Live Long and Prosper

For the week of October 1, 2016 / 28 Elul 5776
VulcanSalute01_480

Nizzavim
Torah: Devarim/ Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9
Originally posted the week of September 12, 2015 / 28 Elul 5775

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The LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground. For the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers, when you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law, when you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Devarim/ Deuteronomy 30:9-10)

You may recognize the title of this week’s message as the familiar salute of Mr. Spock, the half human/half alien from the widely popular TV and movie series, “Star Trek.” The hand gesture used by the actor, the late Leonard Nimoy was derived from his own Jewish background as used by the cohanim (English: priests) as a blessing in the synagogue. While “live long and prosper” are not exactly the words spoken, they certainly sum up God’s own desire to make his people “abundantly prosperous.”

But what constitutes being abundantly prosperous? What may come to your mind is likely very different from the intention of the Torah here. Perhaps to you prosperity is an economic state whereby no matter how much you need or want, you always have extra. It’s a sense that whatever happens, there is always more financial resources to draw on. The biblical understanding of prosperity is very different. It’s having enough for yourself and those dependent on you, plus a little more to share with those in need (see Proverbs 30:7-9; 1 Timothy 5:8, 6:6-10; Hebrew 13:16).

Biblical prosperity is not about how much stuff you have or the size of your bank balance. You could have an enormous amount of goods and money, but still not really be living well. The prosperity here refers specifically to “the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground.” You could have all the money in the world, but unless living things thrive, both human and animal, and there is sufficient nutritious food to eat, we are not really living. Societies that only focus on self and do not adequately work towards the emergence and thriving of future generations will die. So ultimately prosperity is not about me and what I have, but the blessing of provision for the furthering of God’s creation long-term.

What will it take, then, to “live long and prosper”? Our passage tells us, “When you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law (Torah), when you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” It’s tragic that there is so much misunderstanding regarding a command such as this. For some it is clouded by humanly derived traditions that add or replace God’s expressed intentions. Others confuse godly directives with a misguided system that bases God’s acceptance on performance. The whole Bible understands true godliness as an outcome of sincere trust in God. Those who are truly faithful to him have a heart to obey him in every way. To disregard God’s ways leads to anything but prosperity.

God wants us to live a full and abundant life (see John 10:10). But in order to have the quality of life he desires, we need to embrace his version of what life is really all about. Redefining biblical prosperity along the lines of greed and covetousness undermines the abundance that God has for us. Similarly claiming fairy-dust notions of grace that disregards God’s directives in Scripture may numb the effects of deception for a time, but in the end profits absolutely nothing.

However, if we embrace God’s version of what prosperity actually is and diligently follow his ways as outlined in Scripture, then we will indeed thrive both in this life and in the age to come forever.

Live long and prosper!

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Justice Is Alive

For the week of September 26, 2015 / 13 Tishri 5776

JusticeAlive01_480

Ha’azinu
Torah: Devarim / Deuteronomy 32:1-52
Haftarah: 2 Samuel 22:1-51

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For I will proclaim the name of the LORD; ascribe greatness to our God! The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 32:3-4)

When I first read this passage in this translation, I found it jarring, because I was used to hearing, “all his ways are just.” If you look at a list of various other English translations, you will see an assortment of words used, such as fair, right, righteous, just, judgement and the one used here, justice. The Hebrew word is “mishpat,” which indeed means justice, which is a noun, but in English it doesn’t sound right. The phrase more naturally lends itself to using an adjective, the way I am used to hearing it. But to make the text read, “God’s ways are just,” gives the impression that his ways simply possess a just quality to them. While that is true, what mishpat expresses here is much more than that. Regardless of the sound English prefers, God ways are in and of themselves justice.

