Reasonable Restrictions

For the week of May 2, 2020 / 8 Iyar 5780

Hand stopping falling sticks marked "COVID-19" to illustrate preventing its spread.

Aharei Mot & Kedoshim
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27
Haftarah: Amos 9:7-15

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For everyone who does any of these abominations, the persons who do them shall be cut off from among their people. (Vayikra/Leviticus 18:29)

As the COVID-19 crisis continues into another week, an increasing number of people are getting frustrated with the restrictions imposed upon us. This is exacerbated by all sorts of critiques of these cautionary measures and the supposed reasons for them. Doubt over the effectiveness of and motives behind the closure of businesses and schools, social distancing, and travel restrictions are clearly wearing on the masses. In democratic societies, governed by the people’s representatives, it is incumbent upon our leaders to openly inform us as to the justification of their policies. Obviously, they want to avoid unrest at all costs.

As time moves on, especially in regions where the percentage of infections and death are relatively low and/or on the decrease, people will naturally become less and less cautious if not outright rebellious. Unless the authorities continue to provide a good case for continued restrictions, people will find ways to get around them.

I am not advocating ignoring government policy towards the current crisis; I am only describing what I understand to be normal human behavior especially when doubting the legitimacy of such policies. And I do so this week, because of the parallel between COVID-19 directives and God’s directives in the current parsha (weekly Torah reading portion).

We are in a section of Torah that contains directives regarding sexual behavior. And much like how some people are feeling about their government’s policies over COVID-19, many regard God’s words of caution here as overblown and unnecessary.

It doesn’t help that many would find the term “abomination” offensive. The Hebrew word “to-ei-vah’,” means “disgusting” or “repulsive.” According to Torah this is what God thinks of certain behaviors. However, no one, myself included, likes it when someone else looks negatively at something that we value. Ironically in many modern societies, such harsh regard toward anything has become the worst abomination of all. How dare anyone judge anyone else!

But this is not about personal preference; it’s about the welfare of both individuals and societies. God doesn’t label something as an abomination just because he is in charge. Nor are his moral dictates arbitrary. They may appear that way to us because we don’t understand the basis for such directives.

Let me illustrate with something from these unusual days of COVID-19. The other evening my wife and I needed to make a delivery to a family member who lives near one of the more lovely areas of town, where there is a park and beach by a river. As it was also the nicest evening of the spring so far, we ventured on a stroll to see the sunset. In keeping with the city’s rules, we walked through the park, enjoying the beauty as we did. As we were returning to our car we happened upon a clear violation of the current guidelines: four young people, while observing social distancing, were throwing a ball to one another. If COVID-19 is as lethal as some think, they were being completely irresponsible. Since each person may themselves be a carrier, sharing contact via the ball potentially extends the risk of infection to not only each participant, but to anyone else each participant comes into contact with afterwards. And to think that the virus on the ball may find its way from the park to a seniors’ residence where it could engulf the elderly, plus the staff and their families, what the four were doing in entertaining themselves was more than irresponsible, it was an abomination! To be honest I didn’t really think that, because I have my doubts over whether such behavior is as risky as some say. But if it were, then such an extreme reaction would be legitimate.

Unlike our government, God, the master designer of the universe, intimately understands the details of his design, so when he regards particular behaviors negatively, it’s because he is fully aware of their implications. As I read at the beginning: “persons who do them shall be cut off from among their people.” First, note that this is one of the rare Torah passages that clearly speaks to all peoples, not just Israel. And because it is a universal statement, “cut off from among their people,” it is not about shunning or other forms of community judgement as might be the case if this were a directive specific to Israel. Instead it is a serious warning of the consequences of these behaviors.

Although governments struggle to figure out the true nature of COVID-19, we have been gifted with God’s all-knowing insight on the nature of human sexuality. Societal leaders may or may not have a handle on what is really going on; they may or may not have our best interests in mind. Yet, the limitations on our behavior that Torah delineates are rooted in God’s understanding of the safest and most healthy way to live.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Isolation

For the week of April 25, 2020 / 1 Iyar 5780

Younger woman visiting older woman who is behind a window

Tazria & Metzora
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33 & B’midbar/Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24

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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 13:46)

With the rare exception, human beings don’t like to live alone. Even most loners don’t want to be alone all the time. And when they do, they want to be alone by choice. It’s no wonder that one of the worst punishments people have ever devised is solitary confinement. We were meant to be in community, not in isolation, except under certain circumstances.

