Don’t Go Overboard

For the week of September 3, 2016 / 30 Av 5776

Children Diving Sunset Silhouettes Brazilian Boat

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

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However, you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your towns, as much as you desire, according to the blessing of the LORD your God that he has given you. The unclean and the clean may eat of it, as of the gazelle and as of the deer. Only you shall not eat the blood; you shall pour it out on the earth like water. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 12:15-16)

God is very particular about how we are to approach him. This is true throughout the entire Bible. In the days of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and the Temple, there were very specific rules and regulations governing who was to do what where. This week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion) includes a relatively brief, but important, section that acts as a safeguard to prevent the people from taking God’s particulars too far.

Once Israel was sufficiently settled in the Promised Land, they were to seek out the location to which God would direct them to be the place of sacrifice. Until then, God tolerated a more laissez-faire approach to the people’s offerings. But once the location was clarified, they were forbidden from making sacrifices anywhere they wished. At first, it was the town of Shiloh and later Jerusalem. Following the explanation of the limits placed on where to sacrifice, God, in his wisdom, clarifies that his strict approach to the location of the slaughter, offering, and consumption of sacrificial animals was not to apply to the normal, day-to-day, eating of meat. It may seem obvious to some of you that the regulations controlling sacrifices wouldn’t also apply to general meat consumption, but other people seem to require this kind of further explicit information.

This second group of people includes the keener ones among us. You know who you are! You’re the kind of person who always insists we play by the book. If it’s in the rules, we have to do it. You’re the one always asking whether or not something is the “right thing to do.” Not much wiggle room when it comes to right and wrong. You’re probably married to someone who thinks you are a nitpicker, making mountains out of every molehill. But you know the truth, don’t you? Let other people waffle in their imaginary land of gray, as they float through life, but not you! God has drawn the lines and you are going to abide by them. Disclaimer: that’s my tendency. While I know I fall short just like everyone else, I think we should take God’s Word seriously and avoid any attempt to water it down in the name of grace or any other misguided theological notion. Note: I do believe in God’s grace, though I reject the idea that it nullifies God’s stated directions for our lives. In fact, grace is the power given to us freely by God through faith in the Messiah enabling us to be what God wants us to be and to do what he wants us to do, but I am getting off topic.

One of the tendencies that besets people like me, we who tend to be sticklers about doing the right thing, is that we can undermine the very obedience and faithfulness we claim to uphold. We do so by going overboard. If God says to eat the sacrificial meat in only the specified location, then perhaps it’s advisable to eat all our meat there. If God requires something, then doing more of it more often must be better. But that is not necessarily the case. This is the kind of thinking that leads some communities to create extreme food regulations, to enforce certain kinds of strict child-rearing customs, to forbid marriage, or impose other standards of behavior that God never intended for us. Often this begins out of a heart for godliness but eventually, results in oppressive customs and destructive traditions.

I am aware that the more common problem in our day is the neglect of God’s standards, a wrong understanding of grace and forgiveness that leads to licentiousness and other forms of ungodliness. It is this growing neglect of God’s Word that often fuels a sometimes extreme overcompensation that ends up justifying going overboard in the other direction.

But going beyond what God says is no better than neglecting it. People with this tendency have a hard time agreeing to such a statement. But think about it. If you are so keen to obey God, do you really think going beyond what he says is the same as truly doing what he says? Before you react, with “Yes, but…” as you point your finger at others, stop and consider what faithfulness to God really is. Going overboard in your attempt to follow the Messiah is the same as not following him. What we really need is the kind of balanced approach to the obedience exemplified by our parsha.

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

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Don’t Worry About It!