Let me try to explain. If I said “smoking is harmful,” harmful being an adjective, then I am saying that smoking has a destructive quality. How it causes harm depends on how people relate to it (smoking or breathing second-hand smoke, for example). But if I say instead “smoking is harm” (which sounds strange, of course), I am claiming that smoking’s harmful quality is essential to its essence, and that its existence in and of itself brings about harm regardless of how people use it or relate to it. Whether or not smoking is truly that I will leave to anti-smoking advocates to decide.

So when Moses says God’s way are mishpat, it is not only because his ways have a just quality to them, but that his ways are in and of themselves justice. It is not as if they are shown to be just only when they are followed as when we follow good advice. Rather God’s ways establish justice by their very existence alone.

How this works becomes clearer when we understand that God is personally invested in his word. By his power his ways are actively at work in the world, confronting evil and leading people in the path of righteousness. No wonder the writer of the New Covenant book of Hebrews states, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

One might argue that the word of God cannot function on its own, but rather requires someone somewhere to communicate it. While this is normally the case from personal conversation to preaching to writing to broadcasting, we need to realize that the power of justice in God’s ways as communicated through these methods is far more dependent on God than we may think. It is God who uses people to communicate his word, and it is God who makes his communicated word effective.

Let me illustrate with a true story. I had been thinking and praying about this concept, when a young family friend posted online an experience she had. I share it with her permission:

Late this evening I was busing home, and I was very tired. So tired in fact, that I fell asleep. However, I was woken with a start when someone tapped on my shoulder to ask me about abortion. She had noticed the pro-life shirt I was wearing. She said “I’m pro-choice. Always have been and always will be. And you can’t change my mind.” I replied, “Guess what? I am also pro-choice, but not when it comes to taking the life of an innocent human being.” She then went on to say that she didn’t think that they were human until the point of birth. So we talked about when human life begins, and she finally agreed that they were human from conception. But she still said, “What if the mother can’t afford to keep the child? Wouldn’t it be better for her to just have an abortion in that case?” I replied “What if the mother of a toddler lost her job and could no longer afford to raise the child, would it then be ok for her to kill the toddler?” The woman right away shook her head and said, “No.” Then a light dawned on her and she said, “I never thought of it that way before. You’re right, killing a pre-born child is no different than killing a born child. Thank you so much for taking the time to explain all of this to me.”

Our friend was sleeping when the ways of God provoked the other person to wake her up, resulting in repentance. The other party was in collusion with death and destruction. God’s word, which appeared to be just lying there doing nothing was actually living and active as it pierced the heart of that up-till-then confused soul.

Mishpat, justice, is a living force, given to the world as a gift of God through the revelation of Scripture. And as it is living and active, there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Perhaps it’s time to embrace it.

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The Meaning of the Shofar

 

For the week of September 19, 2015 / 6 Tishri 5776

shofar01_480

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Fall Feasts

In the third book of the Bible, Vayikra/Leviticus chapter 23, verses 23-44 is a description of three special observances that were to occur each year around September/October. The first is often referred to as “The Feast of Trumpets,” and became known as Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It begins this year the evening of September 13. Ten days later is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, beginning the evening of September 22. Five days after that is the Festival of Sukkot (Tabernacle or Booths), beginning the evening of September 27.

These three observances are intimately connected in that the first two provide intense preparation for the third. In the midst of the busy fall harvest time, the people of Israel were to stop for a day of reflection to remember God. This was to get the people’s attention so that they would be ready a week and a half later for a full day of humiliation and repentance on Yom Kippur. The restoration provided by that most solemn day enabled the people to engage the over-a-week-long celebrations associated with Sukkot.

We fool ourselves into thinking that we can rush into thanksgiving festivities without taking the previous two weeks to get ready first. We are so busy with so many distractions. Yet God wisely knows that he needs to get our attention first by reminding us of things we so easily forget.

A Time to Remember

The Feast of Trumpets was to be “a memorial” (v. 24) marked by “blowing.” Most translations fill in what it was to be blown, even though the passage nowhere states explicitly what instrument was to be used. Traditionally it is the “shofar” (English: ram’s horn). Also, while the act of blowing was to function as a memorial, we are not told what it was we were to remember. The connection of this day with the other days mentioned above allows for a general reminder of the things of God, but the use of the shofar in particular brings to remembrance some key biblical events and ideas.

