Formula for Change

For the week of July 4, 2020 / 12 Tammuz 5780

Illustration of a girl with magnifier and scientist carry out an experiment

Hukkat & Balak
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 19:1 – 25:9
Haftarah: Micah 5:6-6:8 (English: Micah 5:7 – 6:8)
Revised version of “The God-Led Life,” (posted the week of June 30, 2018 / 17 Tammuz 5778)

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He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8)

This statement by the Hebrew prophet Micah is one of the most concise and balanced prescriptions for life and living. It is most instructive in times like these when we are faced with concerns over large-scale societal and systemic issues. When held in balance, these three directives equip us to effect positive change. Conversely, the neglect of any one of the three is potentially destructive. Neglect, not overemphasis, because keeping each in mind even to a small extent mitigates against the extremes that emerge when neglecting any one of the others.

The Hebrew word for justice is mishpat. It refers to the bringing about of what is right. The world is full of what needs to be righted. The Hebrew, asah mishpat, instructs us that this is the activity aspect of the triad. Making things right is something we need to purposely work at. To do justice demands being aware of injustice, devising practical strategies to confront it, and finding ways to make it last. That’s a heavy task, especially since the forces of injustice are not passive, nor do they play fair.

Once the concern for justice captures our hearts, it can blind us, however, to the other essentials of life. Thus, connecting it with the other two is brilliant. Too often the purveyors of justice leave much damage in their wake, forgetting that while Scripture instructs us to do justice, it is not to overwhelm our affections. Therefore, at the very same time, we must also love kindness. The word for kindness here is hesed, which is far more than simply being nice. The biblical concept of hesed is steeped in committed relationship to God and to others. Depending on the context, hesed can mean “covenant love” or “loyal love.” It’s the type of kindness often shown to a relative or long-time friend, a generous heart toward someone because of the bonds of committed relationship. But God through Micah is not reminding us to simply show loyal love to family and friends. It’s that the love normally reserved for those we hold dear is the love we are to extend to those we perceive as unjust.

When adjoined to doing justice, hesed allows for needed change, while at the same time avoiding hurting people in the process. Making things right can be painful, but true committed love greatly reduces potential harm to individuals and communities. When focusing on what we think is right, it is far too easy to forget that on every side of every issue is a fellow human being. It is loyal love for God and others that helps us keep everyone’s best interest in mind even when they wrong us.

We might think that these first two are sufficient to balance each other. Too much justice and we unnecessarily hurt people. Too much kindness allows injustice to flourish. What more do we need? What we still need is the third directive: v’hatznei-a lekhet im eloheikha, “and to walk humbly with your God,” which is a way to express a life that continually and personally relies on him. Without that, what we have is what is termed principle-based living. Principle-based living can be appealing but is deceptively misguided. Tragically, the Bible is often abused by treating it as an instruction manual. Passages are read in order to reduce them to moral lessons that we try to apply to contemporary situations. Because God is continually referenced, we don’t realize when we disregard him. God didn’t inspire the Bible and then remove himself from human affairs while he watches history unfold from afar. God doesn’t expect us to figure out life on our own. How do we know whether or not our sense of urgency and allocation of resources match those of God’s? The Bible provides us with life’s foundations and general priorities, but not the specifics. Wisdom, the ability to implement scriptural truth, is not drawn from study and intelligence alone, no matter how well informed we may be. Rather it stems from a life that keeps in close step with avinu malkeinu, our Father and our King.

Doing justice and loving kindness, without the intimate God-dynamic, however noble and well-intentioned, remains self-focused. The greatest of virtues driven by our own agendas eventually become idols, gods of our own making. No wonder so many endeavors done in God’s name have defamed him. But if we allow him to initiate what we give ourselves to and correct our course as needed; if we look to him to fill us with genuine love for others as we remember his faithful love for us; then we will become the embodiment of his intentions, accomplishing his purposes in his time and in his way.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Misguided Demands

For the week of June 27, 2020 / 5 Tammuz 5780

Angry boy pointing finger

Korah
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 11:14 – 12:22

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And all the people said to Samuel, “Pray for your servants to the LORD your God, that we may not die, for we have added to all our sins this evil, to ask for ourselves a king.” And Samuel said to the people, “Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil. Yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart. And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty. For the LORD will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the LORD to make you a people for himself. (1 Samuel 12:19-22)

This selection from the Prophets section of the Hebrew Scriptures is read each year along with this week’s Torah reading in which certain Israelites rebel against God’s choice of Moses’ brother Aaron and his descendants as priests. God’s harsh judgment upon them and their families may be the reason for the people’s fear in this incident centuries later.

