What Are You Making?

For the week of March 20, 2021 / 7 Nisan 5781

A male construction worker with a thumbs-up in front of a partially finished brick façade

Vayikra
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26
Haftarah: Isaiah 43:21 – 44:23

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All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together. (Isaiah 44:9-11)

At the very core of what it means to be human is our call to create. We don’t create in the exact same way as God did, of course. He created from nothing. Yet, the directives to subdue the earth (see Bereshit/Genesis 1:28) and cultivate the garden (Bereshit/Genesis 2:15) imply working with the creation, forming it, and developing it as needed. It isn’t long in early biblical history before we see innovation through the designing of musical instruments and metal tools (see Bereshit/Genesis 4:21-22). When God decided to preserve his creation through Noah, it was through an extraordinary naval project. God’s undermining the building of the city and tower of Babel was not due to the people’s technical ingenuity and ability, but rather due to their being driven by their self-directed agenda.

While we don’t create out of nothing, we are all involved in the creative process. The God-given responsibility to work almost always includes the forming and transforming of the world we live in or the supporting of those who do. Even those who wouldn’t see their lives as focused on creativity, if they stopped to notice, would discover that in some way they too interact with the arranging and rearranging of their environment. It may be as simple as how they dress and present themselves. Exceptions would be the very infirm (for whom we should care) and the extreme lazy and neglectful (whom we should admonish).

This is all to say that the desire to make things is central to human life as determined by God from the beginning. But that doesn’t mean everything we make is good and worthwhile. In this week’s Haftarah portion (excerpt from the Prophets), we encounter a strong critique of the making of idols. What’s most instructive is that it’s not so much the worthlessness of the idols themselves that is being addressed, but those who make them.

I think we can safely assume that the worthlessness of the idol makers is due to the worthlessness of the idols. But what strikes me is that the value of what is made is being transferred to the one who makes it. For many years, I have been told that it isn’t good for us to overly identify with our work. Statements such as “you are not what you do” have sought to draw our focus toward “being” instead of “doing.” Some of this corrective is helpful, especially in terms of our perception of accomplishments. It is easy to define ourselves by our and society’s views of success. Accolades, promotions, and money serve to rate our work and how we think of ourselves. Simply being faithful to whatever our calling is, assuming it is a noble one, is rarely celebrated or even noticed. One can easily devalue oneself especially in today’s celebrity-oriented social media saturated world.

It’s right and helpful to turn our focus from these misguided values to the meaningfulness of living a good life that does good as best we can, using our gifts and talents appropriately. It matters what we do with our lives. Who we are manifests in what we do. There’s no such thing as “just a job.” We need to take care to make sure that we are being true to the plans and purposes of God both in general and specifically in our case. This doesn’t mean necessarily that we will spend every working moment at what we find the most meaningful and/or always accomplishing great things. It also doesn’t mean we won’t find our work difficult and frustrating sometimes.

The roots of frustration over our work may stem from not understanding the worth of our work. This is again where the misguided values of our culture may be distorting the truth about your life. At the same time, it’s easy to fall into a trap of worthlessness as we find false security in “the job” or “the money,” for example.

It matters what you do with the gifts and talents God has given you. May you find the creative outlets he has made you for.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Calling Generous Hearts

For the week of March 13, 2021 / 29 Adar 5781

Illustration of a mobile phone with a large heart notification

Vayakhel & Pekudei
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 35:1 – 40:38 & 12:1-20
Haftarah: Ezekiel 45:16-46

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Moses said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, “This is the thing that the LORD has commanded. Take from among you a contribution to the LORD. Whoever is of a generous heart, let him bring the LORD’s contribution: gold, silver, and bronze; blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen; goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, and goatskins; acacia wood, oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, and onyx stones and stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. (Shemot/Exodus 35:4-9)

I love this passage! God through Moses initiated a building program. The people were called to contribute to the building of the mishkan, commonly referred to in English as the tabernacle. The mishkan was, the semi-mobile structure core to the sacrificial system. It was central to the life of the nation – literally – as it was to be erected in the center of the camp of Israel with the various tribal groups positioned around it.

Many readers of the Bible find the chapters about the mishkan, its furnishings, and procedures difficult. Most of the Bible from the beginning to these chapters in Shemot/Exodus are story orientated. Sure, there are a few long genealogies here and there, but interesting happenings for the most part. With the giving of the Ten Commandments in chapter twenty, there’s a shift to various regulations. Still interesting until the building instructions of the mishkan, etc. For many of us, these chapters are hard to relate to. Then we return to some significant drama with the Golden Calf and tense interactions between Moses and God. But after that there’s more chapters about the mishkan that repeat much of what was listed before. It’s not actually a repeat. The first set is the instructions; the second the actual building of it.