The Meaning of the Shofar

I am going to share several passages that reference the shofar and provide some suggestions as to what therefore we should remember when it is blown. In most English translations of the Hebrew Scriptures, the word shofar is translated either as horn or trumpet. Horn, of course, is better, since it clearly shows the difference between the use of a hollowed-out animal horn and a man-made metallic trumpet. In each of the following cases, I have replaced whatever English word was used with the original Hebrew word, shofar.

The Covenant on Mt. Sinai: Redemption and Revelation

On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud shofar blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain.

Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the shofar grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder (Shemot/Exodus 19:16-19).

The blowing of the shofar reminds us of God’s rescue from bondage, his commitment through covenant faithfulness, and the gift of his Word.

The Walls of Jericho: No Obstacles Are Too Great for God

So the people shouted, and the shofars were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the shofar, the people shouted a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they captured the city (Joshua 6:20).

The falling of the great walls of Jericho following the sounding of the shofar reminds us that when we are in God’s will, doing what he wants us to do, nothing can stand in our way.

God Alone Is King: Let Us Boldly Acclaim His Rulership

God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a shofar (Tehillim/Psalms 47:5)

As the shofar blast proclaim God’s rule, so should we, boldly and without fear.

God Is Worthy of Praise

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
    break forth into joyous song and sing praises!
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
    with the lyre and the sound of melody!
With trumpets and the sound of the shofar
    make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord! (Tehillim/Psalms 98:4-6)

The shofar reminds us that God is worth celebrating. We make a big deal over far lesser things. So let us make some joyful noise about God!

The Voice of the Prophet: We Need To Speak Up More

“Cry aloud; do not hold back;
    lift up your voice like a shofar;
declare to my people their transgression
    to the house of Jacob their sins. (Isaiah 58:1)

As the voice of the prophet is clear and distinct, the shofar encourages us to not hold back, but to speak up for God and his ways, clearly and unashamedly.

God’s Alarm: It’s Time To Wake Up

Blow a shofar in Zion;
    sound an alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
    for the day of the Lord is coming; it is near (Joel 2:1)

The shofar was used as a practical device to get people’s attention. In this passage it is as an alarm to warn God’s people of his coming judgement. One of the great Jewish thinkers of all time was Moses Maimonides. He was a rabbi, physician, and philosopher in Morocco and Egypt, who lived between 1135 and 1204 AD. What he said with regard to what people should think of as the shofar is blown goes along with this:

Wake up, wake up, sleepers from your sleep, and awake slumberers from your slumber. Search your deeds, repent, and remember your Creator.

Some of you might catch how these words sound similar to other words written long before Maimonides, from the New Covenant Writings:

“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and [Messiah] will shine on you.” Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. (Ephesians 5:14-16)

The shofar, God’s alarm clock, is to alert us as to the nature of the times in which we live. It is so easy to allow cynicism and apathy to lull us to sleep. It’s much easier to go along with the flow, submitting to the pressures of the culture, than to pursue the things of God day by day. As I write this, the world remembers the September 11, 2001 tragedy, which many at the time said was a “wake up call.” But how many of those same people hit the alarm and drifted off to sleep again. Since then the world has experienced alarm after alarm. Eventually it will be too late. Which brings us to the next one.

The Last Shofar: The Coming of the Lord

Then the Lord will appear over them,
    and his arrow will go forth like lightning;
the Lord God will sound the shofar
    and will march forth in the whirlwinds of the south. (Zechariah 9:14)

The day will come, when God himself will blow the shofar to signal the return of Messiah to call creation to account, and judge the world. No more opportunities to go back to sleep. No more chances. This is reiterated in the New Covenant Writings. Since it was originally written in Greek, we don’t know if it is referencing a trumpet or a horn, but the connection with the shofar is clear as is the point it makes:

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:50-55)

As the final blast marks the end of life as we know it, it also signals the beginning of the age to come, when death and all its effects will be no more. For some it will be a time of absolute dread, but for others the greatest moment of our lives. How can you be assured of eternal life? Here too, the shofar shows the way.

