Is It Your Time?

For the week of February 27, 2021 / 15 Adar 5781

Man in business suit pointing at watch

Tetzaveh
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 27:20 – 30:10
Haftarah: Ezekiel 43:10-27

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And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this? (Esther 4:14)

These are the words spoken by Mordecai to his cousin Esther who had been selected queen of Persia after the former queen had been deposed due to insubordination. Only God knew the circumstances Esther, Mordecai. and the rest of the Jewish people in Persia would find themselves in. At some point after Esther’s installment, the king promoted Haman to the highest bureaucratic position. One of Haman’s perks was that everyone had to display deference towards him whenever he passed by, which everyone did but Mordecai. This infuriated Haman to the extent that he not only wanted to put Mordecai to death, but all of Mordechai’s people, the Jewish people, as well.

Prior to this, Mordecai instructed Esther not to make her Jewishness known. But now, realizing by God’s providence she was in a place of influence he sent a message to her entreating her to approach the king on her people’s behalf. It was obvious, at least to Mordecai, that God’s hand was at work in Esther’s becoming queen, and he helped her to see that perhaps she had come to her role in the kingdom for such a time as this.

As readers of this story, what Mordecai discerned with regard to Esther’s role is obvious. Of course, we also have the benefit of knowing the rest of the story. Anyone who approached the king uninvited would be killed unless the king extended his scepter to that person, a risk Esther decided to take. Not only did the king extend his scepter to her, Haman’s devilish plot was exposed, and the Jewish people overcame another existential threat. This is why we celebrate the festival of Purim (this year: Thursday evening, February 25).

I don’t know how many people ever find themselves in such a position. After all, this is an extreme case, both in terms of the threat and the unusual place that Esther found herself in. I would hope that if I found myself is such a unique position to help that I too would be willing to do what Esther did.

But how about when the situation isn’t as dramatic as this; when the place we find ourselves isn’t as obvious as it was to Mordecai? How about when life seems to be normal: family, work, home, school – day in, day out, same old, same old, what about then? Could it be that wherever we may be and whatever we may be doing there are opportunities staring at us that we are uniquely positioned for, but we are distracted by normal? What if we were more aware of what’s really going on around us? What would happen if we were more sensitive to the Lord’s promptings in our lives? Maybe life wouldn’t seem so normal all the time.

When I referred to “normal,” did you think to yourself we are not in normal times? It’s been a year of COVID confusion, fear, and restrictions, not to mention all the other social, political, and environmental challenges. Yet many are just trying to cope, waiting for this to all be over . We’ll clean it up and regroup after it passes by. But what are you waiting for? This might be your time.

Esther’s initial reaction to Mordecai was “What can I do?” seeing that she hadn’t been summoned to the king in a while. However, she wasn’t in her position simply to accept the way things were, but rather to risk her life to make a difference. She needed to challenge the status quo and put herself in a dangerous place in order to bring about the necessary changes.

This is not the time to sit back and do nothing. You may believe you don’t have any other option. That’s never the case with the God of Israel. What you might be called to do may not have the same impact as what Esther did, but you’ll never know until you are willing to step out in that direction. It might be nothing more than a phone call or an email. But as God leads you, there’s no telling the difference you might make. Perhaps this is your time.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Show and Do

For the week of February 20, 2021 / 8 Adar 5781

Illustration of the tabernacle in the wilderness

Illustration: The tabernacle erected in the wilderness, surrounded by an enclosure and miles of tents. Colored etching after W. Dickes. Courtesy of Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.

Terumah & Zachor
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 25:1 – 27:19 & D’varim/Deuteronomy 25:17-19
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 15:2-34

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Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it. (Shemot/Exodus 25:9)

There are two major sections in the second book of the Torah that are concerned about the building of the mishkan, usually translated into English as “tabernacle.” It was a large, yet mobile, complex designed as the locale for the offering of sacrifices and other priestly functions on behalf of the nation of Israel. Mishkan means, “dwelling place,” as it was to represent God’s dwelling among his people. This week’s parsha (English: Torah reading portion) through chapter thirty contains the instructions of the mishkan, its furnishings, and other related items, including the priests’ clothing and recipes for the special oil and incense. Then the actual construction is described beginning in chapter thirty-five through the end of the book, chapter forty.

Various people have attempted to draw or build accurate images or models – including life-sized versions – of the mishkan, but there is no way to ensure accuracy due to a missing ingredient in the instructions recorded by Moses. It appears that he was privy to something besides the details we read in the Torah. Not only did God tell him what to do, he also showed it to him. Because Moses saw what to do, he could also instruct the people on how to do it.

