Being and Becoming

For the week of September 1, 2018 / 21 Elul 5778

Potential success concept as a full-grown tree as a reflection in water of a sapling

Ki Tavo
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8 (English 26:1 – 29:9)
Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1-22

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Then Moses and the Levitical priests said to all Israel, “Keep silence and hear, O Israel: this day you have become the people of the LORD your God. You shall therefore obey the voice of the LORD your God, keeping his commandments and his statutes, which I command you today.” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 27:9-10)

Why do Moses and the priests say to the people of Israel: “This day you have become the people of the LORD your God”? Were they not already God’s people? Didn’t God direct Moses and his brother, Aaron, almost forty years earlier to tell Pharaoh, King of Egypt, to let his people go (e.g. Shemot/Exodus 5:1)? God’s considering Israel as his people was based on an already established relationship, rooted in their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That’s why God said to Moses when he first spoke to him at the burning bush: “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Shemot/Exodus 3:8-9).

Much had transpired since that time. This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) takes place about forty years later. The bulk of the generation who had been slaves in Egypt have died by now. They died, not simply due to natural causes, but God’s judgement upon their faithlessness when first faced with the prospect of taking the Promised Land (see B’midbar/Number 13-14). Could it be that due to the previous generation’s obstinance, Israel’s peoplehood status was lost, and that it was not restored until Moses and the priests made this pronouncement? Could it be that they are not only being given a second chance to take the Land, but also in terms of their divine chosenness?

It is difficult to overstate how farfetched such a conclusion is. From God’s promises to the forefathers to his continued involvement with Israel in spite of their attitude and behavior throughout their wilderness wanderings, God couldn’t make it any clearer that he was absolutely committed to them. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be reading about their getting ready to enter the Land again.

If their status as God’s people isn’t in question, then what’s with this kind of wording? Could you imagine, my taking one of my adult sons aside and saying, “Today you have become my son”? Or maybe you can. Relationship is a complex thing, whether it be of a very personal nature as in me and each of my children or on a broader scale as in a leader and his or her community. My children will always be my children, but they may or may not grow up to embrace their heritage and their destiny. That’s up to them. That which establishes the parent-child relationship is one thing, that which fully expresses it is another.

This generation of Israel was different than the one before. Tragically, their parents didn’t reflect the reality of who they were as God’s people and suffered as a result. Their status as God’s chosen was no different from the next generation, but their children embraced who they were in a way they (the previous generation) did not. The reality of this difference would be evident in the days and years ahead.

Relationship with God must not be taken for granted. Remember, the ones who survived the ten plagues, celebrated the first Passover, crossed the sea, ate the manna, received the Torah, and on and on, failed to trust God when it was time to enter the land of promise. Peoplehood in and of itself doesn’t guarantee embracing it. This is why the next generation needed to hear this affirmation. The true essence of their peoplehood was not solely based on their past, but upon the reality of who they were at that moment, a moment that needed to continue from that day onward.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

For further discussion, watch this episode of TorahBytes Live, scheduled for Wednesday, August 29, 2018 at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time. Recorded version will be available immediately following:

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Being Responsible

For the week of August 25, 2018 / 14 Elul 5778

Flat roof installation

Ki Teze
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10

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When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 22:8)

I hate being wrongly accused! I remember when this first happened to me. My mom didn’t ask me if I did whatever it was. She demanded to know why I did it, and I blew up. I was too young at the time to fully understand the complexity of this injustice, but that she would attach to me something I had nothing to do with was absolutely scandalous in my eyes.

I take my responsibilities very seriously. I am not saying that I always successfully deliver on what’s required of me. It’s that I am very aware of what’s happening around me and am constantly asking myself if the burden of action is on my shoulders. Perhaps this is why I find it hard to handle when those close to me appear to insinuate that I am not doing my part.

What I didn’t realize until recently, however, is that what I thought was an overly developed sense of responsibility clouded my perception of the world and crippled my ability to accept what actually comprises my God-given roles. It wasn’t responsibility that motivated me after all; rather it was the fear of guilt and shame. I can’t say for sure, but it might be the accusation incident with my mother years ago, that instilled in me the perceived need to defend myself against the threat of disapproval. I am now beginning to understand that biblically based responsibility is an act of obedience to God built on a foundation of trust based on God’s love and goodness.