Substitution: Life for Life

He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns.  And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” (Bereshit/Genesis 22:12-14)

The Hebrew word here is not actually shofar, but a synonym, “keren.” This reference from the first book of the Bible is foundational for everything else the shofar reminds us of. God’s requirement for the offering of Abraham’s son Isaac was fulfilled through the provision of a ram. All through Scripture the sacrificial system, as established by God, reminded the people that an offering of an innocent animal was a satisfactory substitute for sin. While this is foreign to most of us today, it is God’s way, all the while pointing the people of Israel to the perfect and final offering of the Messiah on our behalf. His life was accepted in place of ours, so that all who trust in him would live forever. It is no coincidence that among all the things that happened to him during his unjust arrest, trial, and execution that he was mocked by the Roman soldiers by their placing a crown of thorns on his head. Yeshua, like the ram of Abraham’s day, found himself caught in a thicket, and offered in our place, so like Isaac, we too may go free.

The shofar gives us so much to think about, but it is all meaningless unless we are in right relationship with God. By accepting Yeshua as God’s provision, everything else becomes clear. The shofar sound not only will reverberate in our ears, but the fullness of its meaning will find its way into our hearts.

Listen to the shofar now:

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Live Long and Prosper

 

For the week of September 12, 2015 / 28 Elul 5775VulcanSalute01_480

Nizzavim
Torah: Devarim/ Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9

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The LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground. For the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers, when you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law, when you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Devarim/ Deuteronomy 30:9-10)

You may recognize the title of this week’s message as the familiar salute of Mr. Spock, the half human/half alien from the widely popular TV and movie series, “Star Trek.” The hand gesture used by the actor, the late Leonard Nimoy was derived from his own Jewish background as used by the cohanim (English: priests) as a blessing in the synagogue. While “live long and prosper” are not exactly the words spoken, they certainly sum up God’s own desire to make his people “abundantly prosperous.”

But what constitutes being abundantly prosperous? What may come to your mind is likely very different from the intention of the Torah here. Perhaps to you prosperity is an economic state whereby no matter how much you need or want, you always have extra. It’s a sense that whatever happens, there is always more financial resources to draw on. The biblical understanding of prosperity is very different. It’s having enough for yourself and those dependent on you, plus a little more to share with those in need (see Proverbs 30:7-9; 1 Timothy 5:8, 6:6-10; Hebrew 13:16).

Biblical prosperity is not about how much stuff you have or the size of your bank balance. You could have an enormous amount of goods and money, but still not really be living well. The prosperity here refers specifically to “the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground.” You could have all the money in the world, but unless living things thrive, both human and animal, and there is sufficient nutritious food to eat, we are not really living. Societies that only focus on self and do not adequately work towards the emergence and thriving of future generations will die. So ultimately prosperity is not about me and what I have, but the blessing of provision for the furthering of God’s creation long-term.

What will it take, then, to “live long and prosper”? Our passage tells us, “When you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law (Torah), when you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” It’s tragic that there is so much misunderstanding regarding a command such as this. For some it is clouded by humanly derived traditions that add or replace God’s expressed intentions. Others confuse godly directives with a misguided system that bases God’s acceptance on performance. The whole Bible understands true godliness as an outcome of sincere trust in God. Those who are truly faithful to him have a heart to obey him in every way. To disregard God’s ways leads to anything but prosperity.

God wants us to live a full and abundant life (see John 10:10). But in order to have the quality of life he desires, we need to embrace his version of what life is really all about. Redefining biblical prosperity along the lines of greed and covetousness undermines the abundance that God has for us. Similarly claiming fairy-dust notions of grace that disregards God’s directives in Scripture may numb the effects of deception for a time, but in the end profits absolutely nothing.

