Facing the Consequences

For the week of June 19, 2021 / 9 Tammuz 5781

The Brazen Serpent by Gustave Dore

The Brazen Serpent by Gustave Dore

Chukat
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 19:1 – 22:1
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 11:1-33

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And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (B’midbar/Numbers 21:8-9)

I have always wondered about this story. It begins with the people of Israel yet again venting their frustration with their ongoing challenging situation. We read, “From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food” (B’midbar/Numbers 21:4-5). As I have said before, I don’t criticize them for their mishandling such situations. Nothing I have ever gone through comes close to Israel’s years in the wilderness. They shouldn’t have taken out their frustration on God and Moses, but I personally can’t fault them for doing so. I have to be careful, however, not to let my empathy for the people’s suffering get in the way of whatever lesson I need to learn from this affair.

The result of their faithless behavior was God’s sending among them “fiery serpents,” most likely very painful poisonous snakes. It didn’t take too long for the people to admit to their erroneous ways and plead with Moses to pray on their behalf for relief. God’s solution was unique in Israel’s history. He directed Moses to construct a bronze serpent on a pole. If anyone who was bitten looked at the bronze serpent, they would be healed.

That such an item would be sanctioned by God for such a purpose is very strange given the strong prohibition against idols. In fact, this item eventually did become an idol (for more on that, see the TorahBytes message, When Blessings Become Idols. As for its God-sanctioned purpose in the moment, it became a tool of faith. Certainly, the power of the healing came from God. It was the submitting to his directions in the situation that made the difference here.

But did the object itself contribute at all to the experience of healing? It might sound spiritual to say that God could have told Moses to make anything or even nothing. That might be true, but I wouldn’t assume that God’s instructions were arbitrary. It certainly doesn’t seem they are. People are bit by snakes; they have to look at a snake. Coincidence? I think not!

Since the text doesn’t clearly state the reason for the bronze serpent on a pole, we need to tread carefully. What is clear is the association between the instrument of punishment and the instrument of healing. Yet, it’s that connection which I have always found strange. How could it be that the object which was the source of pain could end up being the source of healing?

I think I’ve got it! Calling the Israelites to gaze upon the source of their pain forced them to acknowledge the consequences of their actions, and the result was healing. Not to take away anything from the supernatural dynamic of this, but isn’t this the way life works? How much personal suffering do we prolong because we refuse to accept the negative consequences of our wrongs? Conversely, how many of us have experienced the freedom that is derived from facing those consequences. While God is the agent of healing, true repentance requires we accept responsibility for our behavior.

As you may be aware, Yeshua used this story in his conversation with the Jewish leader Nicodemus to point to himself, when he said: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). To gaze upon the crucified Messiah is to see the consequences of our sins. It is when we realize that our attitudes and behavior resulted in the horrific suffering of the Son of God, that we can be healed from the consequences of our actions.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Blind Jealousy

For the week of June 12, 2021 / 2 Tammuz 5781

Young man with blindfold over eyes

Korach
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 20:18-42
Originally posted the week of June 24, 2017 / 30 Sivan 5777

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They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” (B’midbar/Numbers 16:3)

Jealousy is blinding. I don’t mean the appropriate kind of jealousy that refuses to allow others to get in the way of your marriage, for example. That’s the jealousy God has for his people. I am talking about the all-consuming emotion that takes us over when someone else has what we think we should have.

That’s what was controlling Korah and company. They couldn’t handle seeing Moses and his brother Aaron being in leadership. And it’s not as if they were at the bottom of the ladder themselves. They were Levites, the tribe of Israel that was set aside to serve in the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle). Being special was not special enough, however, as they set their eyes on the priesthood itself.

I don’t know if they thought they would have more perks or prestige by being priests. We aren’t told. But it doesn’t matter. That’s just how jealousy works. The thought they were missing out was enough to drive them. They had to have what was not allotted to them or least what they thought they were missing out on. Jealousy can’t see the true nature of whatever it is jealous of. It’s always the perceived privilege or status that is passionately desired. It’s so easy to look at the exterior of other people’s lives and think they have it better than we do. Status and prestige are not all they appear to be. With privilege, if privilege comes into play at all, comes responsibility.

