Give It a Rest!

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

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

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

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

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

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 Some claim that it has been rendered obsolete by the New Covenant, having been superseded by the teachings of Yeshua and his followers.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

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

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

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

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

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

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Perfection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Caution! Warnings Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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