However, if we embrace God’s version of what prosperity actually is and diligently follow his ways as outlined in Scripture, then we will indeed thrive both in this life and in the age to come forever.

Live long and prosper!

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Shout!

Say it and say it and say it some more!

For the week of September 5, 2015 / 21 Elul 5775

Modern Nablus (ancient Shechem)

Ki Tavo
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8
Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1-22

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And Moses commanded the people on the same day, saying, “These shall stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the people, when you have crossed over the Jordan: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin; and these shall stand on Mount Ebal to curse: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali.” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 27:11-13)

In this week’s Torah portion we read how Moses instructed the people regarding what might seem to us to be an unusual ceremony. The whole nation was to gather on the two mountains of Gerizim and Ebal near Shechem (modern Nablus), a more or less central location in ancient Israel. Half the nation was to stand on one mountain, the other half on the other. Those on Gerizim were to call out blessings, those on Ebal, curses. That this was indeed done later on is recorded in Joshua 8:33.

An unusual ceremony, but perhaps how it functioned in the life of the culture at that time is not as unusual as we might think. But before we look at that, let’s see what blessings and curses are about. “To bless” is to fill something with the potential of life. When someone is blessed, they thrive and become a channel of life to others. “To curse” is to remove life. When someone is cursed, they begin to die, often causing destruction along the way. Pronouncing blessings and curses bring to the consciousness of people an awareness of the reality of that which is blessed or cursed.

Many ancient peoples believed that their lives were subject to the influences, even whims, of spiritual forces. Myths and legends arose that were these cultures’ best guesses at trying to explain how it all worked. This resulted in various customs that governed life as people sought to identify which activities were beneficial, leading to blessing, and those which were not, leading to curses.

But due to the gift of the Torah, we don’t need to guess. For it, along with the rest of the Bible, is God’s revealed truth. As the designer of life, the Master of the Universe not only knows what is beneficial for his creation, he has shared that information with us through the Scriptures.

Still, the truth regarding blessings and curses sitting on the pages of the Bible won’t do any good unless it is effectively communicated to others. This is what was going on at the mountains of Gerizim and Ebal. The community of Israel needed to hear these important life truths in this dramatic way. Dramatic, but as I mentioned at the start, not necessarily unusual, because this kind of communication is exactly what most of us are exposed to each and every day of our lives. All around us, over and over again, the culture shouts out blessings and curses. Through all sorts of ways, whether it be TV, the Internet, school, friends, family, and teachers we are being bombarded by someone’s take on what constitutes what is it that effects our lives for good and ill. “This will make you happy; that will cause you harm; this will give you success; that route is a dead end;” and on and on it goes. The format used may not seem like Gerizim and Ebal, and the words are definitely different. But how it works is the same. The more we are bombarded by society’s definitions of blessing and curses, the more people tend to embrace them.

That’s why those who have been entrusted with God’s Truth as revealed in Scripture need to boldly shout out God’s truth for everyone to hear. If you truly believe what God says in the Bible, you need to share it with everyone everywhere. Don’t be intimidated by the opinions of others. God’s Word is true, not because you believe it is, but because it is God’s Word. Don’t allow your friends, neighbors, and co-workers to be victims of the best guesses of social commentators, misinformed philosophers, and market manipulators. Find a mountain, figuratively of course, and unapologetically proclaim God’s blessings and curses.

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Help Yourself!

The Torah calls for a whole new level of sharing.