The reason for their fear was that they had just come to grips with their own rebellion against God in their demanding a king (see 1 Samuel 8:4-9). They may have thought that they would be subjected to the same plight as the people judged in Moses’ day. But that was not to be. Instead, despite their misguided demand, the prophet encouraged the people to stay true to God from that moment on as he assured them of God’s ongoing faithfulness to them.

Why did the people in the earlier instance die for their sin, but not in this case? The emergence of the monarchy in ancient Israel is ambiguous. Was God in favor of establishing a kingdom or not? The Torah anticipates an eventual king (see D’varim/Deuteronomy 17:14-20). Yet when Israel desires one, God deems this as rebellious.

It doesn’t seem that it was the concept of having a king that was the issue. Centuries earlier, as recorded in the book of Shoftim (English: Judges), following the conquest of the Land of Israel led by Joshua, Moses’ successor, the people were faithful to God for a couple of generations, but then began to turn to idols. The result of their unfaithfulness was foreign oppression. Eventually out of desperation the people would call out to God, who would send a shofet (English: judge), a divinely inspired military leader who would deliver the people. Everything would be fine until the shofet died and the cycle of rebellion, oppression, and deliverance would reoccur. The prophet Samuel was also a shofet as well as a cohen (English: priest). He arose in the days of a very corrupt priesthood, when the Chief Priest, Eli, didn’t restrain his priestly sons from immorality and abuse of the sacrificial system, something that he himself may have benefitted from. The rise of Samuel was a bright light in an otherwise dark time. But his sons too didn’t walk in God’s ways.

Understandably the people had enough of systemic corruption. They thought if they could instigate an overhaul of the system, all would be well. They no longer wanted to wait on God to provide his appointed leader in his time. Instead they wanted the kind of leader that other nations had. Someone they were confident would lead them well and provide a type of governmental stability that they had never known.

Saul, the first king of Israel, was the king like the other nations they wanted, and yet he too was a disaster. Saul’s demise became God’s opportunity, so to speak, to establish the monarchy his way through David, “a man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14).

God, therefore, leveraged the people’s demands to establish the kingdom in his time and in his way. This is not the first time he utilizes evil for good. That God uses our sin to accomplish his purposes doesn’t excuse the wrong. But it might be why he isn’t as harsh with some forms of human rebellion as others. The rebellion in Moses’ day was a direct assault on God’s plans and purposes and had to be eradicated. The people’s focus on human agency to provide stability and resolve corruption in the later incident is an opportunity for God to accomplish a greater good.

Regardless, the lesson is the same. Taking matters into our own hands and insisting that the powers that be perform according to our demands will always get ourselves and others in trouble. This is not to say that our concerns are invalid nor that we must always accept the status quo. Sometimes our concerns are completely selfish and destructive as they were in Moses’ day. On the other hand, the people in Samuel’s day were right to grieve over the state of their society. God agreed with their concern and was planning to do something about it. However, so much grief could have been avoided if they would have sought to resolve their situation in God’s way in God’s time.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Why Does It Have To Be So Hard?

For the week of June 20, 2020 / 28 Sivan 5780

Stressed out man at laptop surrounded by people making demands

Shela Lekha
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24

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Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (B’midbar/Numbers 14:1-4)

This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) includes one of the greatest fails in the Torah. The people of Israel are on the cusp of acquiring the land God promised to their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, hundreds of years before. No other people in history had ever experienced the favor and power of God as they did. Having been subjected to the bitter bondage of slavery their whole lives, they saw their God pummel Egypt with devastating plagues until the stubborn king finally allowed them to leave. And that was just the beginning! They were then personally led by God by way of a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night. He parted the sea, enabling them to cross to the other side on dry ground, from where they watched that same sea drown the Egyptian army, terminating that threat for good. Each day, except on Shabbat (English: the Sabbath), they woke up to a miraculous nutritious meal of manna. God also provided them with water when none was available be it by transforming poisoned water into fresh or bubbling forth from a rock. The one time they had to endure battle, their victory was in direct relationship to Moses’ prayers despite their complete lack of fighting experience, having been slaves until recently.

Many of these acts of God’s power occurred in the context of a great need or a dangerous situation. Yet, each and every time, God surprisingly and wonderfully came through for them. Now, they face their greatest challenge thus far, the conquest of the Promised Land. While the twelve scouts who were sent in ahead to check out the situation all affirmed God’s claim of the quality of the land, ten of them were overwhelmed by the land’s inhabitants and succeeded in intimidated the people to the point that they weren’t willing to face this challenge at all.