For the week of August 27, 2016 / 23 Av 5776

Don't Worry blue street sign

Ekev
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25
Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14 – 51:3 

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If you say in your heart, “These nations are greater than I. How can I dispossess them?” you shall not be afraid of them but you shall remember what the LORD your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 7:17-18)

My family knows that whenever I bring up a concern about something, I don’t want to be told, “Don’t worry about it.” First, just because I am concerned about how a thing is to be done by whomever, however, and whenever; it doesn’t necessarily mean I am worried. And If I am worried, simply saying, “Don’t worry!” is not going to make it better for me. I take my role in my family seriously, and while I do admit that I can get worked up over nothing at times (or often?), I don’t believe in simply going with the flow, throwing caution to the wind, the que-sera-sera sort of thing. If something is really not important, that’s one thing. But if it is important, then it should be done well and in a timely fashion. So don’t tell me, “Don’t worry about it.” I want details.

For those of you of the more laid back variety, you might be fine with “Don’t worry about it.” In fact, you might interpret faith through your laissez-faire lens. The less detail the better as far as you are concerned as you let go, and let God carry you along through the twists and turns of life. I admit there are times when I should do just that, but is that really what faith is all the time?

Not according to this week’s Torah reading. God through Moses is preparing the people of Israel to face their greatest challenge to date: the conquest of the Promised Land. This is actually the second time they are dealing with this as a nation. It didn’t go well the last time almost forty years before, when they freaked out hearing about the land’s inhabitants. Their lack of faith resulted in thirty-eight additional years of wilderness wanderings until almost all the adults of that generation died out. Interestingly, while many of the current generation would not have been born yet, there would have been a good number who would have remembered the last time decades earlier. But was the lesson they were to learn? Don’t worry about it”? Let go and let God? It wasn’t the lesson then, and it wasn’t the lesson now.

The last time, only two of the leaders who had scouted out the Land, Joshua and Caleb, truly trusted in God. But it wasn’t as if faith blinded them to the challenges they faced. Faith in God enabled them to see those challenges clearly and understand that God would give them what they needed to overcome them.

As Moses anticipated fear in the hearts of the people, he didn’t put them down for it. Rather he took their concern seriously and encouraged them by providing details as to why God could be trusted. First, “you shall remember what the LORD your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt” (7:18). Remember what God did in the past. Many of these people saw the manifestation of God’s power in Egypt. While he may not do the exact same things in the future, he who enabled Israel to overcome the world power of its day is more than able to equip them to conquer the peoples of Canaan. Second, “the LORD your God will send hornets among them, until those who are left and hide themselves from you are destroyed” (7:20). While I am not sure what those “hornets” refer to exactly, God will not leave them to their own devices, but will “bug” their enemies (pun intended) until they are defeated. Third, “the LORD your God is in your midst, a great and awesome God” (7:21). The people of Israel will not be alone. God’s presence with them is assured. Fourth, “he will give their kings into your hand, and you shall make their name perish from under heaven” (7:24). God’s presence is more than sweet sentimentality, he himself through them will bring about victory over their enemies.

This is a lot more here than “Don’t worry about it.” Israel had nothing to worry about for good reason. Faith is not a disconnected otherly consciousness, but an informed, intelligent, detailed understanding of the way things really are when God is positively involved in our lives.

If you have a concern today. Don’t just not worry; listen to what God has to say about it. You might be surprised how detailed his answer to you might be.

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

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The Ugly Truth

For the week of August 20, 2016 / 16 Av 5776

Silhouettesof hand stop woman

Va-Ethannan
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26

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Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 7:9-10)

I recently had a transformative experience. Regular readers of TorahBytes are aware that I was in Haiti visiting my daughter who has been working there for the past seven years. It was my second visit; the first being in 2012. Haiti has the reputation of being one of the poorest and most dangerous countries in the world. Being very aware of that, I was content on my previous visit to stay within the confines of the mission base with its high concrete walls, barbed wire, and armed guards. This time was different as I began to see Haiti from God’s perspective as a beautiful land with amazing people. You can read about my Haiti adventures on my blog.

