Mercy Place

For the week of February 29, 2020 / 4 Adar 5780

3D Illustration of the Ark of the Covenant

For illustration purposes only. Not intended to provide exact representation of the Ark.

Terumah
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 25:1 – 27:19
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 5:26 – 6:13 (English: 5:12 – 6:13)
Originally posted the week of March 4, 2017 / 6 Adar 5777

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You shall put the mercy seat on the ark of the testimony in the Most Holy Place. (Shemot/Exodus 26:34)

As part of the building of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and its furnishings, God directed Moses to build a “kapporet,” an ornate cover to be placed on top of the “aron ha-b’rit” (English: the Ark of the Covenant). The aron ha-b’rit was an elegant box that contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, a jar with a portion of manna, and Aaron’s rod that had budded. It resided in the Mishkan’s inner sanctum called the “kodesh ha-k’dashim” (English: the Most Holy Place), and it represented the very presence of God within the community of Israel.

When the “Cohen Ha-Gadol” (English: the High Priest) entered the kodesh ha-k’dashim once a year at Yom Kippur (English: the Day of Atonement), the kapporet was the focus of his attention, for he was to apply the blood of the festival’s special sacrifices before it and over it (see Vayikra/Leviticus 16:11-4). The purpose of this ritual was to provide purification for the inner sanctum from the people’s uncleanness, transgressions, and sins.

The kapporet was a lid made of pure gold overshadowed by the wings of golden “k’ruvim” (English: cherubim). The Scriptures tell us little about these creatures. We are introduced to them when Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden and God placed them to guard the tree of life. It is possible, therefore, that their being symbolically part of the kapporet was to remind Israel that the way to everlasting life remained blocked during the days of the Mishkan and its successor, the Temple.

Many English Bible versions translate kapporet as “mercy seat.” This goes back to one of the earliest English Bible translators, William Tyndale, whose 16th century translation became the core of the King James Bible and much of subsequent English translation tradition. It appears that Tyndale’s rendering of kapporet as mercy seat is based on Paul’s use of the Greek equivalent “hilastērion” in his letter to the Romans as he refers to the Messiah Yeshua, “whom God hath made a seat of mercy through faith in his blood” (Romans 3:26; Tyndale’s version). Hilastērion is the word for kapporet used by the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, that was common in Paul’s day. While hilastērion had a different usage in Greek outside the Bible, Paul must have had its biblical use in mind, a connection that Tyndale choose to make abundantly clear.

Regrettably, in my opinion, the translators of the King James Bible and many other later English translations chose not to preserve this connection. Instead most go with the pagan Greek meaning, “propitiation,” which is the idea of appeasing an angry god. Ironically, the King James and many other English translations that use “propitiation” in Romans retain Tyndale’s “mercy seat” in Exodus even though the reason for translating the kapporet as “mercy seat” is because Tyndale was drawing from Paul’s allusion in Romans to the place of God’s presence and mercy where cleansing occurs.

You may not be aware of the great controversy among scholars over the meaning of Paul’s use of hilastērion. This is part of a discussion about how Yeshua’s suffering and death provides forgiveness and acceptance to those who trust in him. But however it works, let us not miss the power of Paul’s allusion. Through Yeshua’s giving of his life, he has become our kapporet – the place of mercy. What was once hidden and inaccessible has become available to all. If we put our trust in him, God purifies us once and for all, making us fit to freely enter his presence.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Caricatures

For the week of February 22, 2020 / 27 Shevat 5780

Artistic-style image of Alan Gilman along with weekly message title, etc.

Mishpatim
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 21:1 – 24:18; 30:11-16
Haftarah: 2 Melachim/ 2 Kings 12:1-17 (English 1:21 – 2:16)

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You shall not spread a false report. (Shemot/Exodus 23:1)

Two years ago I commented on this same passage on what is still a relevant topic of “fake news” (http://torahbytes.org/78-18/). This week, I want to get personal. I don’t mean personal with you necessarily, but to look at how this directive affects people personally.

This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) contains a substantial section that includes a great assortment of rules, covering various issues, including kidnapping, liability, loaning to the poor, and treatment of resident aliens and much more. There’s even a passage that speaks to abortion.