God gives his children responsibility. This stems back to the beginning when Adam and Eve were made stewards of the creation. It is what is behind every human being’s calling to make a positive difference in the world. Yet due to our alienation from God, the gift of being caretakers of the planet has been twisted in all sorts of ways. Instead of sharing in the splendor of God’s mission on earth, we are driven to find our identity in what we do instead of in who we are as God’s children.

As believers in Yeshua this can take on all sorts of spiritual overtones. In my case, I could be so intent on doing the right thing or saying what needs to be said that I may not be sufficiently sensitive to the people around me. The irony is I claim to be the “big picture” guy, quick to point out the implications of things that apparently others are missing. Yet, at the same time, I miss the big picture of life around me, oblivious to how my sense of urgency may be negatively affecting others.

In this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion), we learn about the need to take responsibility. God directed the people of Israel to make a protective barrier around the perimeter of their roofs to avoid injury. How often are we so keen to build our lives without taking the time to care for the welfare of others. We drive ourselves in the pursuit of our goals and neglect those things that we should be most concerned about.

Notice that the protective barrier was only necessary if and when a house was built. No house, no barrier. Houses can be dangerous. That’s why God directed the adding of the barrier. While I might focus on the building and neglect the protective barrier, your preference might be to avoid building at all. That way you keep yourself from ever being in the position where danger is a remote possibility.

Both approaches amount to similar things. Just because I might be really intense, expressing concern about almost everything doesn’t mean I am doing what I am supposed to be doing. Building wrongly and not building at all are both ways to skirt our responsibilities. Let us not be afraid to fulfill whatever it is God is calling us to do. As we do, let us remember to include those things that care for others along the way. We are responsible for both.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

For further discussion, watch this episode of TorahBytes Live, scheduled for Wednesday, August 22, 2018 at 4:30 p.m. Eastern Time. Recorded version will be available immediately following:

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Living Like a King

For the week of August 18, 2018 / 7 Elul 5778

Elegant ballroom with grand piano, couch, and gold columns

Shofetim
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12

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And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes (D’varim/Deuteronomy 17:19)

When we think of the elite of society, whether it be in our day or in ancient times, we tend to focus on their perks and privileges. Their houses are bigger and nicer, their modes of transportation are the best of the best. Everything about their lives is above and beyond the comforts and pleasures of the rest of us. But that’s not the whole picture. You have most likely heard the saying that goes something like: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Many ascribe this to the fictional Uncle Ben of Spiderman fame, but it’s much older than that, probably going back to the time of the French Revolution (see https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/07/23/great-power/). The truth contained in this statement is rooted in Yeshua’s words: “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48).

Positions of authority include more than privilege, power, and responsibility, however. It is this additional ingredient that makes all the difference between leaders successfully fulfilling their crucial roles and causing unnecessary destruction and harm. It’s the need of a good education. I am not talking about acquiring degrees from prestigious institutions. There are ways to do that while not learning anything useful along the way. I am also not talking about career skills, since those are relatively easy to acquire. I am talking about learning how to become a good person. Without that, all the prestige and skills in the world won’t amount to anything. This is especially the case for those called to positions of authority as their lives have far greater impact on others.

This is why God required kings of Israel to be life-long students of Torah. As a leader, he was not to regard himself as being above the law, but rather be subject to it. In order to do that, he was not to rely upon his advisors and teachers to know God’s written revelation. Not that he wouldn’t have teachers and advisors, but their role was to equip him to be able to read the Torah for himself. That would include not only learning to read the text but reading it intelligently.

Personal reading of Scripture would have been very rare. Not only were copies of the Torah not in abundance, the people wouldn’t hear it read that often. God directed the cohanim (English: the priests) to read the Torah to the people once every seven years during the Feast of Sukkot (English: Tabernacles or Booths) (see D’varim/Deuteronomy 31:10-11). It would be many centuries before the synagogue would provide weekly Torah readings within Israelite society. This meant that only certain people required the ability to read. Kings may have been the only non-cohenim to personally read the Books of Moses.

The greatest obstacle to having direct interaction with the divine writings was that access to books in general was highly restricted. Not because it was forbidden for common folks to read the sacred text, but because so few copies were available. It’s almost impossible for us, who live almost six hundred years after Gutenberg’s inventing the printing press, to imagine life without books. We have a hard-enough time remembering what it was like to not have ready access to much of the world’s writing in our pockets, let alone the pre-Gutenberg days when owning a copy of a book was the unique domain of royalty and the rich.