When jealousy fills us, we can’t see that roles and responsibilities are allotted to people from God. That may sound overly spiritual and idealistic, especially in a world where injustice abounds. This is not the case in Korah’s story. Based on divine inspiration we know Korah is not ultimately challenging Moses and Aaron but God. But what about it when it is you and me? How do we know when our place and position are due to God’s direct involvement or the machinations of other forces?

It depends how much in control you think God is. On second thought, it doesn’t matter what you (or I) think, what’s the truth? Is God only involved with some people sometimes, or with everyone all the time? While not speaking directly to the issue of allotted roles, these words from the New Covenant book of Hebrews are applicable:

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:5-6)

The writer encourages his readers (and us by extension) to be materially content on the basis of the intimate presence of God. This is not a pseudo-spiritual directive to disconnect emotionally from reality. This reminds us the Messiah follower can be confident that God is personally involved in his life. We are assured therefore that whatever is happening to us is not outside of God’s direct control.

That doesn’t mean we should never pursue change. Far from it! As emissaries of the Kingdom of Heaven there are no greater change agents in the world. But when things don’t go the way we expect; when we feel passed by while others are placed in positions we think we deserve, we must avoid jealously at all costs. Instead we should continue to commit our lives to God, looking to him to work things out according to his will.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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The Fear Is Real

For the week of June 5, 2021 / 25 Sivan 5781

A terrified man

Sh’lach
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 13:1-15:41
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24
Repost of a revised message originally from the week of June 9, 2007 / 23 Sivan 5767

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Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (B’midbar/Numbers 14:1-4)

I don’t criticize the people who make up the negative examples in the Bible (of which there are many). While I would like to think that I would be a Moses confronting Pharaoh or a David challenging Goliath, I fear that I am far more like the grumblers in this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion).

I prefer to think that after seeing God’s power expressed so dramatically through the ten plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, and in his wondrous provision of food and water, that when the time came to enter the Promised Land, I would be good to go. Walled cities? No problem! Giants armed to the teeth? No big deal. With the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob on our side, it would be a cake walk. Weren’t Joshua and Caleb like that? They were among the twelve who had spied out the land. Even though the others brought back an intimidating report, seeing everything they saw, they were confident. I would like to be like them. But I have my doubts.

It’s so easy to boast about faith in theory. It’s another thing to have confidence in the face of true danger. It’s easy to pretend; it’s another to demonstrate real courage. It’s one thing to be calm when there’s nothing to fear. It’s another thing to stand strong when facing the impossible.

The problem, however, wasn’t that the people were scared. It’s that they didn’t submit their fear to God. When Joshua and Caleb urged them to not give into their fears, but to trust God instead, the people actually wanted to kill them.

We won’t learn lessons from other people’s failures until we can see them as a reflection of ourselves. How many challenges has God presented to us that we have rejected due to fear? How many times has fear dictated our decisions? It doesn’t have to be that way, however. It’s one thing to accept our frailty as human beings; it’s another thing to let it control our lives. It’s one thing to deny the reality of the fear we feel; it’s another to give in to it.

Caleb’s and Joshua’s confidence in God didn’t necessarily mean they had no fear. While there is no statement that I know of regarding their emotions in this instance, years later, as Joshua was preparing to lead the nation into the Promised Land, God tells him to “be strong and courageous” three times in the first nine verses of the book that bears his name.

I would like to think that the presence of courage automatically dispels the presence of fear, but between my understanding of the Bible and personal experience, it doesn’t seem to be the case. Fear is real, but it doesn’t have to have the final word.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Speak Forth!