Before I continue, a word about the so-called Oral Torah. Jewish tradition claims that when God gave Moses his word to write down, he also told him other things that he did not write down, but instead was to be passed on orally. One of the main purposes of the Oral Torah is to interpret the written Torah. The Mishnah, which is the core of the Talmud is the written version of the Oral Torah. A scriptural basis for the Mishnah is the verse we are looking at, since it suggests that Moses was made aware of certain aspects of God’s revelation to Israel that he didn’t write down. However, this is no way legitimizes an oral tradition that most certainly was developed over time. Just because Moses was equipped with more than the written instructions for the Mishkan here doesn’t prove anything about other later rabbinic teachings.

What, then, might we learn from Moses’ experience of the mishkan? The people of Israel needed more than just “the what” of building it. They also needed “the how.” Throughout the ages people have abused the Bible because they thought that a simple reading was sufficient to live out its teachings. Armed with only the what, well-meaning, but otherwise naïve people have caused more damage than good. They claim to be taking God at his word but possess neither the sensitivity necessary to understand it nor his wisdom to live it out effectively.

When we read the Bible, we are not on our own. It’s a very old book, but its ultimate author is still alive. Not only that, he has made himself available to anyone who seeks him. In order to truly understand his word, we need to rely on him to show us how. This is not to say that our intuition or spiritual senses are reliable guides in themselves to understand the difficult and not-so difficult parts of scripture. The scriptures themselves provide interpretive boundaries for us. If Moses, having recorded the mishkan instructions, claimed that God showed that they were to build a boat, then everyone would know something was not right. I know that’s an extreme example, but it makes the point clear. If an interpretation of scripture is not well-supported by scripture, we should not trust it.

The same goes for any attempt to follow God’s instructions. Through the Ruach HaKodesh (English: the Holy Spirit) God speaks to his people in various ways. But too often we fail to wait upon him for how to do what he is calling us to do. Instead, we need to wait on him to show us, and then do.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Practical Torah

For the week of February 13, 2021 / 1 Adar 5781

Illustration of Torah scroll with "Practical Torah" supperimposed

Mishpatim
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 21:1 – 24:18 & B’midbar/Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: 2 Melachim/ 2 Kings 12:1-17
Originally posted the week of February 6, 2016 / 27 Shevat 5776 (updated)

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Now these are the rules that you shall set before them (Shemot/Exodus 21:1)

Last week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) including the giving of the Ten Words (commonly known as the Ten Commandments). As I explained in a previous TorahBytes message, the Ten Words function as representative of the covenant God established with the people of Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai (see http://torahbytes.org/76-17/). Accepting them as eternal principles simply because they are the Ten Commandments or rejecting them as Old Testament relics fails to regard their covenantal function. With the coming of Yeshua and the inauguration of the New Covenant as promised by the prophet Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 31:31-33; compare Luke 22:20), the constitution of God’s people underwent a major transformation. That which was given on tablets of stone has been internalized as Jeremiah had foretold (see 2 Corinthians 3:3). The life that God had called Israel to live was no longer something outside and out of reach, so to speak, but instead to be lived from the inside out. The alienation from God which had prevented Israel from living up to the Sinai covenantal demands was resolved by the forgiveness of sin brought about through Yeshua’s sacrificial death.

The main contrast between the Sinai and New Covenants, therefore, is found – not primarily in their practical details – but in the contrasting constitutional arrangements within which the details are given. The older covenant provides for the organization of a national entity; the newer one enables the inclusion of all nations without requiring specific membership in Israel. The great change in the sacrificial system from ongoing and temporal to final and permanent makes the older priestly function obsolete and thus allows all believers to approach God directly.

But just because the covenantal foundations have changed, that doesn’t mean that every God-given directive through Moses is no longer relevant. For it is in the Torah that we encounter almost every aspect of life from God’s perspective. Discerning which elements of God’s “teaching” (for that’s what “torah” means) were for ancient Israel alone and which ones are for all people for all times can be a challenge, but a worthwhile and enriching one.

Through Torah we are reminded that relationship with God is not something detached from life’s practicalities. While abstract notions of love and forgiveness are essential, it is through the directives of Torah that the core of our faith is expressed in very practical ways. When reading the first section of this week’s Torah portion you might wonder if that is really true, however. The subject of slaves in the Bible is often used to demonstrate how backwards it is. But what we actually have here is God’s speaking into a world where slavery was taken for granted. The boundaries and regulations God established through Moses emphasizes the value of all human beings. This would have been radical for those days and sets the stage for its eventual abolishment. How’s that for being practical?

Our portion continues by addressing the subject of personal liability. We are privileged to be given God’s mind regarding common issues like those that people have faced throughout history. We neglect God’s word on these matters to our peril.

