Take the Risk!

For the week of April 29, 2017 / 3 Iyar 5777

Take the risk message and business shoes

Tazri’a & Mezora
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33
Haftarah: 2 Melachim/2 Kings 7:3-20

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The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Vayikra/Leviticus 13:45-46)

Now there were four men who were lepers at the entrance to the gate. And they said to one another, “Why are we sitting here until we die?” (2 Melachim/2 Kings 7:3)

In the social structure of ancient Israel, few, if any, were regarded as low as those suffering from infectious skin diseases traditionally referred to as leprosy. These diseases were probably of a wider variety than what is regarded as leprosy today. For the sake of our discussion the technical medical difference is beside the point. The sufferers of this type of disease were severe outcasts, the untouchables, of that society. This week’s parsha (English: Torah reading portion) includes a considerable amount of material with regard to the diagnosis, maintenance, and ritual cleansing procedures for those afflicted with these diseases.

With the exception of the rare cases of recovery, suffice it to say that those so afflicted did little more than exist until they died. Social interaction only occurred between themselves. There would be no meaningful interaction between these poor souls and the wider community.

It is their personal cultural irrelevance that makes this week’s Haftarah (accompanying reading from the books of the Prophets) that much more intriguing and instructive. By the way, the divisions of the Hebrew Bible, unlike most English versions, places the books of Joshua, Samuel, and Kings among the Prophets. Our Haftarah tells the story of four outcasts – men with leprosy. But look where they are! They are in the city gate, not outside the camp where the Torah clearly states they should be. This is most likely due to the terrible condition of the city at that time. Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel where they were living, was under siege by the Syrian army. The resulting famine was so bad that mothers were eating their own children (see 2 Melachim/2 Kings 6:24-31).

More significant than where these outcasts are is what occurs in their hearts, which leads to great transformation both for them and for the entire city. They realize that they have nothing to lose. If they stay where they are, then like everyone else they will die. But if they go out to the Syrian camp, while there is a good chance they would be killed, there is also a chance, however slim, of being spared, which might include food.

Based on this calculated risk, they head out to find that the Syrians had suddenly abandoned their camp, leaving loads of stuff behind. After helping themselves to a great deal of food, drink, and other items, they decided they weren’t doing right by keeping it all to themselves. So, they reported the good news of their discovery, and the well-being of the city was restored.

Four men who normally could not be the source of any significant benefit to their community became God’s channel of positive societal change. What did it take for that to happen? First, they reckoned with the general state of affairs. The city was in an extremely bad way and it wasn’t going to get better on its own. Second, they reckoned with their own plight. They couldn’t just sit there and remain passive any longer. Convinced they would likely meet death either way, they decided to take the risk.

Have we sufficiently reckoned with the state of affairs we find ourselves in today? The blessings and freedoms of western civilization have been evaporating before our eyes as secularism and anarchy rush to take its place. Misguided detached spirituality has lulled too many Yeshua followers into a passive stupor, while angry rhetoric shouted over our airwaves and in social media shuts down intelligent discourse. Up until now you thought you had no voice, and there was nothing you could do to make a positive difference. At some point, it will be too late to act. Your opportunity will pass you by. Perhaps now is the time to take a risk and face your fears. What’s the worst that can happen?

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

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Food Matters

For the week of April 22, 2017 / 26 Nissan 5777

Shemini
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47
Haftarah: 2 Samuel 6:1 – 7:17

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Speak to the people of Israel, saying, These are the living things that you may eat among all the animals that are on the earth. (Vayikra/Leviticus 11:2)

One of the essential features of the covenant God gave the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai is the directives concerning what kinds of meat were permissible to eat. Only animals which met certain criteria from the various categories of mammals, birds, fish, and insects were allowed to be consumed. Why exactly only mammals that chew their cud and have split hooves or fish that have both fins and scales could be eaten is not explained.

This hasn’t stopped people from trying to guess. Is there something about the design of these animals in contrast to those who didn’t meet the specified criteria that represented something about God or life? Perhaps, but since this is not explicitly stated, then it’s pure speculation, of which I am leery. Are these animals heathier to eat than others? The English words used to describe the categories of permitted vs. not permitted are “clean” and “unclean.” To the contemporary reader this may imply “healthy” and “unhealthy,” which these foods might be, but that’s not how clean and unclean function in the Torah. These terms have to do with being ritually fit for service. Encountering something unclean, be it food or anything else, renders one ceremonially unfit to engage the ancient sacrificial system.

One possibility may have to do with the way awareness of clean and unclean foods would help create a general sensitivity with regard to what is acceptable and what is not. As we see in our own day, discerning right from wrong is not natural. We need to be taught the difference. Having to always be careful about what goes into our mouths may train us to be careful about other aspects of life as well.