We are living in most unusual times. Never before have we seen what some are calling: “the quarantine of the healthy.” Normally, when there is a serious outbreak of illness, it’s the sick who are isolated. According to this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion), this is the prescription for those afflicted with infectious skin diseases. Note that the God of Israel didn’t direct his people to do incantations, concoct potions, or other things we might expect from ancient peoples. Instead, the cohanim (English: priests) are told to conduct straightforward examinations based on objective standards.

What is strange for us moderns is the intimate connection between community health and ritual purity. It appears that the need for isolation was to protect the community from two types of contagions: human sickness and ceremonial uncleanness. The first we easily appreciate. But the second sounds like ignorant superstition. How would a disease, apart from its effect on other people, make a difference to God? Some may dismiss the genuineness of the ritual elements by taking them as a way to trick pre-scientific folks into doing what’s healthy in the name of religion. If that’s the case, it’s an argument for the divine origins of Hebrew Scripture, for how would the ancients understand the science behind illness? But far from being a trick to protect community health, the Torah’s integrated perspective of spirituality and physical health is a far more balanced approach than today’s “science explains everything” misguided philosophy.

While illnesses have symptoms that help determine their nature, illness itself is a symptom of the general broken nature of human beings. God did not design us to get sick at all. That doesn’t mean that every sniffle or cough is a direct indication of a particular moral failure. Rather, like everything else wrong with us, sickness is another reminder of the distance from which we have fallen. Isolating afflicted persons from Israel’s God-given rituals was therefore one of the ways that the community was reminded of our general separation from God. The protection allotted to the masses through this isolation undergirded God’s desire for health and restoration.

Reading about the quarantine of diseased persons in ancient Israel instead of the isolation of the healthy today may prompt some to question the direction of many of our government leaders. Without wading into the waters of my ignorance, the difference between the type of diseases listed in this section of the Torah and COVID-19 is the invisibility and severity of the threat. As far I as I do understand, the skin diseases listed in our portion are easily prevented and cured through today’s medical expertise. COVID-19, on the other hand, is invisible and potentially lethal. The call to social distancing and other types of isolation is due to how susceptible the general population is along with the great risk of being carriers to the vulnerable.

Be it the skin diseases listed in Torah, COVID-19, or all the other highly infectious and deadly diseases ravaging the world, we are sick. We are sick with a sickness far deadlier and just as, if not more, contagious than any of these. And whether we are close to or disconnected from those we love; we have been enduring a much greater isolation than called for by COVID-19. The pain of isolation we are experiencing due to the current crisis is deeply rooted in our alienation from God. And just like the Messiah was willing to break convention by touching (and healing) the infected, isolated people of his day, so he wants to touch us today. As he heals our uncleanness (sin) and restores us to God, we will no longer be isolated even if we are alone.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Understanding Tragedy

Note: The following TorahBytes message was originally written a day before one of Canada’s most tragic road accidents. Just over two years ago, on April 6, 2018, a tractor-trailer struck a bus, killing sixteen people and injuring thirteen others, most of whom were players from the Humboldt (Saskatchewan) Broncos hockey team. I thought it would be appropriate to repost this message during the current coronavirus crisis, not only because so many are struggling due to this pandemic, but because it’s not the only tragedy people around the world are dealing with. – Alan Gilman

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For the week of April 18, 2020 / 24 Nisan 5780

Sun poking through the cloudy horizon over a turbulent ocean

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

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Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. (Vayikra/Leviticus 10:1-2)

There are two insights into human tragedy that I would like to share from this grim incident. The first is straightforward; the second not so much. The first is that God isn’t someone to be handled lightly. Dealing with him is serious business and fooling around with his way of doing things can cost you your life.

Many people avoid this aspect of God’s character, preferring a one-sided version of him that is nothing but nice. No matter what we do he not only loves us but accepts us as well. That is nice, perhaps, but definitely not good, not to mention just. Making the Supreme Being supremely agreeable actually turns him into a monstrosity of infinite proportions. That God would put up with anything human beings conceive of is tantamount to abuse by passivity. That might be your standard for friends, but if it is, they are not your friends, not good friends anyway.

What happened to Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu is a tragic story like so many tragic stories of abuse of place and position for selfish purposes. The consequences here reveal to us what God thinks about misuse of his directives. This is a dramatic picture of how serious religious and spiritual misdeeds really are. Instead of being offended at was happened to Aaron’s sons, we should wonder why God doesn’t bump off more of their kind.

I think one of the reasons why God is often taken to be a softy towards sinful behavior is that the plight of Nadab and Abihu is an exception rather than the rule. It’s not that their wrong was greater than everyone else’s; it’s that most of the time, God doesn’t zap us when we do wrong, even great wrong. Otherwise, we’d all be dead by now.