I have no personal quibble with the people. I cannot judge their fear as if I would have done anything different. Their assessment of the situation was reasonable based on the facts on the ground. Yes, God helped them in the other difficult situations, but nothing of this magnitude. They obviously lacked the manpower, the equipment, and the knowhow to face such a challenge.

But those are the facts on the ground. That’s not taking into consideration the facts in heaven. Had not God proved to them that he, the greatest power in the entire universe, was with them? If God had indeed directed them to take the Land, they couldn’t lose. Yet, it would take a level of trust in God that few people, if any, had ever exercised. They decided they wouldn’t either. The result was thirty-eight more years of wilderness wanderings until all the adults among them died out. This extremely difficult faith challenge would wait for the next generation. It would be no less difficult, but unlike their fathers and mothers, they would trust God and succeed.

But why would God subject his people to such a difficult task? While most of us will never face something as daunting as this, we all have to deal with various kinds of difficulties, many of which are extremely overwhelming. Why does life have to be so hard?

There’s no way that I can answer such a question adequately for everyone and every situation. There are all sorts of reasons why we face difficulties in life. Still, there is a universal principle that to ignore or to deny undermines our ability to effectively face such challenges. That universal principle is God is training all of us to be more than we are currently.

Human beings were originally designed by God to represent him and his interests on Planet Earth. When our first parents rebelled against him, the human family broke down. We became twisted, so to speak, and became subject to the very creation we were to rule over. Since then, God has sought to restore us to our assigned role of reflecting him. We haven’t been good at cooperating with his program. Regardless, he continues to work at reconstructing us.

What is true generally for all human beings is far more intense for those who are in close relationship with him. In the current age, that’s especially those who have been reconciled with him by faith in the Messiah. Believers at times tragically assume that “being saved,” puts us in a comfort bubble rather than a war zone. Yeshua followers shouldn’t be surprised or intimidated at finding ourselves on the cusp of battle, not necessarily a literal military one like ancient Israel in this week’s portion, but no less intense. God calls us daily to face down death and so become more and more the kind of people he wants us to be.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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What’s Driving You?

For the week of June 13, 2020 / 21 Sivan 5780

Large crowd of people facing a pillar of cloud

Be-Ha’alotkha
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English: 2:10 – 4:7)

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At the command of the LORD the people of Israel set out, and at the command of the LORD they camped. As long as the cloud rested over the tabernacle, they remained in camp. (B’midbar/Numbers 9:18)

I am a big picture guy. That’s true in nature as well as stories and ideas. I love grand views and vistas, be it wide mountain ranges or hills and valleys from above or looking back at the skyline of a great city. I love big pictures because I also love the details they encompass. The better I can see the big picture, the more I understand its details. In stories, the Bible included, between its big picture and details are themes and motifs. Themes are ribbons of ideas, common subplots woven through events and descriptions. Motifs are recurring story elements. God’s love, mercy, and justice are biblical themes. The dynamics of how humans interact with God’s will is a common motif.

We first encounter this motif in the Garden of Eden (see Bereshit/Genesis 3). God gives clear directives to Adam and Eve, which are soon challenged by the serpent. The reader can sense the peril that awaits our first parents should they give into the temptation to doubt the goodwill of their creator, which tragically they do. This motif is played out over and over again throughout Scripture, including this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion).

Israel’s journey through the wilderness is a time of training between their slavery in Egypt and their conquest of the Promised Land. Having been given the gift of God’s word through Moses, the difficult challenges of wilderness living provides opportunity after opportunity to discover the nature and character of their God.

Like Adam and Eve before them they are instructed that obedience to God results in life and blessing, while rebellion results in death and destruction. One of the many ways this was to be lived out was in their travel directions. God reserved the right to tell them when they were to break camp and where they were to go next. The indication of when to go and where was provided by a pillar of cloud. If it stayed, they were to stay. When it moved, they were to move until it stopped.

Our translation expresses God’s communication via the cloud as being at “his command.” While capturing the intent of the Hebrew metaphor here, it misses its vividness. The Hebrew reads more along the line of “At the mouth of the LORD the people of Israel set out, and at the mouth of the Lord they camped. The picture painted by the metaphor is one of God’s speaking, key to the motif we are looking at. What’s not clear is whether it’s the cloud’s movement that’s in response to God’s speaking or that the movement of the cloud was the indication of God’s speaking. Either way, the people were to learn to embark or settle exclusively in response to God’s word.

Note the implications of this. If God’s word was to be their only guide, then that means they were not to listen to anything or anyone else. Enemies attacking? No cloud movement. Stay put. Water supplies exhausted? No cloud movement. Stay put. Living in a lush oasis? Cloud is moving. Time to go. Circumstances, preferences, and opinions don’t count. Only God’s word.