For the week of May 29, 2021 / 18 Sivan 5781

Silhouette of a man speaking to an outdoor crowd

Beha’alotcha
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English: 2:10 – 4:7)

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Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them! (B’midbar/Numbers 11:29)

This past Sunday in the Western Christian tradition, Pentecost Sunday was observed (June 20 this year according to the Eastern tradition). The term “Pentecost,” is derived from the Greek word for fifty. It refers to the Jewish festival of Shavuot, meaning weeks. Shavuot takes place seven weeks and one day (fifty days) after Passover. Pentecost Sunday commemorates the outpouring of the Ruach HaKodesh (the Holy Spirit) upon the followers of Yeshua in Jerusalem on the first Shavuot after Yeshua’s death and resurrection at Passover time.

Following the crowd’s reaction to the goings on of the disciples, Peter appropriately explained this phenomenon in terms of the promise of God spoken through the prophet Joel:

And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy (Acts 2:17-18; quoting Joel 3:1-2; [English: 2:28-29]).

Before I tie this in with this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading), I need to clarify the essence of the phenomenon that occurred on this special Shavuot. Most readers would understandably focus on the speaking in other tongues, meaning languages. The nature of this and its contemporary use is a subject of much controversy. But for our purposes, I want to point out what the people were hearing rather than how they were hearing it. I am not saying that the how isn’t important; it’s that I would like us to focus on the what. Yes, the crowd was amazed to be hearing what they were hearing in their own language, but what were they hearing? According to verse ten of Acts, chapter two, they were hearing the Yeshua followers speaking forth, “the mighty works of God.”

If we could get over the theological conundrum over tongues speaking, we can see that what they were doing was what the Bible calls prophesying. This is why Peter referenced the promise from Joel about all types of people prophesying. And that is the tie-in between Pentecost and this week’s parsha.

The people’s complaining had gotten to Moses to the point that he wanted to die (11:15). God’s response was to have Moses gather seventy elders, so that they could help Moses bear the responsibility of the people. To equip them to do this effectively, God said he would take some of the Spirit that was on Moses and give it to these seventy elders. This indicates that Moses’ ability to lead had been imparted by God. The seventy would be similarly endowed with the power of God through his Spirit.

Note how these men reacted to the impartation of God’s Spirit: they prophesied (11:25). What form that took, we don’t know. But it is possible that they, like the Yeshua followers on Shavuot, spoke forth the mighty works of God. One could say this is a foretaste of Pentecost, but there’s more.

As it turned out, two of the seventy didn’t show up for the official impartation. For some reason they stayed with the rest of the camp. Despite their not being with the others, they prophesied anyway. This concerned Moses’ assistant, Joshua, who brought it to Moses’ attention in order to put a stop to this. But this didn’t bother Moses. In fact, his response was “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” (11:29). That’s the tie-in!

You may be aware that when Paul addressed the controversy of “tongues” with the believing community at Corinth, while the context was different from that of Moses, he expressed a similar sentiment. After Paul anchors his discussion on “spiritual gifts” in the centrality of love (1 Corinthians 13), he writes: “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (14:1). He then affirms speaking in tongues, while stressing the great importance of prophecy by stating, “Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy” (14:5).

It’s as if Moses’ heart resonated with God’s own, a desire that all his people would prophesy. Yeshua’s heavenly reception due to his death and resurrection resulted in God infusing his Spirit in his people to enable us to be conduits of his word. Whatever else followers of Yeshua are called to do, it stems from our foundational prophetic calling. The world needs to hear us speak forth the mighty acts of God.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV)

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Are You Agitated?