I like to point out, however, that while the details of the mishkan may not seem too relevant to us, they must be important to God. From ancient times, so much focus has been put on the stars and planets, but the Torah dedicates only a few words to their creation, while the mishkan gets several chapters. Perhaps we should pay more attention to what God focuses on.

I share this to underscore what this building project would have meant to God’s people at that time. So, when God called for contributions, one might expect that the demand upon the people would be pretty heavy. God has no issue about making demands. Yet, the call for contributions for the mishkan was completely voluntary.

This is not to say that every form of giving within the Sinai covenantal system was voluntary. The spiritual leaders were supported by the people’s giving of a portion of their annual prosperity. Certain sacrifices and other offerings were also compulsory along with an obligation to help the poor of society. And yet contributing to God’s building project was voluntary.

Leaders of faith communities need to take great care when calling for contributions. While members of congregations have a responsibility to support their communities, giving for building projects and other grand objectives in the name of God, need to be carefully weighed by the people. People should never be coerced into giving. Rather, the need of the situation should be presented in such a way that they should feel free to give or not.

This is what Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians intended when he wrote, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). The context is Paul’s encouraging the Corinthian believers to follow through on their promise to give – most likely to support the poor believers in Jerusalem (see Galatians 2:10). He reminds them that as we are generous towards others, God will be generous towards us. Still, the act of giving must not be coerced. Even in the face of need, each one of us are responsible before God to steward our resources appropriately.

That said, I would like to encourage us all (myself included) to take some time to consider where God is calling us to give. This past year of COVID has been disorienting. The lack of normal may mean a lack of exposure to the causes we are normally called upon to support. In today’s marketing saturated society, we may be waiting for “the ask,” before we give. All along it should have been God’s voice that we should have been attentive to. Now more than ever, we need to hear what he is calling us to do…not just with our money, but with our lives.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Seriousness of Sin

For the week of March 6, 2021 / 22 Adar 5781

Message title information on a concrete background

Ki Tisa & Parah
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 30:11 – 34:35; B’midbar/Numbers 19:1-22
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16-38

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So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” But the LORD said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book. But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; behold, my angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them.” (Shemot/Exodus 32:31-34)

This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) contains one of the most tragic episodes in the entire Bible. The people of Israel, having been delivered from years of slavery in Egypt, had witnessed God’s signs and wonders on their behalf. As they journeyed toward the Promised Land through barren wilderness, they camped at the same mountain upon which God had appeared to Moses in the burning bush. Moses ascended the mountain to wait upon God for what would be a comprehensive covenant – best understood as a national constitution – that he imposed upon them by right of being their rescuer.

No one expected Moses to be up the mountain for over a month (not even Moses himself). The people grew restless to the point that they wanted Moses’ brother and associate, Aaron, to provide them with some sort of tangible representation of the hitherto invisible God. That he acquiesced never fails to astound me. The man destined to become the first ever Cohen HaGadol (English: Chief Priest), fashioned a golden calf, followed by the people’s proclamation: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Shemot/Exodus 32:4). All this while God is instructing Moses in his pure, just, and holy ways. This is followed by Moses, after seeing the sin of his people, smashing the tablets of the ten commandments, followed by the slaughter of three thousand people, and a plague.

As this tragedy unfolded, Moses engaged God on two occasions with regard to God’s relationship to the people. From what I can tell, the first one, prior to Moses’ seeing the goings on, is on a national level. God had told Moses of the people’s corruption and announced to him that he would wipe them out and start afresh with a new nation derived from Moses himself. Moses’ intercedes for Israel on the basis of God’s honor, telling God that destroying the people would undermine God’s reputation in the world. God relents.

But a different type of interaction between them occurs after Moses goes down the mountain and deals with the situation. He correctly understands that the people’s actions placed them as individuals under God wrath, and so he returned to plead with God a second time. As he implores God, he offers himself in the place of the people. How noble; what a sacrifice! This time, however, God says, “No” – “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book” (32:32).

I imagine some Christian thinkers jumping in at this point, contrasting the offers of Moses and the Messiah. What God deemed as inappropriate for Moses, he reserved for Yeshua. But this misses the point. The point is that sin can cost you your life.

Much Christian theology has a tendency to focus on sin’s relationship to eternal life to the neglect of dealing with serious moral and spiritual wrongdoing. The story at hand reminds us that being in the right group and having had genuine God experiences doesn’t get us off the hook when we sin. Yes, there is forgiveness from God on the basis of his Son’s sacrifice, but the gift of eternal life can be squandered to such an extent that we can cause great damage to ourselves and others to the point where our future life with God may be jeopardized.

I am aware of the theological technicalities that insist that the believer in Yeshua can in no way fall away from God’s favor. But let me leave you with this quote from the New Covenant book of Hebrews:

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:26-31).

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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