Guard the Truth

For the week of May 23, 2020 / 29 Iyar 5780

A golden shield with the words of this week's title

B’midbar
Torah reading: B’midbar/Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 20:18-42
Edited version of a message originally posted the week of May 23, 2009 / 29 Iyar 5769

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But the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, so that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the people of Israel. And the Levites shall keep guard over the tabernacle of the testimony. (B’midbar/Numbers 1:53; ESV)

The tribe of Levi was set apart by God for the work of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and later in Israel’s history, the Temple. The cohanim (English: “priests”) were a subset of the tribe of Levi as they were the sons of Aaron, Moses’ brother, both of whom were Levites themselves. The cohanim were responsible for the sacrifices, while the rest of the Levites looked after all sorts of other things regarding the Mishkan. One of the Levites’ responsibilities was to guard the Mishkan. According to the verse above, the reason for this was “…so that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the people of Israel.” The protection of true religion with its priesthood and rituals was for the welfare of the people.

Religious leaders need to stand guard on behalf of the things of God. The preservation of true religion is necessary to ensure that people relate to God according to his reality. Otherwise it is not really God they are encountering. And if it is not really God whom people encounter, they will suffer harm through delusion, demonic influence, and immorality.

In order to effectively stand guard for God’s Truth, we must first understand that God isn’t the one who needs protecting. God is God, he will show himself to be who he is. His truth is eternal and will prevail. We are the ones who suffer when God’s Truth is misrepresented. We need to protect God’s Truth, not because God needs us to, but because people need us to.

Second, religious leaders aren’t called to stand guard for God’s Truth for self-protection. Too often religious leaders are threatened by perceived attacks on the things they espouse. But if their motive is to protect self and position, they will not be able to discern the difference between an attack on the Truth or a necessary correction to their own errors.

What does need to be protected is the Truth of God as given to us in the Scriptures. Too many people, who otherwise claim to uphold the revelation of God, become careless in preserving an accurate understanding of God’s Truth. In most cases this carelessness is due to one of three things. The first is a commitment to one’s tradition over and against the Truth of Scripture. What is being protected in this case is something other than the Truth itself. The result is the Truth of God is neglected and/or made inaccessible to others.

The second cause of carelessness stems from an outright denial of God’s Truth. These are leaders who remain part of traditions that at one time carefully guarded the things of God, but now have turned their backs on the Truth, purposely redefining it due to their denial of Scripture.

The third cause is most difficult to identify because it comes from what appears to be such a positive and God-centered motive – a desire to make God’s reality accessible to as many people as possible. These leaders tend to think of the notion of guarding God’s Truth as harmfully restrictive. They fail to see that preserving an accurate revelation of God is necessary for people to truly know the God they are anxious to make known. By not insisting that the God they claim to offer people is in strict accordance to the truth of Scripture, they are actually doing people far more harm than good.

But, when leaders are careful to stand guard for God’s Truth, insisting that he is accurately represented to the world around us, then people will have the opportunity to really know him and be effectively equipped to live life the way God designed us to.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Give It a Rest!

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

Man resting in a park, sitting on the grass with his back against a tree

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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No Leftovers

For the week of May 9, 2020 / 15 Iyar 5780

Slices of left-over meat within a prohibited symbol

Emor
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-31

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And when you sacrifice a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the LORD, you shall sacrifice it so that you may be accepted. It shall be eaten on the same day; you shall leave none of it until morning: I am the LORD. (Vayikra/Leviticus 22:29-30)

The regulations for the various Torah sacrifices are difficult for us to understand since we are not provided with all their whys and wherefores. I have the impression that sacrifice was deeply embedded within Israelite and non-Israelite cultures of the day before God gave the Torah. God’s directions through Moses therefore provide understanding and guidance for what they were already doing. Thus, it is a challenge to determine the purpose behind a directive such as we just read here. It’s impossible to know for sure why, in the case of thanksgiving sacrifices, God required they be eaten on the same day they are offered; no leftovers allowed.

In spite of the lack of explanation, we can see how following these instructions would affect the psyche of the people. Whether they could articulate it or not, they would develop an understanding of the nature of thanksgiving due to the ritual of thanksgiving established by God. First, thanksgiving was expected. To give thanks is an acknowledgment that the good things we have came to us from outside ourselves. This requires both thought and action. While gifts obviously come to us from outside ourselves, things that are the result of our labors may not be so obvious. When we work for something, we tend to think that the results we get are extensions of ourselves, not the blessing of God. But we don’t posses the kind of power that brings anything into existence. While we have our part to play, the positive results that emerge from our involvement are actually rooted in God, not self. Giving thanks to God, therefore, is an acknowledgement of this reality. Failure to do so is to deny the truth of how the universe works.

Practicing thanksgiving through sacrifice, not only acknowledges the truth of our being the recipient of God’s generosity, it is a tangible and public demonstration of that truth. Going through the ritual takes a concept of thanks and connects us, our family, and others to it. Remembering to say, “thank you,” is one thing, but to publicly give back to the giver in the sight of others expresses sincerity and encourages others to do the same.

I am aware that sincerity can be faked. Scripture is clear on the disgrace of pretending to honor God. As a result, we may be tempted to dismiss all forms of ritual, forgetting that being called out on hypocrisy doesn’t undermine ritual itself. Rather, it encourages us to engage ritual in the way it was intended, with sincerity.

Which brings us to God’s directive against having leftovers. Demanding that thanksgiving sacrifices were either to be consumed the same day as offered or burned up, made the offering exclusive to the purpose for which it was designed. The offering of thanksgiving was to have no other purpose. It was essential for the ritual to focus the attention of the person giving the offering. To allow leftovers reduced the intensity of the experience, thus diminishing the offering of thanks. Unless thanksgiving is focused, it is not the real thing.

In these days of COVID-19, it is important to take time to remember all the good things we have despite the challenges we are facing. But perhaps we need to do more than that. God is worthy of our focused attention. Maybe there are ways that we can offer sacrifices of thanksgiving by dedicating particular time, energy, and resources in an exclusive way. Remember, no leftovers!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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