For the week of May 22, 2021 / 11 Sivan 5781

Man with confused thoughts

Naso
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 13:2-25
Originally posted the week of June 3, 2017 / 9 Sivan 5777

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And the woman bore a son and called his name Samson. And the young man grew, and the LORD blessed him. And the Spirit of the LORD began to stir him in Mahaneh-dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol. (Shoftim/Judges 13:24-25)

The story of Samson (Hebrew: Shimshon) is a troubling one. Clearly he is especially chosen by God to make a positive difference in his day, but on a personal level, he is pretty much dysfunctional. For some Bible readers this is problematic. But I think that’s because we tend to have difficulty accepting that God might use a person of questionable character. Yet the Bible demonstrates how God uses both good and bad people to accomplish his purposes. That he uses someone in no way validates them. It is reasonable to assume that God would have preferred Samson be of much more noble character, but it should be comforting to know that a person’s irresponsible behavior can’t undermine God’s purposes (at least not in the long run). We are not looking at Samson this week to derive life lessons on virtue. Instead, we will focus on an aspect of how to discern God’s will in spite of Samson’s character.

Before Samson began to live out his God-given call, we read in our Haftarah (supplemental Scripture reading): “the Spirit of the LORD began to stir him” (Shoftim/Judges 13:5). The Hebrew word translated “stir” is “pa-am” and conveys the idea of being troubled. It’s how Pharaoh, King of Egypt, and Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, were feeling after their hard-to-understand dreams (see Bereshit/Genesis 41:8 & Daniel 2:1-2). In Samson’s case, it wasn’t dreams that made him feel that way, but God. My guess is that the Bible translators resisted using more negative-sounding words, such as “troubled” or “anxious,” since God was the cause. But even though “stir” sounds more positive (or at least not negative) the result is similar. God caused Samson to experience some sort of internal agitation. How the biblical narrator understood the source of the agitation to be God, we don’t know. Regardless, we are to understand that it was this stirring that moved Samson to engage the oppressive situation Israel was under at that time.

I wonder if it is possible to misunderstand the stirring of the Lord in our lives. Could it be that there are people who right now are experiencing agitation from God and don’t know that it is from him? We may find ourselves sad, frustrated, angry, disappointed, or anxious. But because these are deemed to be negative emotions, we try to get rid of them, thinking that trusting God means to always be joyful and at peace. Others may not be so quick to be free of such feelings, but instead of responding to God’s promptings, act them out in personally and relationally destructive ways.

As in Samson’s day, there is much in our world that should trouble us. Yeshua taught his followers to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). This means that the way things are is not the way they should be. It is not God’s will that we simply accept evil. One day, all evil will be eradicated, but until then, we must pray that God does something about it. When he answers those prayers, it is often through the efforts of people like you and me. And the first thing those people experience is stirring.

Are you being stirred? While some people are very sensitive to the ills of life and seem to be burdened by all sorts of things, most folks appear to be oblivious as they are only concerned about their own existence. But perhaps there is more going on in the hearts of people than we realize. What would happen if we stopped and took inventory of what agitates us. What would we find? While some agitation is due to our own selfishness and lack of faith, it could be that we are being stirred by God to do something.

When we find ourselves upset over issues that are truly wrong from God’s perspective, we may discover that he is the source of our agitation. To resist his agitation, is to resist what he wants to do through you. But if God is our agitation source, then it’s time to seek him as to what he would have us do about it.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV)

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Israel Will Flourish

For the week of May 15, 2021 / 4 Sivan 5781

Fresh fruit stall in the old city of Jerusalem

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 27, 2017 / 2 Sivan 5777

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Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” (Hosea 2:1 [English 1:10])

This week’s parsha is the first of the fourth book of the Torah. The Hebrew title, “B’midbar” (“In the Wilderness”) is taken from the first sentence of the book, and aptly describes much of its overall content as we read about Israel’s journey through the wilderness. The English title, “Numbers,” is a translation of the Greek title “Arithmoi” and is due to the long description of Moses’s census of the people. The choosing of the accompanying Haftarah reading from the prophet Hosea is likely because of its reference to “the number of the children of Israel” I quoted at the start.