Something my wife has been trying to tell me for years is that I tend to look at life through a negative lens. While there are negative aspects to the world in which we live, the goodness and love of God permeates the universe. Not only was everything created very good, even when reckoning with the pervading effects of evil, we need to remember that there is no limit to the reach of God’s powerful love.

With that said, we are going to look at what some may find to be a difficult and disturbing concept in our reading for this week. On one hand, those who love God can be confident in his enduring faithfulness, while on the other hand, he will destroy those who hate him. The language for the latter is so severe: “He will repay him to his face.” While I want to be more positively oriented about life, we ignore true negatives to our peril.

This is not the nice language that so many prefer to hear about God. But it is the truth! God doesn’t take our total disregard for him lightly. He actually loves us too much to do otherwise. I know that this is not how contemporary society regards love. But it is contemporary society that has redefined love to mean allowing everyone around us to do whatever they want, however they want, and whenever they want. But as any loving parent knows (if they care to admit it), permissiveness undermines maturity. If we care enough about our children, we will instill in them a sense of responsibility that can only come about through their understanding that actions have consequences. To let them get away with anything and everything will result in much harm to them and to others.

Contrary to popular thinking, this is not hard to understand. If you mishandle fire, you get burned. Ignoring God’s ways, you will unnecessarily get sick and injured. You can count on it. This is the negative side of Haiti. Health and safety are for the most part not valued there. Because people ignore some of the most basic of God’s principles, they prematurely die. And that’s what God through Moses is emphasizing here. To hate God is to disregard him. We cannot flagrantly turn our backs on how he designed creation and expect good results. It does not work that way!

But, as I learned in Haiti, the horrible consequences of disregarding God need not have the final say. No matter what we have done, no matter what the consequences have been, Yeshua the Messiah has made full provision to restore us to right relationship with God. Are you suffering because you’ve turned your back on your Creator? He is ready to reveal his faithfulness to you, if you are willing to receive it.

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

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God’s Leading

For the week of August 13, 2016 / 9 Av 5776

Huge pointing shadow hand

Devarim
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1-27

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The LORD our God said to us in Horeb, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Turn and take your journey, and go to the hill country of the Amorites and to all their neighbors in the Arabah, in the hill country and in the lowland and in the Negeb and by the seacoast, the land of the Canaanites, and Lebanon, as far as the great river, the river Euphrates.” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:6-7)

This week we begin the fifth book of Moses, entitled “Devarim” in Hebrew, meaning “words”, taken from the beginning of the very first phrase, “These are the words.” The common English name, Deuteronomy, is derived from the Greek and means, “second law,” because a good portion of it is a recounting of much that had been previously recorded. But don’t be fooled! This recounting is full of reflection and explanation. Plus there is much material unique to this book.

The section we are specifically looking at is a recounting of some of Israel’s journey in the wilderness, in particular when God told Moses it was time to leave Mt. Sinai and head to the Promised Land. I am not sure how many times I have heard people recount their own story and how this passage provided them with supposed divine guidance. In each case, they had been living in a region for a considerable amount of time and then, either in their daily Bible reading, or a spontaneous glance at the page, they encountered the words, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Turn and take your journey…”. In at least one case, the person had been living in a mountainous area. So the words had additional meaning to them. According to these accounts, God spoke to them through these words, which they took to mean it was time to move to a new location.

The problem with this approach to Scripture is that God wasn’t speaking to these people here. He was giving guidance to the people of Israel many centuries before. On what basis can the directions given to Israel be applied to give people similar directions now? On one hand, there is no such basis. I cannot recall a Scripture that encourages us to derive special guidance by taking passages out of context. On the other hand, after years of reading the Bible, I am aware that God can choose to use just about anything to speak to us. But that doesn’t justify people’s claim that God’s words to Israel at Sinai are also his words to them. This is not something I or anyone else can necessarily judge on behalf of others. These people need to answer to God. Bible verses like this or not, we all should be careful to make sure we are discerning God’s leading accurately.