Whatever the reasons for these directives, one of the outcomes of this strict culinary lifestyle is that it creates a closed community. God’s forbidding the eating of certain foods made it impossible for the people to socialize with the surrounding cultures, since they followed no such diet. It’s understandable that since Israel’s neighbors heartily consumed unclean cuisine, that Israel would regard foreigners themselves as unclean.

It is commonly asserted that with the coming of Yeshua, the Torah food laws where discarded. Certainly these directives are implicated by the Messiah’s instituting of the New Covenant, but not in the way usually assumed. The oft quoted passage, Mark 7:19, is more of a criticism of the misguided religious obsession of ritual over heart, than a statement about the new status of pork, etc.

But that doesn’t mean that God intended to preserve the food laws into the New Covenant period. Peter learned this when God prepared him to make his first official visit to a Gentile home as an emissary of the Messiah.

Those who think the food laws still apply like to point out that Peter’s vision in which God told him to eat unclean animals was not mainly about the animals, but rather the Jewish mindset toward Gentiles as expressed in his comment: “God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean” (Acts 10:28). While his vision is indeed first and foremost about people, the food issue is certainly implied, since there is no way to fully interact with foreign cultures without sharing what they eat.

This doesn’t mean that Jewish believers or anyone else may not retain scruples over food. Not only do the New Covenant Writings mention this, but they encourage us to be sensitive toward the scruples of others for love’s sake (see Romans 14:1 – 15:13). But if we are called unto a foreign culture, we need to be ready to enjoy all sorts of fare that we may not prefer.

One more thing. While it is clear that the early Jewish followers of Yeshua were not mandated to impose food laws upon the Gentiles (see Acts 15), thus extending freedom to believers regarding what they eat, it is conceivable that being exposed to passages such as this week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion) may alert other cultures that perhaps not everything we want to put in our mouths is good for us. I know this opens a can of worms for some. But just because we are allowed to eat worms, doesn’t mean we should.

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

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An Empty Cup

For the week of April 8, 2017 / 12 Nisan 5777
Zav
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36 (English: 6:8 – 8:36)
Haftarah: Malachi 3:4-24 (English: 3:4 – 4:6)

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Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. (Malachi 3:1)

Empty silver gobletPesach (English: Passover) this year begins in a week (evening of April 10). This extremely popular Jewish occasion is marked by a family gathering, called a “Seder” (English: set order), a festive meal combined with the retelling and reflections of our people’s rescue from slavery in Egypt about 3500 years ago. Besides our own family gathering, it is common for me to preside over special Seders for Christians. There are few teaching tools as effective as this to help believers connect with the biblical roots of their faith. Many people don’t know that the Last Supper was a Passover Seder and that one of the world’s most observed rituals often called “communion” is derived from that Seder.

In the Torah the details of Seder observance were quite simple: the eating of a specially sacrificed lamb along with matza (English: unleavened bread) and bitter herbs. Through the centuries other symbolic items were incorporated such as the eating of greens dipped in salt water, four cups of wine, a sweet jam-like concoction called “haroset,” and a roasted egg also dipped in salt water. The retelling of the story of our deliverance from Egypt appears to stem from the Torah’s mention of how to answer our children when they ask, “What do you mean by this service?” (Shemot/Exodus 12:26). The reply, “It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses” (Shemot/Exodus 12:27), led to a far more detailed explanation during this God-ordained meal. Eventually, as the nation of Israel found itself in exile in Babylon, reflecting over the rescue from Egypt led to the incorporation of elements of hope for a new exodus in anticipation of the Messiah’s coming. The Seder as observed the world over next week continues the tradition of reflecting over the earlier rescue through Moses and anticipating the future Messiah.

One of the Seder’s messianic traditions is derived from this week’s Haftarah (reading from the Hebrew prophets that complements the Torah portion). In the book of Malachi, we read of the coming of the Messiah’s forerunner as I quoted at the beginning: “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me” (Malachi 3:1). This messenger is identified at the end of the book as Elijah:

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction (Malachi 3:23-24; English: 4:5-6).

In anticipation of Elijah’s coming a special cup of wine on the table is prepared for him. Toward the end of the evening the door is opened. Could this finally be the night he arrives to usher in the Messiah? We too have a cup for Elijah at our Seder, but it is empty. Why? He came already in the person of Yohanan HaMatbil (English: John the Baptist), who, as Yeshua said, fulfilled Malachi’s prediction about Elijah (see Matthew 11:14).

The fulfillment of Malachi’s prophesy was a historical game changer. The coming of the Messiah set the Jewish people on a brand-new course to bring the power of God’s rescue to the whole world in the name of the Messiah. Therefore, we celebrate the Seder filled with God’s Spirit, but with Elijah’s cup empty.

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

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