The short prohibition we are looking at is part of a passage that expands on one of the ten commandments, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Shemot/Exodus 20:16). This is often wrongly thought of as “Do not lie to anyone,” when actually it is directed towards more official legal-type situations as is this passage, which I now fully quote:

You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit (Shemot/Exodus 23:1-3).

I trust that the seriousness of this is obvious. God directs his people to not misrepresent the truth against someone in legal matters. Note that includes showing partiality to the poor. While we should extend mercy to the oppressed of society, in matters of justice, there is to be no favoritism shown toward anyone including the underdog. While specific to a legal setting, “You shall not spread a false report,” it likely extends beyond the courtroom, since what is essential in the legal environment certainly reflects a general principle of life.

It’s not as obvious in English as it is in Hebrew that the wording of “You shall not spread a false report” is similar to another of the ten commandments, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Shemot/Exodus 20:7). This is not just about forbidding the use of God’s name as a curse word; it applies to the invoking of God’s name inappropriately. This would include taking a vow in God’s name that you don’t intend to keep or claiming to deliver a message from God when you know you are making it up. Taking his name in vain, therefore, is the lessening of who God is by misrepresenting him. This is what spreading false reports does to other people. Misrepresentation of others lessons who they really are.

Truth matters to God. In order for us and others to live effective godly lives it is necessary to relate to the world in which we live as it is. Skewed versions of reality cause us and others to unnecessarily hurt one another and undermine the plans and purposes of God. We need therefore to take great care in how we caricature other people.

Caricatures in the popular sense are humorous, most often light-hearted, drawings of people, purposely exaggerating physical or personality traits to create a particular impression about them. But when we caricature them out of frustration, disappointment, or outright malice, we skew who they really are in the eyes of others. People are far more complicated than the caricatures we paint of them. To present them, their actions, and opinions inaccurately is to undermine reality and therefore to misrepresent God.

Gossip is not an innocent pastime. It is a highly destructive activity that God deplores and should be avoided at all costs. Instead, let us endeavor to paint realistic portraits of others.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Eagles’ Wings

For the week of February 15, 2020 / 20 Shevat 5780

Eagle soaring over barren mountains toward a rainbow

Yitro
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 18:1 – 20:23 (English: 18:1 – 20:26)
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5

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You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. (Shemot/Exodus 19:4)

This has to be one of the more beautiful metaphors in the entire Bible. Israel, oppressed from generations under Egyptian taskmasters, helpless to alleviate their plight, cry out to the God of their ancestors for deliverance. The years go by and things go from bad to worse. Then the day comes; God to the rescue! Despite all odds, the Master of the Universe swoops down seemingly out of nowhere and miraculously carries the nation on his back to freedom.

Beautiful metaphor indeed, but that’s not what happened. Miraculous, yes. However it was much more of a process and a difficult one at that. From Moses’ first being given the exodus mandate to getting support from the Hebrew elders to Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to the ten plagues, culminating in the death of Egypt’s firstborn and their departure. Not completely free of their oppressors, they are then pursued by the Egyptian army that drowned in the parting of the Red Sea, while Israel made it safely to the other side. While this finally disconnected the liberated slaves from Egypt for good, the difficult process continued as they were learning to trust God for his miraculous provision and care in an uninhabitable wilderness on their way to Mt. Sinai and the Promised Land.

What is this about eagles’ wings then? I could imagine scholars musing over how such an image is nothing more than a mythic version of the exodus put into God’s mouth centuries after the fact. I am very aware how after a period of time the sting of hardship fades from memory and we just remember the good parts – and then the good parts are remembered so much better than they actually were. The problem with this train of thought is that the painful details weren’t forgotten. They have been well-documented and preserved from then until now.

How then could such an expression as “I bore you on eagles’ wings” be appropriate? Perhaps we picture riding on eagles differently from the Israelites of old. They wouldn’t share our Hollywood-influenced view of such an experience. In my mind I see the film version of “Lord of the Rings,” where near the end of this epic, Gandalf rescues Frodo and Sam with gigantic eagles that scoop them up with their talons, carrying them to safety as they blissfully soar through the sky. The Israelites, on the other hand, likely have related to “eagles’ wings” differently. Whether they pictured normal-sized eagles which would not be accustomed to carrying such loads or gigantic ones that are more the stuff of nightmares than what we see in Lord of the Rings, the image evoked may not have been a nice one. Instead, it might have included the precarious nature of the process they had to endure.