Which brings us to what I think is the real lesson to be derived from a passage like this. The Bible is not designed to function like fortune-cookie sayings or horoscope readings, where we peruse its pages to find statements that jump out at us to provide magic for our lives. Again, God could use Scripture to bring something to mind that is outside of its context, but that’s not the actual function of Scripture.

What we learn from this passage is not that you or I should prepare to move to a new location, but that God leads his people. We haven’t been left to ourselves to figure out life on our own. God wants us to have wisdom and learn to interact with life effectively according to the principles of his Word. At the same time, we are not alone in this process. God wants to speak to us as he spoke to the people of Israel.

The promise of the outpouring of the Ruach HaKodesh (English: the Holy Spirit) in Joel’s prophecy (3:1-4; English: 2:28-32) is mainly about divine communication, including prophecy, dreams, and visions. This is the experience given to followers of Yeshua the Messiah under the New Covenant (See Acts 2) and is in keeping with the internalization of the Torah and the knowledge of God anticipated by the prophet Jeremiah (31:31-33).

Yeshua said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). This is not simply metaphor referring to nothing more than a life inspired by him, but rather that his followers would be intimately led by his communicating with us through his Spirit.

So while the Ruach HaKodesh may choose to highlight a Bible verse to get our attention, he is likely trying to get our attention in many other ways as well. Perhaps it’s time we started listening more carefully.

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

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Wrath Turner

For the week of July 30, 2016 / 24 Tammuz 5776

Knight. Photo in vintage style

Pinhas
Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 25:10 – 30:1 (English 25:10 – 29:40)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3

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And the LORD said to Moses, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy.” (Bemidbar/Numbers 25:10-11)

This week’s Torah reading continues where last week’s ended. A great plague had broken out among the people of Israel because of their gross immorality. They had been lured by the Moabite women to participate in their forbidden religious practices and engage with them sexually. The result was that twenty-four thousand Israelites died.

The contemporary reader may wonder why God responded so harshly to such a thing. Certainly, this is a sign of the Bible’s extreme backward thinking from which we have become liberated. Isn’t sexuality something to be freely explored by consenting adults? And as for participating in Moabite religious practices (of which the sexual component was likely an integral part), aren’t all religions the same? There’s nothing wrong with exploring the various cultures of the world’s peoples, is there?

Yes, there is. Sex without boundaries has issues. I hope that most people, at least deep down, do understand that. And while some people may espouse absolute sexual freedom, we know that some form of limits on who does what with whom is necessary for a strong and healthy society. This then begs the question, what limits should exist and how do we establish them?

Those questions are actually beyond the scope of this message. I simply wanted to make sure that we are on the same page with regard to limits. We agree that some form of limits is necessary and that to transgress those limits has serious consequences.

There were certainly serious consequences resulting from Israel’s transgression in this story until Pinchas (English: Phinehas) skewered an Israelite man and his Moabite amorous partner. God had already spoken on the matter, condemning what was happening, but this couple didn’t care and arrogantly flaunted their sin. Pinchas was so impassioned for God’s honor, that he couldn’t tolerate what they were doing and did them in. The result was not only the death of the couple but an end to the plague as well.

God commended Pinchas for sharing his heart for his people. We read these stories and wonder why God makes such a big deal about the things we think are fun. But if we could only see this from his perspective, as Pinchas did, our hearts would break as we would be overwhelmed by the destructive nature of our misguided pursuits. The extreme nature of Pinchas’s actions turned away God’s wrath and made atonement on behalf of Israel (see Bemidbar/Numbers 25:13). It is likely that by killing the perpetrators, Israel’s illicit engagement with the Moabites stopped, thus bringing an end to the plague.

There is no indication that what Pinchas did serves as a model to follow in similar circumstances. In fact, it is pretty clear that his actions were not sanctioned by Torah. There was something unique about this situation that called for drastic measures, and he successfully turned away the wrath of God.