Paul’s quoting this passage in his letter to the Romans is often misunderstood. Tragically, he tends to be misrepresented regarding his understanding of God’s relationship to the Jewish people in the New Covenant era. This Hosea passage is quoted by Paul early in the section of Romans where he discusses that very issue (see Romans 9-11). It is most likely there were non-Jewish believers in Rome who had deduced that God had rejected the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob due to the combination of a significant amount of Jewish people who were antagonistic to Yeshua’s messianic claim and the openness to Yeshua on the part of a number of Gentiles (non-Jews). But Paul states that the rejection conclusion is both ignorant (see Romans 11:25) and arrogant (see Romans 11:18). God’s faithfulness to Israel was always and continues to be based on his unchanging, unconditional promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The current situation, however perceived, in no way undermines that.

However, there are two places in Romans that can appear to support the rejection scenario. The first is 2:17-29. This is where Paul defines what constitutes a genuine Jewish person. But contrary to the conclusions of some, he is not establishing a notion of the “spiritual Jew” in contrast to Jews by natural descent. Rather, he is emphasizing that the matters of the heart are more important than external forms. This is in keeping with the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures and the teaching of Yeshua that religious rituals, while having their place, are not that which express true godliness. What really counts is (in no particular order) faith, love, mercy, truth, humility, justice, and so on. Yet people, not just Jewish people, have always tended to focus on externals. Paul is not claiming that Gentile believers are the real Jews, while the natural ones are not.

Romans chapter nine, where he quotes our Haftarah, also tends to be misunderstood. To conclude Paul means anything but that God has not rejected natural Israel completely ignores God’s message through Hosea. God called Hosea to graphically illustrate God’s love for Israel by having him marry an unfaithful woman. Hosea’s heartbreak over his wayward wife is likened to God’s own yearning for his people. By Hosea’s referring to “the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea,” God confirms his promise made to Abraham (see Bereshit/Genesis 22:17). And by quoting Hosea, Paul is doing the exact same thing. That Gentiles who have put their faith in the Jewish Messiah are accepted as God’s children too, does not negate God’s faithfulness to Israel.

We need to remember that the purpose of God’s promise to Abraham and his natural descendants through Isaac and Jacob was to bless the nations (see Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-3), which, according to Paul, is the very essence of the Gospel (see Galatians 3:8). The inclusive nature of the New Covenant in Yeshua is not an abrogation of his particular purposes regarding Israel.

To use New Covenant inclusiveness to redefine Israel as the generic community of believers is to negate God’s commitment to the forefathers. Undermining his faithfulness to natural Israel defames his character and puts the onus of his acceptance on human performance rather than on his mercy and grace.

But if we listen carefully to God’s reaffirmation of his promise to Israel through Hosea and Paul, then we have grounds for hope. That Israel will flourish in spite of the common human tendency shared with the rest of the world to wander from God encourages us to trust God in the midst of every challenge we might face.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Remember the Land

For the week of May 8, 2021 / 26 Iyar 5781

Hula Valley, Northern Israel

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

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But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, so that I walked contrary to them and brought them into the land of their enemies—if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land. (Vayikra/Leviticus 26:40-42)

This week’s parsha includes one of the Torah sections outlining the results of either living according to God’s directives or not (Vayikra/Leviticus 26:14-43). Included here is God’s promise of restorationif and when Israel repents after a time of spurning him. The restoration of wayward Israel is a core theme in the Books of the Prophets. While according to this and other similar sections of Torah, restoration is contingent upon repentance, the prophets envision a guaranteed restoration (e.g. Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 37:11-14), something that the New Covenant Writings affirm (see Romans 11:16-27). Based on a holistic view of Scripture we can be certain that the promised restoration will be precipitated by the necessary repentance.

The anticipation of restoration is deeply rooted in God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But notice that they are, perhaps for the only time, listed in reverse order: “then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham.” This emphasizes the depths of God’s commitment to Israel. The reverse order underscores that the commitment of God to Abraham was an inheritance. Something real and eternal was established with and to Abraham and confirmed within his family line specifically through Isaac and then Jacob. The future behavior of their descendants can in no way undermine the everlasting nature of God’s promise to the nation. How each individual may or may not benefit from their inheritance is one thing, which in no way effects the promise itself.