A more likely possibility is that the eagles’ wing picture of God’s rescue reflects the outcome and purpose of the exodus, not the process. This metaphor evokes an image of God’s intense and personal activity in bringing the people to Mt. Sinai where he would reveal his will to them, constitute them as a nation, and send them on a mission to establish themselves in the Promised Land. While the process was difficult, the outcome was never in question. He did whatever it took to accomplish his will. While the process was never forgotten, the impossibility and success of the exodus makes being carried through the sky an apt image after all.

No wonder many years later the prophet Isaiah would recall such a picture to encourage his generation of Israelites that their divine rescue was coming: “but they who wait (meaning “hope”) for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:1). In this case the people themselves become eagle-like as the power of God fills them with his powerful presence. But remember eagle-like doesn’t automatically mean easy or simple. Yet, however difficult the process may be, God will get you to where you need to go.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Testing God

Beshalalach

Four people holding full-size angry and upset emoticons in front of their faces
For the week of February 8, 2020 / 13 Shevat 5780
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 13:17-17:16
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 4:4 – 5:31

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And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD by saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?” (Shemot/Exodus 17:7)

The Torah includes two similar, but very different, stories that feature the people complaining against Moses about their desperate circumstances, particularly due to the lack of water. The similarities between this version and the one found in chapter twenty of B’midbar/Numbers prompt some scholars to claim that they are the same event. I believe we are better off taking them at face value. Apart from the locations being clearly different in spite of the similarity of place names, there are considerable differences in the details. Before continuing, whenever discussing the people of Israel’s bad attitude in such circumstances, note that I am not pointing my finger at them as if I would have done any better. It’s when we see ourselves in the Bible’s characters that we are in a place to learn its lessons.

When we read the Bible, we might assume that we are being given a play-by-play of the incidences it reports. But stories, be they non-fiction or fiction are rarely, if at all, communicated that way. Even what we call “play-by-play” – a term often used for the describing of sporting events is selective. Announcers choose what to say based on their assessment of how best to communicate the main substance of what is occurring before them. If they are good at what they do, they create a meaningful and accurate, but not exhaustive, picture in the mind of their audience. In the reporting of any story there are more details omitted than provided. But that doesn’t undermine the truth of the story. In fact the more carefully chosen are its pieces and how intelligently crafted is the order in which they are presented, the greater the possibility of accurate representation and impact on the audience.

I explain all this because of the incident’s closing statement: “And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested God by saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?” (Shemot/Exodus 17:7). The name of the place was called in Hebrew “Masa u-M’rivah,” meaning “testing and quarrelling” for the obvious reason given in this statement. But notice how the testing of God is represented as: “Is the LORD among us or not?” This is in spite of the people not saying this. In fact, they don’t mention God at all. What we see them saying is first, demanding water from Moses, and then accusing him of bringing them out of Egypt to kill them and their children.

There is no direct mention of God by the people, but if we think this is simply a story of Moses having a hard day at work, we miss what’s really going on. On one hand I get the people’s perspective. It’s a lot easier to blame the leader you can see than the God behind it all that you can’t see. Yet, it didn’t matter how they couched their complaint; it was God who brought them there; so it was God they were testing.

I don’t think the Creator of the Universe has an issue with people being troubled over great hardship. Having no access to water is a most horrible situation. But they should have known better due to all the great wonders they had experienced up to this point.

And we should know better than to think that much of our grumbling isn’t also testing God. We cloud the issue when we focus on others. Is God sovereign over our lives or not? If God is God, then does he not retain the upper hand in whatever circumstances we find ourselves? To demand from people what only God can provide is to test the reality and love of God.

We often go to people for what we should be getting from God, because we have lost faith in him. God can handle our fears and doubts. Taking them out on others, not only does us and others no good, it will make things worse not better. But we can make things better by offering our desperate pleas to our Heavenly Father instead of taking out our frustration out on others.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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