Years later another zealous soul would go to great extremes to turn away the wrath of God. But instead of slaying the sinners, he was willing to be slain on our behalf. This episode from Israel’s early history is far more illustrative of the human condition than we normally think. From the beginning, we have been engaging one another in all sorts of illicit ways, transgressing limits consciously and unconsciously, and thus have brought the wrath of God upon us all.

Like Pinchas, Yeshua the Messiah looked upon our situation and took action. But instead of skewering us, he allowed himself to be skewered and conquered the plague of death once and for all, making atonement on our behalf, thus turning away God’s wrath.

And so whatever illicit activity you have been involved in, stop, and remember how Yeshua was skewered to turn away God’s wrath from you. If you turn to God in Yeshua’s name right now, he will turn to you…in love and acceptance, not wrath.

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

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Watch Your Balance!

For the week of July 23, 2016 / 17 Tammuz 5776

Silhouette of a man walking on the tightrope

Balak
Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 22:2 – 25:9
Haftarah: Micah 5:6 – 6:8 (English: 5:7 – 6:8)

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Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? (Micah 6:7)

We are looking at the Haftarah portion again. As I mentioned last week, the Haftarah is the selection from the Nevi’im (English: the Prophets) section of the Hebrew Scriptures that is read in addition to the weekly Torah portion. Micah asks some rhetorical questions to emphasize a perspective that is foundational to the whole Bible. Even though the Torah devotes much space to the details of the sacrificial system, it was always to be practiced within the wider framework of genuine dedication to God and his ways. Religious ritual whether established by God or by human tradition has always tended to become the focus of attention over and above the more important aspects of God’s truth.

Sacrifice during the days of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and the Temple was mandatory. They were an essential part of Israel’s covenant with God given at Mt. Sinai. But they were never intended as a substitute for humility, justice, and good deeds. This is clearly stated in the verse immediately following the one I quoted at the start:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Without this kind of genuine godliness, all the sacrifices in the world are worthless. But if Israel of old would have pursued the quality of life God desired for them, then the offerings of animals, grain, oil, and so on, would have fulfilled their stated purpose in helping to maintain their covenantal relationship with God.

Micah and the other Hebrew prophets so passionately document for us Israel’s failure to grasp this balance. No wonder. The reality of sin, common to all, prevents us from being the type of fully integrated people we were originally designed to be. All throughout history every human community has lacked a healthy balance, most often overemphasizing the lessor important at the expense of the more important aspects of life. Then when confronted with this imbalance, we strive for what was lacking only to neglect the other secondary, but still essential things.

God’s plan to rescue us from this never-ending pendulum is hidden amidst Micah’s rhetorical questions. As he indicts his people for their futile attempts at finding security in their rituals, he blurts out something to the effect of “Could we ever offer enough sacrifices to actually please God? Should I offer him my firstborn child?” The response he was calling for is obviously “Of course not!” But I doubt that his audience, or himself for that matter, caught the irony of his words.

Nothing Israel could ever offer could make up for their lack of integrity, but there was an offering that would. God would himself enter into our dysfunctional mess by generating himself as part of the human family. The offering of Yeshua, the Son of God, would satisfy Torah’s demands once and for all that all who trust in him would be established in an eternal covenantal relationship with God.

But I wonder how many people still fail to really get Micah’s message. Faith in Yeshua is indeed essential to a right relationship with God, but are we forgetting that trusting in his sacrifice is not the whole picture? How many claim to have faith in the Messiah, but forget that God still wants us to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with him? May God grant us the balance we need.