This passage tells us that there is more going on than a commitment to a people. God also said through Moses that he would “remember the land.” The anticipated repentance of Israel doesn’t only evoke God’s covenantal commitment to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but realigns the people of Israel with God’s purposes for the land of Israel.

God’s promise to Abraham included the land. As he continued to wait upon God for further developments, which included the creation of a nation derived from him and Sarah despite their old age, the land continued to be part and parcel of the overall promise. The unconditional nature of God’s covenant with him always included the land (see Bereshit/Genesis 15:17-21).

The tendency of many Bible adherents to emphasize the so-called spiritual aspects of scripture over and against the earthly ones undermines the effectiveness of scripture in instructing us for living life. The Bible’s understanding of the world is a wonderfully integrated mix of the seen and unseen elements of life. The creation is the realm in which we were meant to live. Israel is chosen by God to reflect the importance of living life according to the purposes and ways of God.

Human beings spend too much time attempting to resolve environmental and political problems through technology and the manipulation of behavior. We think we can fix our problems directly by confronting them with our own ingenuity. The story of Israel in the Bible us reminds, however, that the key to creation restoration is by way of humble submission to the Creator.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Let’s Eat

For the week of May 1, 2021 / 19 Iyar 5781

A group of people enjoying a meal together

Emor
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 21:1-24:23
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-31
Originally posted the week of May 13, 2017 / 17 Iyar 5777

Note: I was a little hesitant to share this message due to the current health crisis. It refers to eating together and celebrating, which has been difficult, if not impossible, for some for more than a year. While the pain of separation we feel is real, I hope you will read through to the end to discover that there’s someone who longs to be with you, whom no government restriction can keep out. – Alan Gilman

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And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons so that they abstain from the holy things of the people of Israel, which they dedicate to me, so that they do not profane my holy name: I am the Lord.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 22:1-2)

A good portion of this week’s parsha (weekly Torah selection) cautions the cohanim (English: priests) from participating in their assigned duties when deemed to be ritually unclean. There were particular prohibitions regarding their being in the presence of the dead as well as certain mourning practices. They were more limited than the general population as far as whom they could marry and the conditions under which consecrated foods were to be eaten.

It is striking how much eating played a part in the priestly service. Very few of the edible items that were offered by the people were completely consumed on the altar. Most of the offered meat, grain, and drink were either eaten by the cohanim only or by both the person making the offering and the cohanim. The dominant smell in the area of the altar must have been like a barbecue. Eating wasn’t the only thing happening, but there must have been quite a bit going on at any given time. I don’t think I am off course to say that eating was therefore a central aspect of Old Covenant worship.

Even before sin and evil had the creation in its clutches due to our first parents’ rebellion in the Garden of Eden, eating was a part of God’s good design. Just because death was not a factor until after Adam and Eve’s first sin, that doesn’t mean they didn’t need to eat. The harmony within the creation they briefly enjoyed prior to the curse included regular access to an abundance of food. Sin and the curse didn’t create the need to eat, but rather make accessing food difficult (see Bereshit/Genesis 3:17-19).

The need for food established an essential dependency of humans upon the rest of creation. It’s no wonder then that much of ancient religion is focused on relating to a god or gods in order to ensure there be sufficient food to eat. That in itself isn’t misguided, but by design. Yet there is more to food than how it drives people to seek spiritual assistance.

The personal intimacy of eating food appears also to be by design. The conditions placed upon the cohanim’s eating of the offerings were primarily due to whether or not they were fit to be in God’s presence. To eat of the offerings, they had to be ritually clean. To eat or not to eat, therefore, represented one’s ability to be in fellowship with God. While this may sound strange, it was not only in the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and the Temple where people ate with God. Abraham did so when three mysterious persons came to announce in advance the birth of Isaac (Bereshit/Genesis 18:1-8), and Moses and the Elders of Israel ate with him at Mt. Sinai (Shemot/Exodus 24:9-11).

