for ourselves in the moment. But if we do that, we will create a disastrous situation for future generations that could have easily been avoided. God, who himself rested on the seventh day and was refreshed (see Shemot/Exodus 31:17), designed his creation to require rest as well. Whether it’s you personally or your sphere of work, maybe it’s about time you gave it a rest.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Perfection

For the week of May 18, 2019 / 13 Iyar 5779

Three arrows in target's bull's-eye with the word "Perfection"

Emor
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 21:1-24:23
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-31
Revised version of “Perfect Offerings,” originally posted the week of 20 Iyar 5758 / May 16, 1998

And when anyone offers a sacrifice of peace offerings to the LORD to fulfill a vow or as a freewill offering from the herd or from the flock, to be accepted it must be perfect; there shall be no blemish in it. (Vayikra/Leviticus 22:21)

Offerings to the God of Israel were to be without defect. Certainly one of the reasons for this was that the people were not to bring their leftovers and undesirables to him. For a sacrifice to be meaningful and acceptable, it had to be valuable. But apart from value, the perfect nature of these offerings has much to teach us about God, his creation, the Messiah, and ourselves.

First, by insisting that these animals have no blemishes, deformities, or disease, we are reminded that God himself has no defects, weaknesses or faults. We tend to create religion and spirituality that accommodates our own imperfect nature. But God calls us to something much higher. God is perfect. So what we offer to him must be of a fitting quality. To offer him anything less is to lower him to our level.

Next, we are reminded that the world was created perfectly. The imperfections and blemishes of life are a result of human rebellion against the Creator. By bringing some of the best of our possessions, we are confronted with an ideal that once was and will be again. Having to reject the defective, emphasizes the nature of the perfect. A day is coming when the creation will be renewed; the curse upon it will be no more.

For generations the people Israel had to carefully examine the offerings they brought as they were to be of only the highest quality. Little did they know that they were acting out what God himself would one day do himself. For what the animals could not accomplish, God did through the perfect offering of his Son, the Messiah, whom Peter refers to as “a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:19).

Yeshua lived the only perfect and sinless life ever, preparing him to provide the way for imperfect people like us to be fully accepted by God. We read in the New Covenant book of Hebrews:

For if sprinkling ceremonially unclean persons with the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer restores their outward purity; then how much more the blood of the Messiah, who, through the eternal Spirit, offered himself to God as a sacrifice without blemish, will purify our conscience from works that lead to death, so that we can serve the living God! (Hebrews 9:13-14; Complete Jewish Bible).

On our own, because of our imperfections, we cannot approach God and serve him in the way he intends; we are disqualified. But if we trust in Yeshua and his perfect offering on our behalf, we are made acceptable to God, blemishes and all.

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Caution! Warnings Ahead

For the week of May 11, 2019 / 6 Iyar 5779

Yellow diamond warning street sign with the words, "Caution! Warnings Ahead"

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

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The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Say to the people of Israel, Any one of the people of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 20:1-2)

Have you ever seen one of those lists of “interesting” warnings for various products? For an iron: “do not iron clothes on body.” For a microwave oven: “Do not use to dry cats and other pets.” One would assume that such things would be so obvious, they wouldn’t need to be mentioned. But, then again, I am sure my readers and listeners could send me stories of things they or people they know have done that might merit such warnings.

We tend to label some of the things we humans do as foolish or idiotic, but I don’t think this is necessarily an issue of intelligence or lack thereof. Some of our most ridiculous decisions are due to our thinking, at the time at least, of something as a good idea, even the best idea. Pressures from others and of time, lack of information, and inexperience can all lead to serious miscalculations in judgement.

The thing that happens in the moment, and this is true for all sorts of choices we make, big and small, is that we perceive that the benefit of our course of action outweighs the negatives. This is not only the case for bad decisions, but for good ones as well. Surgery, for example, often has significant downsides. Even without the risk of infection and death, there’s the inconveniences and discomfort. Yet the potential benefit is so great, we are usually willing to give up our normal comfort and schedule for the sake of the hoped-for benefit.

This is how sacrifice often works. We give up something of value in the hope of something better. This is not only true in the spiritual/religious realm. We might do without something we would like now in order to save money and be able to acquire something better later. This explains to me why we need the warnings against child sacrifice. I know that sounds like quite the jump, but don’t give up on me yet.

It might seem like a ridiculous warning, but God directed Israel away from child sacrifice. This was a particular ritual in the worship of Molech. People used to burn their children as an offering to this false god. Why would anyone do such a thing? Whatever an individual’s motive may have been, somehow they concluded that the benefits of their child’s death in this way not only outweighed the loss of the child, but the suffering he or she would experience.