In another section in this week’s reading, we see the consequences for certain types of social behavior, including premarital sex, bestiality, sorcery, as well as dealing with the vulnerable members of society: foreigners, widows, and orphans. As with the slavery section, modern readers might too quickly react to the prescribed consequences for certain behaviors rather than glean wisdom from God’s perspective. The determining of consequences is subject to the jurisdiction of civil leaders, which while regulated under Sinai for ancient Israel, is not expanded to the nations under the New Covenant. What we can derive from this is the destructive nature of the things addressed, so that they can be avoided among believers and discouraged within the cultures in which we find ourselves.

This is what Yeshua meant when he told his followers that they are “salt and light” (see Matthew 5:13-16). As the great Master Rabbi, he expounded the teachings of Moses, so that they (and us!) can learn the practical details of Torah within a New Covenant framework.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

 

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What Are We Missing?

For the week of February 6, 2021 / 24 Shevat 5781

A man sitting in a chair staring at a wall full of question marks

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

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For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 6:5; English 6:6)

This week’s Haftarah (selected reading from the Hebrew Prophets) is quite unusual. Before I explain why, I need to mention that there is more than one tradition of Haftarah readings. The two major ones are the Ashkenazi, rooted in Eastern European Jewish tradition and Sephardic, rooted in Spain and Portugal, with Ashkenazi Jews being a majority in the world. I follow the Ashkenazi tradition because I am Ashkenazi. The Ashkenazi reading this week is Isaiah 6:1 – 7:6 and 9:5-6 (in most English translations, it’s 9:6-7, that’s due to verse numbering differences between the Hebrew and English that occur from time to time). The Sephardic reading is only Isaiah chapter 6. Why which selection is chosen no one knows for sure. The custom of reading from the Prophets on Shabbat goes back to at least Yeshua’s day if not earlier (see Luke 4:16-21). Yet, it seems which passage was read may not have been set as it would become at some later point.

The most obviously unusual aspect of this selection is that it is made up of more than one passage. This only happens five times in the year. One would think that whoever and however this decision was made, it must have been purposeful. The first part of the selection is a high mark in Hebrew prophetic writings as it is the call of Isaiah, which includes the magnificent, “kadosh kadosh kadosh adonai tz’va-ot, m’lo khol ha-aretz k’vado;” “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3). This passage may have been selected as a compliment to this week’s Torah reading as it also is a high mark in Scripture, the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.

But why the two extra verses – and especially in the Ashkenazi tradition that already extends well into chapter seven? These are the famous verses that many people would recognize from Handel’s Messiah. Having not grown up as a regular synagogue attender and having never heard Handel’s Messiah, I first heard them when I was presented the Jewish Bible’s evidence for Yeshua’s being the Messiah. Here, I was told, was a prediction that a great child would be born, who would be much more than a normal king as indicated by his complex name: “pele-yo’etz el gibbor avi-‘ad sar-shalom;” “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

But that which is most unusual about including these verses is that there is a tendency to not include passages that have been used through the centuries to refer specifically to Yeshua as Messiah. I am not saying that this is due to an intended coverup. There is a lot of material to choose from in the Prophets, and it’s not as if there was a set Haftarah list in Yeshua’s day that was changed in order to reject such passages.

That said, if there was a coverup in order to prevent Jewish exposure to Yeshua-sounding prophecies, one would think these verses would be targeted. There is a common Jewish assumption that the Messiah would not be divine, but a normal human being, rejecting the New Covenant Writings’ claim that Yeshua was the divine Son of God.

Some may dismiss the divine identification of this great king as predicted by Isaiah as not a description of his nature, but as a way to exalt God. Reference to God and God’s name is common in many Hebrew names. One may assert that the name “Immanuel,” meaning “God with us,” found in another of Isaiah’s prophecies (7:14), could express the encouraging truth that God is with the people as opposed to the concept that the person given this name is himself God who is among us.

But this is hardly the case of Isaiah 9. This lengthy designation is hardly a name by which a person is called. It is a description of the person. The great king to come is far more than a regular human being, but rather the God of Israel coming in the form of a human being.

The common Jewish objection is that God doesn’t or wouldn’t take on human form. But this idea is more of a reaction to Christian thought than a grappling with such an amazing prophecy. Through Isaiah, God tells us that he himself would do for us what no normal human being could ever do. And that’s besides other scriptures that suggest that God has taken on human form prior to the coming of Yeshua. Some examples are the two mysterious messengers who visit Abraham (Bereshit/Genesis 18:1-14); Jacob’s wrestling with God (Bereshit/Genesis 32: 24-32); Joshua’s encounter with the captain of the army of the Lord (Joshua 5:13-15), and the messenger announcing Samson’s birth (Judges 13).

In the same way people’s presuppositions and prejudices about the coming Messiah cloud their reading of messianic prophecy, I wonder how our presuppositions and prejudices about life and scripture keep us from fully appreciating what God is seeking to say to us today.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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