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

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You Are Legit

For the week of July 16, 2016 / 10 Tammuz 5776

The word, "legitimate" from a dictionary page

Hukkat
Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 19:1 – 22:1
Prophets: Shoftim/Judges 11:1-33

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So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the LORD gave them into his hand. (Shoftim/Judges 11:32)

This week’s Haftarah portion (reading from the Nevi’im [Prophets] section of the Hebrew Scriptures that is read in addition to the weekly Torah portion) is taken from Shoftim (The Book of Judges). That Shoftim is included in the Nevi’im section is due to the way the Hebrew book order works. Shoftim covers a uniquely difficult and confusing time in Israel’s history over about a four-hundred-year period between the days of Joshua and the monarchy instituted by the prophet Shmu-el (Samuel).

The shoftim were not judges in the legal sense. Rather, they were divinely inspired leaders who brought justice to regions of Israeli society as needed. Their personalities and the situations they were called to address were interesting to say the least, sometimes bordering on the bizarre. That these men and one woman (Deborah) were powerfully used by God doesn’t endorse their behavior. But there is something to be learned from the life of the person upon whom our passage focuses, Yiftach (Jephthah).

The stigma under which Yiftach lived is mentioned right from the start: “Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a prostitute” (Shoftim/Judges 11:1). When he was an adult his half-brothers sent him away. But later on when the neighboring Ammonites were making war against Israel, the elders of his home region called upon him to lead them, which he did successfully. The more tragic events of his leadership that are described following the end of the Haftarah portion didn’t stop the writer of the New Covenant book of Hebrews from listing Yiftach as a hero of faith (see Hebrews 11:32).

The circumstances of Yiftach’s birth did not disqualify him from being a judge. While this doesn’t justify the actions that led to his birth, it does tell us something about how God relates to the result of his parents’ sin. God didn’t consider him as illegitimate. His brothers rejected him. Perhaps others did too. But God did not.

The only reference in the Hebrew Scriptures to such a thing is Devarim/Deuteronomy 23:2, but the issue there has to do with the status within Israel of the product of a mixed marriage, not someone like Yiftach, the product of an illicit relationship. There is one reference in the New Covenant Scriptures when the leadership in Jerusalem is insinuating that Yeshua himself was illegitimate, likely due to the rumors circulating about who his father really was. Their misinformed disdain is common to how many societies have viewed the children of questionable unions.

There is no such thing as an illegitimate child. Every baby ever conceived was created in God’s image. The actions of our parents whoever they are or whatever they did are no reflection of our intrinsic value and our potential as human beings.

You are no accident. You are wanted. You are legit.

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

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A Stranger at Home

For the week of July 9, 2016 / 3 Tammuz 5776

Man's hand on door knob, trying to open door

Korah
Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 11:14 – 12:22

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So the LORD said to Aaron, “You and your sons and your father’s house with you shall bear iniquity connected with the sanctuary, and you and your sons with you shall bear iniquity connected with your priesthood.” (Bemidbar/Numbers 18:1)

I want to comment on the effect of having guests in our homes. Some of you will relate to this more than others, but first, I must provide some disclaimers. First, hospitality is a heavenly virtue, which we should all learn to embrace regardless of the outcome. The New Covenant book of Hebrews captures the thrust of the full Bible tradition when it says “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2). Second, I prepared this message right in the middle of having a houseful of guests. While I will use an illustration that stems from this current experience, I am holding nothing against the person or persons who may have been involved in the incident below, except to thank them for giving me some fodder for this message!

The day after our guests arrived, I received an email from my Internet provider informing me that my connection had been used to download a movie illegally. I was shocked and appalled that my good online reputation had been sullied by someone whom I so graciously welcomed into my home. Thankfully the film itself was of noble character (believe it or not!), but still. To think that both my Internet Service Provider and the film’s copyright holder now views me as a pirate or worse! (I am only being a little dramatic.)

My wife and I have always enjoyed having people over. In our over thirty-six years of marriage, beginning right from our honeymoon (yes, you heard it right!) we’ve had people in our home for short or long periods of time. Eventually, we learned that when you tell people, “Make yourself at home,” some of them don’t think in terms of our home, but theirs, which can make us feel like strangers in our own home. Something that God feels as well.