Should it be any different for us today? There’s no cloud to follow that I know of. Yet we have something more, not less, than the ancient Israelites. We have far more of God’s written word than they had. In the books of the Hebrew and New Covenant Scriptures we have more direct words from God; more examples, good and bad; more truth sorted out than they did. Plus, under the New Covenant, we have a far greater intimacy with God through the Messiah and the gift of the Ruach HaKodesh (English: the Holy Spirit) empowering us. It’s as if the wilderness cloud has now taken up residence within us.

Are we being driven by voices shouting at us or are we listening to God? That in no way diminishes the issues of our day, but it should determine what we do about them. The listening to God motif of Scripture clearly directs us to avoid being reactive. Circumstances and opinion are blind guides. Only God’s direction leads to life.

It feels good to connect to popular causes, but at what cost? What would happen if you stopped, took a deep breathe, and asked God what to do? His direction may not take you where you think you should go, but it’s the only way to ensure you get to where God wants you to go.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Bearing God’s Name

For the week of June 6, 2020 / 14 Sivan 5780

Aaronic blessing in Hebrew, English, and English transliteration

Naso
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 13:2-25

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The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them, “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”’ So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” (B’midbar/Numbers 6:22-27)

I recently posted my reflections on the global song phenomenon, “The Blessing” (http://alangilman.ca/2020/05/20/the-blessing/). What struck me was hearing (and seeing) people of every tribe, nation, and language singing back to me the ancient words God gave our priests to speak over us, the people of Israel. What was first intended exclusively for my people has been extended to the entire world.

The likely reason for the song’s popularity is its extreme positive message amidst the uncertainty of the current pandemic. And as I write this, we are seeing an eruption of violence and fear stemming from anger over injustice and racism. People long to be assured that they and their loved ones can find security in a troubled and dangerous world. The song’s repetition of “He is for you” is in contrast with the pervasive and growing threat of danger all around us.

In my earlier reflections, I pointed out how unique such a positive expression would have been in the ancient world, where by and large the gods could not be trusted. Much of pagan ritual calls for the appeasement of the gods in the hope to avert disaster. That the Master of the Universe cared for and wanted to bless human beings was a novel idea. But there is more to this blessing than good thoughts and warm wishes. The priestly blessing was not a heavenly greeting card designed to warm our hearts. In fact, the purpose of the blessing is clearly stated as: “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them” (B’midbar/Numbers 6:27).

Blessing is obviously the prime objective. The details express God’s desire that his people experience security, peace, and goodness and all that these entail, including health, safety, and prosperity. However, there is a dynamic here that is easily missed. It’s what the priests are actually doing by pronouncing this blessing over the people: they were putting God’s name upon them.

One of the reasons why this is easily missed is that in most translations God’s name is not evident. We read or hear “the Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you. “The Lord” is not a name, but a title. But as many of you probably know many of the occurrences of “the Lord” represent what is actually God’s name – a name spelled with the Hebrew letters yod, hey, vav, hey, which mean something like “The Being,” as it is derived from the verb “hayah,” meaning “to be.” By the time of Yeshua, two thousand years ago, the Jewish people had already deemed pronouncing God’s name as too sacred, thus substituting it with either Ha-shem, “the Name,” or Adonai, “Lord.” As time went by the pronunciation of God’s name was forgotten.

There are many people who get really passionate about this. Since God has a name, they say, we should use it despite our not know exactly how to say it. But with all due respect I believe that misses the point. While I agree that using a name instead of a title like “Lord” would more quickly clue us in that God’s name is an intricate part of the blessing, that wouldn’t necessarily accomplish its intent. What it would do is lesson the possibility of turning this into a generic blessing from a nondescript God. That issue is easily resolved by my pointing this out, as I have just done, without engaging the controversy over the pronouncing of God’s name.

The purpose of the blessing was that the Israelite priests were to put God’s name on the people. Blessing from God would be the outgrowth of their connection to him. The word for “put” in Hebrew simply means “put,” as when a cloak is put on someone’s shoulders. The blessing was to call the people of Israel to be bearers of God’s name. God’s name is primarily his character and his reputation. To bear the name of the God of Israel is to be clearly demarked as his particular people to accomplish his plans and purposes. Blessing in all its abundance from this God was assured as they welcomed and participated in their intimate association with him.

It does people no good to speak about God in nondescript ways. To seek to bless without reference to who is actually the source of the blessing is no different than wishing upon a star. In these days of crisis people need to connect with genuine hope in an otherwise hopeless world. Let’s unapologetically call people to bear the name of the God of Israel before it’s too late.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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