The New Covenant writings sum this up as “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4). This echoes Israel’s entire biblical narrative. It’s libelous how some misrepresent the Hebrew Bible by claiming it reveals an angry, wrathful God, who punishes people left, right, and center. An accurate depiction of the Master of the Universe is that, if anything, he is too patient. The vast majority of judgement upon his people is after centuries of waiting for change. Only after a very long time of continued obstinacy, does he finally punish.

While what happened to Nadab and Abihu was the exception, not the rule, it is not unique. From time to time, God responds to wrongs quickly and suddenly. Why he deems it necessary to do so, we don’t know. But let’s not be fooled into thinking that God’s hesitancy to act in the majority of cases implies they are not as serious.

What makes what happened to Aaron’s sons unique is the second, not-too-straightforward, insight. Tragedy is common in the human experience. People die unexpectedly. Most people don’t. Most people in the world will return safely to their beds tonight. Still, tragedy will strike in innumerable ways within the next twenty-four hours. What then makes Nadab and Abihu’s tragedy unique? It’s that we know why it happened. We know, in their case, God punished them for priestly mismanagement. But most of the time when tragedy strikes, we have no idea why. And most of the time, we would be absolute fools to think we can figure it out.

Not everyone who is killed due to a mysterious outbreak of fire is being judged by God. Much of human suffering is simply due to the sin-cursed nature of the creation. Bad things just happen sometimes. Other times, there is cause and effect at work. Impaired or distracted driving is mortally dangerous for example. Still, even when every precaution is taken, things can go wrong.

In many tragedies, our natural cry to know why is a question that may never be answered. But in tragedy, we need more than answers. It’s no wonder that God’s peace is described in Philippians 4:7 as something that surpasses understanding with the effect of guarding our hearts and minds. More than anything, this is what we need when everything else falls apart.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Generation to Generation

For the week of April 11, 2020 / 17 Nisan 5780

Three generations, grandfather, son, and grandson, walking together

Pesach
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 13:1-16; B’midbar/Numbers 28:19-25
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:37 – 37:14

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You shall tell your son on that day: It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt. (Shemot/Exodus 13:8)

Pesach (English: Passover) begins this year the evening of Wednesday, April 8. One of the reasons for this annual commemoration of Israel’s freedom from slavery in Egypt is to retain connection from generation to generation, “l’dor vador” as it is said in Hebrew. The ritual aspects of the retelling of the exodus were designed by God to not only remind subsequent generations of this wonderful, foundational story from our history, but to intimately bind our descendants to the original event to the extent that they see themselves as actually there when it happened. Every year when celebrating Pesach, we are to say to our children: “It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.”

But isn’t this statement for the originals only? Would it not be more correct for the children of the released Hebrew slaves to say, “It is because of what the Lord did for my parents when they came out of Egypt”? Certainly understanding oneself as connected to a historical event through one’s ancestors isn’t identical to being there. That’s technically correct, but technicalities of this sort obscure the depth of meaning found in the intense identification the statement demands.

Even technically, we are far more connected to our history than we normally think. However genetics actually work, the experiences of the past indelibly stamp themselves on our psyches. To some extent, we carry the past with us and pass it on to our children whether we or they are conscious of it. For subsequent generations to benefit from the events of the past, be they good or bad, it’s better to be not only conscious of those events but consciously understand them properly.

From the days of Moses and the departure from Egypt every Jewish person was to regard themselves as a freed slave. To lose that would be to lose the core of our identity and begin to become something that we are not.

Retaining connection to this story is not for the Jewish people alone. When Yeshua leveraged his last Pesach celebration to function as the key reference through which his followers would remember him and his sacrifice, he opened the door for everyone, Jewish or otherwise, to realize the commonality of all peoples. Israel’s oppression to tyranny in Egypt functions as a picture of the oppression of all people to evil. Yeshua’s giving himself as the supreme Passover Lamb, provides freedom to all who trust in him. Just like the Angel of Death passed over those Jewish homes that applied the Passover lamb’s blood to their doorframes in faith, so God’s judgement passes over anyone, Jewish or not, who figuratively places the Messiah’s blood over themselves by trusting in him.

As we tell the story of our deliverance that we inherited from those who have gone before, their story becomes our story. This has never been as important as it is today, when we are facing a global pandemic. In spite of social distancing we are seeing as never before how connected we really are. Rich or poor, young or old, famous or not, the plight of one has become the plight of all. But Pesach reminds us that this plight really isn’t new. The threat of death has been hanging over our lives from generation to generation. Pesach also reminds us that God is the God of deliverance for all. And if we make his deliverance ours as demonstrated by the exodus and offered to all people through the Messiah Yeshua, we will have the opportunity to tell our children, “This is what the Lord did for me.”

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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