Maybe you never thought of this before, but God’s detachment from Planet Earth was not his intention. His plan was to be as at home within the Creation as much as within the heavenly realm. We see this demonstrated in the early chapters of the Bible as he is found to be walking in the Garden of Eden (Bereshit/Genesis 3:8). This doesn’t last too long due to Adam and Eve’s rebellion against him. Not only are they forced out of the Garden because of their sin, but God himself becomes distant as a result. The story of the Bible is one of God’s reclaiming his creation as his own.

You may have been wondering what this has to do with our Torah portion. We tend to think of the purpose of the ancient sacrificial system as providing ritual cleansing to the people of Israel, and it did. But there was another essential aspect we don’t normally give much thought to. It was the cohanim’s (English: the priests’) responsibility to ensure the regular cleansing of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle – the portable tent-like structure that was the precursor to the Temple). The Mishkan in a very real sense represented the presence of God among the people. Sin, which is a term used to describe substandard human behavior, brought defilement to God’s house, thus making it unsuitable for his habitation. The sacrificial system was designed not only to maintain the possibility of God’s presence among the people but also reminds us that sin makes God feel like a stranger in his own home.

The creation was designed to reflect the nature and character of God. But because the human family has insisted on making ourselves at home on our terms, not his, it doesn’t exactly look like his house. He has been pretty patient, however, knocking at the door, waiting to be invited back in as we download whatever we want and move the furniture around to our liking.

Most people don’t realize that God’s desire to reclaim his house and to have lots of his children around to enjoy it with him is so great that he himself has provided the means of restoration. The sacrificial system was a foretaste of God’s own Great Sacrifice through the person of the Messiah. His death and resurrection began a process by which the creation is becoming his own once again and his house will finally look like his home.

In the meantime, hospitality can feel like a sacrifice at times, but when we understand the lengths to which God has gone so that we can be at home in his house, it’s worth it. And most of the time, it’s a wonderful blessing!

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

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For Our Children’s Sake

For the week of July 2, 2016 / 26 Sivan 5776

Photo collage of children

Shela Lekha
Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24

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And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness. (Bemidbar/Numbers 14:33)

There are few values in many societies today greater than that of autonomy. In Western-style cultures, self has become the chief determinant of all things: What’s in it for me? What do I get out of it? How does it make me feel? are the biggest questions many of us ask. Self-expression and self-actualization are the highest goods. Community and the common good have become incidental amidst the priority of self. It is no wonder, therefore, that laws that seek to limit self’s supremacy are viewed as oppressive.

The problem with the obsession with self should be obvious. Human beings do not exist as independent agents. No one is absolutely self-sufficient. No one brought themselves into the world, no one sustains themselves through infancy or any other stage of development for that matter. We are communal beings. It should strike us as strange how we have so elevated self, while at the same time continuing to find ourselves so very much connected to others. We cannot escape the fact that we are relational beings. Yet that doesn’t stop people from relating to others on the basis of a selfishness never seen before.

No one suffers more from the pursuit of self than our children. This week’s Parsha tells us how the people of Israel’s lack of trust in God to enter the Promised Land two years after God’s miraculous rescue from Egypt didn’t only prevent them from obtaining it. Their self-focused fear resulted in their children having to wander in the wilderness for an additional thirty-eight years.

We don’t need the Bible to know the perils of selfishness. Experience tells us again and again that self-seeking people cause extensive damage to others, not to mention themselves. But this doesn’t seem to stop us from going deeper and deeper into the delusional rabbit hole of self.

When parents fail, the kids suffer. Don’t like that? Too bad. It’s the way life works. You can try to blame others as much as you like, but the fact is how you live affects others, especially your children. I am not saying that parents are the only factor with regard to the welfare of children, but it should be obvious that we play the biggest role with regard to their welfare.