But these are not those days. Today we can all live like kings. God’s directive to kings regarding the reading of Torah was not a symbol of privilege or an initiation rite. It had no ceremonial function at all. It was practical. He was to read the Torah “that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes.” To be a good king required being a good person. To be a good person required reading the Torah. We all have the exact same need. The only difference between ancient Israelite kings and ourselves is access.

There’s nothing magical about reading the Bible. It is God’s equipment to enable us to live effective, godly lives. As one of the greatest Torah scholars of all time writes:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

To not take advantage of what was at one time the privilege of the few is to rob ourselves of God’s provision for living an abundant life. So, let’s pick up a Bible and live like kings!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

For further discussion, watch this episode of TorahBytes Live (scheduled for Thursday, August 16, 2018 at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time (recorded version will be available immediately following):

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When in Rome, Don’t

For the week of August 11, 2018 / 30 Av 5778

Castel Sant'Angelo, Parco Adriano, Rome

Castel Sant’Angelo, overlooking the Tiber River in Rome

Re’eh
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17 & B’midbar/Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24

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When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 12:29-31)

There is a good deal of wisdom in the saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Before venturing into a foreign culture, we are well-advised to learn as much as we can about local customs and conventions to avoid misunderstanding and cause unnecessary offense. This principle doesn’t only apply to travelling to distant places. Interacting with neighbors and co-workers may require crossing very long cultural bridges in order to communicate effectively. Many years ago, the young lady who would one day become my wife had a roommate, the daughter of Canadian parents, who grew up in a South American country. The roommate was aghast when she first saw someone use the common gesture of making an “o” with their thumb and forefinger to signify “okay.” This was because where she grew up, such a gesture was vulgar (it didn’t mean “okay”!). Obviously, should we ever venture to that country, we would avoid the gesture, even though to us it is completely innocuous.

Tragically, many well-intentioned (and not-so-well-intentioned) people have caused a significant amount of damage due to ignoring the sage advice of “when in Rome, do.” Oft times it’s due to ignorance, other times to moral superiority. There is no excuse for the former, though hopefully such sins are worthy of patience and forgiveness. Moral superiority, on the other hand, is far more complex.

It is too simplistic to apply “when in Rome, do” to every context, however. For example, while eating and drinking like a local is a wonderful way to connect with people of other countries and cultures, it can be deadly. Locals have adapted to their environment over time. And while “when in Rome, do” may be a lovely gesture, it is not okay in this case. But accepting one’s inability to immediately acclimatize to a foreign environment is also no excuse for showing arrogant disdain towards cultural differences. Business people and missionaries have often been infamous for this kind of insensitivity. Perhaps they have good things to offer that would indeed greatly benefit the target culture, but carrying one’s self with an air of superiority tends to offset whatever potential benefits there may be.

God’s word to ancient Israel was clearly, “When in Rome, don’t.” However offensive this is to modern readers, God was establishing a morally and spiritually superior culture in what had been known as the land of Canaan. The wickedness of the people Israel was to dispossess was so extreme, Israel wasn’t even to ask about it.

However you might think about such an approach, this chapter of God’s epic story was unique. Israel was to establish a new culture untainted by other spiritual and moral influences. That this failed is a different chapter for another time. Skipping over the failure chapter for now, God’s story eventually sees Israel moving beyond its borders into the rest of the world. This is a key aspect of the epoch launched by the coming of the Messiah. Following Yeshua’s resurrection, the time had come to venture toward Rome (actually and figuratively).

So, when in Rome, is it “do” or “don’t”? On one hand it was “do,” as it was necessary to enculturate the truth of God. On the other hand, it was “don’t,” as it was also necessary to preserve the essence of that truth. The challenge in those early years was how best to embody God’s word within foreign cultures without compromising it.

Today, there tends to be more emphasis on cultural adaptation. As a result, those components of Scripture deemed problematic are downplayed or completely discarded. Israel’s earlier call to absolute purity is regarded as obsolete if not altogether misguided. This fails to appreciate the necessary preparation God’s people needed to experience in order to equip them one day to make the positive difference among the nations in the name of the Messiah.

The early Jewish believers wisely embraced the delicate balance of communicating the uncompromising truths of God within foreign, not to mention hostile, cultural settings. They understood those elements of Scripture that were uniquely Jewish, while identifying those which were universal. They knew “when in Rome, do, but sometimes don’t.”

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

For further discussion, watch this episode of TorahBytes Live (scheduled for Thursday, August 9, 2018 at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time (recorded version will be available immediately following):

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