It is not a random social accident that eating food is one of our primary contexts in which fellowship between people occurs. It is clear to me, if not to most, that eating alone or on the go is not best for us. Sharing the eating experience has been the basis of so much meaningful human interaction for family and friends throughout time.

In addition, it’s a meal that is the primary context of remembering God’s establishing of relationship with his people. Through the Passover, God directed Israel to year after year celebrate his victory over the tyrant, Pharaoh. It’s not just through the symbolic elements alone that the power of remembrance is conveyed, but the festive meal itself speaks of relationship with God and one another. The New Covenant version of this same meal as established by the Messiah is all this and more as Jew and Gentile together celebrate God’s victory over the greater tyrant, death. I wish more communities of believers did so as part of a large meal.

When we lose the joy of celebration, it’s easy to simply go through the motions of religious observance. Perhaps that’s what happened to the Laodiceans, a community of believers in ancient Turkey who had lost their zeal for God. Yeshua invited them to intimately engage him again: “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20).

Unlike the ancient priests, burdened by all sorts of requirements preventing them from eating with God, Yeshua wants to walk right in and sit right down with us. He has made us fit to eat with God personally and intimately forever. Let’s eat!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Naked Truth

For the week of April 24, 2021 / 12 Iyar 5781

Title text: The Naked Truth

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

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None of you shall approach any one of his close relatives to uncover nakedness. I am the LORD. (Vayikra/Leviticus 18:6)

This week’s parsha includes a detailed list of illicit sexual relationships. The Hebrew uses a special phrase to describe this, which is “don’t uncover nakedness.” Many translations treat this phrase as a euphemism. A euphemism is a figure of speech that is “the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/euphemism). In English, instead of saying someone has died, we say they passed away. It means the same thing but passed away comes across as less jarring. So, instead of God’s saying through Moses, “Don’t have sex with a close relative,” it’s “don’t uncover their nakedness.” The image of removing one’s covering is apparently not as jarring as “don’t have sex.” That said, a great number of English translations of the Bible prefer to translate the euphemism into plain speech (you can view a list here).

It’s possible that the original hearers would have heard “don’t have sex” when Moses said, “don’t uncover nakedness,” just like we hear “died” for “passed away.” However, while this may not apply to all figures of speech, there may be something more going on than a simple code term, where the one expression represents the other. I wonder if our culture would use passed away if it didn’t hold to the idea of an afterlife at least historically. This is not the place for a full analysis of figures of speech, but the image created by a word picture has to somehow work within the psyche of the culture.

The scripture, especially when we are reading the very words of God as we are doing here, reflects a God inspired culture. On one hand, God through Moses is using language that the people would understand. On the other, he is instructing them on how to see the world. God didn’t have to use this phrase here. The Bible uses other terms for the sexual act. But here we read of the uncovering of nakedness. Why?

I am intrigued by the initial experience of Adam and Eve: “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Bereshit/Genesis 2:25), especially in relation to their reaction upon eating the forbidden fruit: “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths” (Bereshit/Genesis 3:7). The text continues to tell us that Adam hid from God due to fear, because he was naked (see Bereshit/Genesis 3:10), which was evidence that he had eaten the fruit (see Bereshit/Genesis 3:11).

While some may be quick to connect nakedness with sex as if sex was the forbidden fruit, there is nothing in the text to suggest that. Sexuality within marriage was already blessed by God (see Bereshit/Genesis 1:28) and would continue to be so. Instead, there is something else going on here. And it’s something very difficult for most people to comprehend today.

For most people the body is nothing more than an accident of nature. The real person is entrapped in a material cage that encumbers a full and free expression of who we really are. This way of thinking is extremely common among adherents of the Bible. But according to Scripture our bodies are God-given vehicles through which to honor God and bless others. The challenges we face are not due to our physicality but due to sin. Our bodies will be fully redeemed upon Messiah’s return.