What could be so good to warrant child sacrifice? Maybe it wasn’t the sense of reward from the false god that motivated the offering. Perhaps it was the relief of not having to care for the child. If the god is happy to relieve me of my parental responsibilities, I may be happy to worship him like this. Either way the sacrifice of the child outweighs preserving him or her.

I am not aware of formal Molech worship today, but its essence permeates much of the world. Is this about elective abortion? I would include that, but to regard abortion as the only form of child sacrifice today is to miss the point. The real question we need to ask ourselves is how much are we valuing other things over children. I am not saying we should be child worshippers. That’s a different issue for another day. But how much of resistance to marriage and childrearing is due to supposed other benefits? According to God’s value scale, is career, success, money, vacations, convenience, freedom, and so on, really more valuable than children? If not, then why are there over 50 million abortions a year and a below replacement birthrate within affluent countries? If so, then perhaps the warning isn’t so ridiculous after all.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Lifeblood

For the week of May 4, 2019 / 29 Nisan 5779

The word, "lifeblood" on a marble background

Aharei Mot
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 16:1-18:30
Haftarah: 1 Sh’muel/1 Samuel 20:18-42

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For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. (Vayikra/Leviticus 17:11)

This statement by God through Moses clarifies the sacrificial system’s operative dynamic. Or, in other words, that which makes sacrifice work. Within God’s design of creation, a creature’s life was in its blood. Whether this be metaphorical or literal, I can’t say for sure, though I suspect it’s both. The blood on the altar represents the giving up of the life of the sacrificed animal.

So, it’s not so much the physical presence of blood that makes atonement. The word for atonement, “kaphar,” means “to cover.” And while blood is an effective covering; it’s the life which the blood represents that is doing the covering. That which needs to be covered is our souls. What is missed in English, however, is that the word “life” in the phrase “the life of the flesh is in the blood” and the word for “soul” here is the same Hebrew word “nephesh.” If we more precisely reflect the Hebrew word in both cases, we would better understand that the Jewish sacrificial system established that it was the giving of the offered animal’s life that provided cover for human life.

Why covering? Our first parents were created by God to have intimate unobstructed fellowship with him. When they turned to the creation over against the creator by heeding the voice of the serpent over against God’s word, they were overwhelmed with shame, attempted to cover themselves with leaves and hide. They knew they were no longer fit to be in God’s presence in this condition. Their being cast out of the garden reflected the resulting distance between them and God. Every additional misdeed done by them or their ancestors (including us) is a manifestation of the twisted nature they introduced to humankind. It would require the tragic ongoing loss of life to allow for any semblance of fellowship with God by covering the shame of human sinfulness.

For the nation of Israel, all the sacrificial system could do was maintain the tentative presence of God in their midst. It was a needed, albeit temporary, solution to the sin problem that did more to remind the people of Israel of the problem than to resolve it. As we read in the New Covenant book of Hebrews:

For since the law (Torah) has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10:1-4).

The stopgap measure of the ancient sacrificial system prepared Israel and the world for the life that would not only cover human shame but release us from it forever. The shed blood of the Messiah is the giving of his sinless life, not only for Israel, but for anyone who avails himself or herself its power. It’s the giving of his life on our behalf that reestablishes intimate relationship with God. It’s no wonder that within forty years of his death the sacrificial system would be no more. The Messiah’s lifeblood is now freely available to all.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Bread of Affliction

Note: I sent this repost at Passover time last year and thought it was well worth sharing again. – Alan Gilman


For the week of April 27, 2019 / 22 Nisan 5779

A stack of matza (Jewish unleavened bread)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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But for Passover

For the week of April 20, 2019 / 15 Nisan 5779

Illustration of slaves carrying bricks with the words, "But for Passover"

Pesach 1
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 12:21-51; B’midbar/Numbers 28:19-25
Haftarah Joshua 5:2-6:1; 6:27

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For the LORD will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you. (Shemot/Exodus 12:23)

When we celebrate Passover, what are we commemorating? We were slaves; now we are free? That goes down well. Celebrating liberation is cool. Good script for a movie. But is that Passover? In a way it is if we consider the larger story. The people of Israel oppressed by an evil ruler to build his cities, subjugating them so that they don’t side with his enemies one day. In spite of his near-to-insane stubbornness, Pharaoh allows his free (to him) workforce to depart after the Angel of Death slays the nation’s firstborn, human and animal. Yet it isn’t until the parting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptian army that Israel is finally liberated from Pharaoh’s clutches for good.