There is another unhelpful extreme that puts so much focus on our children that they are exalted to the position of gods and goddesses. But this is actually another form of self-focus. Not only is this approach often the result of personal pride and doesn’t have the best interest of the child at all, it is teaching them to be the kind of selfish brats that will continue to perpetuate the problem.

At first glance, the story of Israel’s unbelief in this account doesn’t appear to be about self and selfishness. But think about it. God had called them to do something very difficult. The scouts who checked out the Land were all in agreement that they were going to have to face some pretty difficult situations. The difference between the ten who were freaked out and the two who remained confident was where their focus was. Those who were focused on self couldn’t grasp what was best for the community, resulting in even greater difficulty for their children. Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, were focused on God. While they, too, had to endure the additional hardship because of the majority’s misguided focus, they were the only ones who were able to enter the Land along with their children.

We can put an end to the ongoing fragmentation of our families and our culture by turning our sights away from self and onto God. If you are interested in how to do that, let me know. For our children’s sake.

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

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Timing Is Everything…Almost

For the week of June 25, 2016 / 19 Sivan 5776

Analog stopwatch with green check on white background

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

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And whenever the cloud lifted from over the tent, after that the people of Israel set out, and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the people of Israel camped. At the command of the LORD the people of Israel set out, and at the command of the LORD they camped. As long as the cloud rested over the tabernacle, they remained in camp. (Bemidbar/Numbers 9:17-18)

One of the most unhelpful pieces of advice that otherwise spiritually minded people regularly give is “Don’t pray for patience; God might give it to you!” This fear-based misguidance is based on two very wrong notions. First, prayer isn’t a magical incantation. It’s not as if saying particular words will result in the forces of the universe (whether God or anything else) responding accordingly. Second, prayer is a request to a sovereign free agent. And thankfully this sovereign also loves us and always has our best interest in mind. So if he so chooses to answer such a prayer, it’s only because it is both his will and for our good. Therefore, to caution someone against praying such a prayer is an attempt to keep us from acquiring one of life’s most essential qualities. How many things have gone wrong in the history of the world (including your life and mine) due to lack of patience? Good intentions, pure motives, and noble goals can never make up for a bad sense of timing.

There are two ways we tend to use the term “patience” in the English language. One has to do with enduring hardship. The older term for this is “long-suffering.” It’s having the fortitude to not give into discouragement when going through painful periods of life. The second is the way I am using the word here. It’s the quality of not reacting too quickly to life’s circumstances, whether it be a painful situation or not. This kind of patience is often required when we perceive there are great opportunities before us – and indeed, there may be – but instead of waiting for the right time to act, we undermine the opportunity by not being patient.

Learning to wait for God’s timing was a key component to the training God instituted for Israel in the wilderness years. He reserved the right to dictate to them when to break camp and move to the next location. It could take a day or years. In between there was no indication at all when that might be. If the cloud remained over the tent of meeting, they stayed put. If it moved, they moved. Pretty straightforward. Hard to do.

Timing is everything…almost. I say “almost,” because effective godly living is not only about timing. Learning to walk in God’s ways requires first and foremost trust in God, particularly as expressed as loyalty to his Son, the Messiah. We also need to grow in the knowledge of his will in every area of life. But unless we learn patience, we will continually find ourselves doing the right thing, but at the wrong time.

Learning God’s timing also frees us from a great deal of anxiety. We often find ourselves in situations that require change of some kind. Being aware of the need for change is important, but expecting immediate resolution can cause all sorts of unnecessary grief. God’s solutions may occur suddenly, but often his strategy for change requires a long process over time. Being aware of that synchs us to his timeclock and allows us to keep in step with him instead of fretting.

Learning God’s sense of timing can be challenging. Our tendency to react in the moment instead of patiently waiting for the right time to respond can be a very difficult lesson to learn. I don’t imagine it was easy for the Israelites to wait for the cloud to move, or to pick up and go when they hardly had time to settle. But once we understand how utterly crucial this kind of patience really is, how could we not earnestly ask him for it?

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

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