The uncovering of nakedness, then, is not simply about “having sex” with someone. That’s because sexual intimacy is not simply a physical transaction between humans. The exposing of our bodies to others is an exposing of self in our most vulnerable state. You and I were not made to expose our deepest selves to just anyone. God designed physical intimacy of this sort to be reserved within a protected exclusive relationship. To share ourselves outside of God-sanctioned marriage tears at the very fabric of what it is to be human. The results are disastrous for both individuals and society.

Beyond the prohibitions listed, we would do well to regard our bodies as God does, as vessels set apart for his service in every area of life.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version 

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Deal with It

For the week of April 17, 2021 / 5 Iyar 5781

Spray bottle and sponge on floor in front of moldy wall

Tazria & Metzora
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33
Haftarah: 2 M’lachim/2 Kings 7:3-20
Originally posted the week of April 6, 2019 / 1 Nisan 5779

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Then he shall examine the disease on the seventh day. If the disease has spread in the garment, in the warp or the woof, or in the skin, whatever be the use of the skin, the disease is a persistent leprous disease; it is unclean. And he shall burn the garment, or the warp or the woof, the wool or the linen, or any article made of skin that is diseased, for it is a persistent leprous disease. It shall be burned in the fire. (Vayikra/Leviticus 13:51-52)

As I have studied Torah for most of my life, I have come to see that there is far more to its teachings than the particular details it describes. Don’t get me wrong! The details are extremely important, but the details point beyond themselves to something much greater. I don’t mean that in some esoteric way as if the Bible is a code book of mysteries to be solved (in spite of what some may think!). It’s more straightforward than that. As we absorb its content over time, we are drawn into God’s understanding of the world in which we live. This worldview is not simply one possible way to look at life, but the only truly effective way. The God of Israel – the one who both designed and implemented the creation – is the only one who truly understands how best to negotiate the complexities of living. Through the Scriptures he has revealed that understanding.

Take for example the section of Torah we are in currently. God through Moses establishes strict guidelines with regard to certain infections. Note what’s missing. There is a great lack of spiritualization here. There’s nothing to suggest that people whose bodies or houses were afflicted were to blame in any way. While there was what to do in response, there was no reason to be ashamed of such things. Lack of shame encourages people to not hide their problems but bring them out into the open where they can be dealt with.

Not everything that looks problematic is serious. It was necessary for the general population and the leadership to learn the difference between those things that needed to be cut out and destroyed and others that could be left alone. A culture trained by God in this way would learn to approach all of life in a similar fashion. One doesn’t have to be a psychologist to know that negative human behavior can be as infectious as the examples given us in Torah.

In the New Covenant Writings, Paul provides an illustration of this (see 1 Corinthians 5:6-8). The faith community of the city of Corinth had allowed arrogance and malice to fester. He likened these negative influences to the way leaven pervades dough. Once the fermentation process gets in, it can’t be removed. It affects the entire batch. He therefore calls for a whole new lump of dough.

The problem with Paul’s illustration is when it comes to fermented dough, it’s permanent. If this was really about dough, then “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened” (1 Corinthians 5:7), would require throwing out the infected batch and starting with a new one. There’s no way he intends an exact parallel for the Corinthians. He isn’t saying that their community was beyond the point of no return; that they would need to start with a whole new group of people. What he is saying is that the transformative process required to resolve their metaphorical infection was drastic and would, therefore, require a resolve on the part of this community to take their situation seriously. They would have to do whatever was necessary to experience renewal. Thankfully, Paul’s extreme language emphasizes the potential of God’s transformative power available to them (and to us!) through Yeshua the Messiah.

Unless we are willing to identify and deal with potentially destructive issues, they will pervade our lives and spread to our loved ones and communities. God, through Yeshua, offers us complete cleansing. But we need to have the courage to take these things seriously and the wisdom to fully deal with them. While some issues are no big deal, some are. Let’s deal with them before it’s too late.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version 

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