That we remember the broader story under the title of Passover is understandable, but it’s all better labeled as “The Exodus” or something else that covers all the various events that resulted in Israel’s freedom. Why then Passover in particular? While the parting of the Sea was the final shutting of the door behind them, it was the death of the firstborn that flung open Israel’s long-time bolted prison door. Israel’s liberation wasn’t won until the tenth and final plague.

Pesach in Hebrew, Passover in English, describes the passing over of God’s final act of judgment on an oppressive regime. Death was coming to each and every home in Egypt. Nine horrific plagues weren’t enough to change Pharaoh’s mind. To think that anyone, no less a leader, would be willing to sacrifice the lives of his people for the sake of his pride. However shocking we may find that, I wonder how different we would be in his situation. Regardless, he was responsible for inviting God’s wrath upon an entire nation, the people of Israel included, but for Passover.

Passover was God’s prescription of protection and rescue. Follow the directions and avoid the inevitable. Whole families were saved from the deadly visitor, because they trusted in God and his word by smearing their doorframes with the blood of the lamb.

Egypt’s plight is the plight of the whole world. The self-centeredness of human beings throughout time has put us out of sorts with the Creator. Whether our dysfunction naturally leads to inevitable trouble or God’s anger burns against our abuse of his beloved creation, the Angel of Death hangs over us all, but for Passover.

We may be too distracted to be aware of the return of the Angel of Death. Whether he’s already come or on our doorstep; he’s not far away from any of us. The Oppressor has subjugated us into doing his bidding and is delighted to keep us in bondage until death has its way with us. But it’s Passover! We don’t need to be slaves to Evil’s agenda any longer. A greater Passover Lamb has come. The Messiah has shed his blood for our liberation. Now, like the Israelites of old, we need to avail ourselves of his protective covering by putting our trust in him. Then we can truly celebrate Passover, not simply to commemorate the ancient Israelites, but to join them as we leave bondage behind.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Restored!

For the week of April 13, 2019 / 8 Nisan 5779

Yellow sponge cleaning a dirty wall with the word "Restored!"

Mezora
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33
Haftarah: 2 Kings/2 Melachim 7:3-20
Updated version of Restoration (originally posted the week of April 15, 2000)

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

And he shall sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease. Then he shall pronounce him clean… (Vayikra/Leviticus 14:7)

According to Torah, victims of certain serious infectious skin diseases became outcasts. The negative social and spiritual consequences must have been devastating. Having the disease was bad enough, but not to be able to engage their community in any way would have made them feel worthless.

While it would have been wonderful to be cured of such diseases, it would have likely taken a great deal of additional time to fully reintegrate. When people suffer such afflictions, it’s common for others to continue to ostracize them, even after their health is restored. The effect of this ordeal would understandably cause the afflicted one to develop a very negative view of self.

This may be one of the reasons for the elaborate cleansing ceremony described in this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion). Over and over again the person would hear: “You are clean.”

But not only was their healing to be publicly announced, they would experience complete restoration. A surprising aspect of the cleansing ceremony is that the blood from the sacrifice was to be placed on the cured person’s right ear, thumb, and big toe. The only other time anything like this was done was when the cohanim (English: priests) were set apart for service. So instead of saying to the ex-sufferer, “You can come back now, but don’t get too close,” they were treated most special. After this ceremony everybody would know that they were truly healed, cleansed, restored, and accepted.

This vividly illustrates for us what it means when God restores us to himself through the Messiah. Because of sin in our lives, we don’t have the kind of relationship with God we were designed for. And because of this break in our most basic relationship, we lack the depth of community we were meant to have.

But God’s forgiveness is thorough and complete. When he restores us, he wants us to know that we are fully accepted by him. No longer does he take our past wrongs into account; they are forgotten for good. We are accepted as his children, and he desires to use us in his service.

Note how, in this passage, restoration occurs within the community of God’s people. To experience restoration, we need to publicly acknowledge our sin within a safe and trusting community environment, just as the afflicted needed to reveal their condition. Then we need to hear God’s words of acceptance through others. When this occurs, we can then function in life as we were meant to – restored!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

Tune into to TorahBytes Live, Thursday, April 11, at 2 p.m. Eastern Time, for further discussion. Alan will explore God’s restorative power and how we can avail ourselves of it. Click on image to set up a notification. Recorded version is available immediately following the live stream.

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