For the week of August 29, 2015 / 14 Elul 5775

Welcome01_484

Ki Teze
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10

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If you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in your bag. If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 23:25-26; English: 23:24-25)

There are many special things about being part of God’s family. It’s actually similar to being part of a natural family. In the same way you don’t get to pick your relatives, so when you are part of the community of Yeshua followers, you don’t have a say with regard to who your spiritual brothers and sisters are. This experience has been full of delightful surprises as well as some interesting challenges. Through the years we have had a great many people in our home. This includes those times when we hosted regular meetings. We felt that being genuinely hospitable meant telling people, “Make yourself at home!” At first, we didn’t realize that being at home meant different things to different people. I think what we meant to say was, “Make yourself at home according to our understanding of home.”

An incident stays with me, not because it was a big deal, it wasn’t; but because it was different from anything I was used to. The people involved were not fellow believers, but the point is the same, as you will see. I guess in my first twenty years of life I had little contact with other cultures. It was the summer of 1977. I was working at a camp, and I became friends with one of the few people working there who was from another country. After camp was over, his girlfriend had come to town and they were both over at my mother’s place where I was still living at the time. We were in our kitchen talking, and then all of a sudden the girlfriend, whom my mother and I had just met, without asking, took a glass, poured herself some water from the tap, and started drinking. Did I mention she didn’t ask first? You probably don’t believe me, but it’s true. This person, almost a total stranger, was making herself at home. And in this case, I don’t think we had told her to “make herself at home.” But she did anyway! I couldn’t believe it.

I wouldn’t tell you this story if I didn’t think that the only person looking bad was me. It’s not as if she did anything truly wrong. It’s that it was different. And if by any chance my telling this story helps me find these people again, that would be a real bonus.

I had been pondering the passage I read at the beginning when I remembered of that story. Helping herself to water after just a few minutes of being in our home reflects an understanding of personal property that this passage may be seeking to communicate.

I don’t know about you, but the taking of grain or fruit from my field (if I owned one) without asking sounds to me like stealing. The Torah is clear about land ownership and property boundaries. It’s not as if everybody owns everybody else’s land. On the contrary, this passage is clear that while people could help themselves to a limited amount of produce, they were not to harvest another person’s crops. That would indeed be stealing. But if that is stealing, why isn’t taking small amounts stealing?

I can’t say for sure, because neither the passage nor its immediate context tell us. Be that as it may, we might be able to deduce an answer from how God through the Torah developed the community of ancient Israel. First, God always retained ownership of the land. We read: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Vayikra/Leviticus 25:23). So while the people possessed land on the basis of tribal inheritance, they were not owners in an absolute sense. Therefore the blessings derived from cultivating the land were not so much theirs as their responsibility, in other words they were stewards of it. How to distribute produce, therefore, was not ultimately theirs to decide, but God’s. The feeding of their own families and the trading out of their bounty for other goods and services were certainly included in God’s economy, but so was the obligation not to completely exploit their land for themselves, but rather to leave for the poor the corners of their fields and the gleanings of their harvest (see Vayikra/Leviticus 23:22). Also included was the right of others to help themselves.

Perhaps the girlfriend consciously or unconsciously understood that she didn’t need permission to help herself that day. She did nothing to undermine our household water supply. We had water onsite, she was thirsty, and you know the rest of the story. And she didn’t keep the glass, by the way.

In the moment I felt violated, but knowing what I know now, I shouldn’t have. While not in any way condoning the type of forced sharing that is a part of some political ideologies, maybe we don’t own what we have in exactly the way we have tended to think. Once we understand property ownership from God’s perspective, perhaps we should be much less controlling and tight fisted as some of us have been, and allow others to be free to help themselves.

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Fruit Trees

You may be cutting down your trees to spite your life.

For the week of August 22, 2015 / 7 Elul 5775

Fruit Trees

Shoftim
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12

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When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you? Only the trees that you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, that you may build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 20:19-20)

This week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion) is full of wisdom regarding justice, appropriate forms of worship; laws specific to kings; and the great passage anticipating prophets in general, the Messiah in particular. Among all these God-inspired rules and regulations is a prohibition against cutting down fruit trees in time of war. The reason is pretty straightforward: fruit trees provide food. If you cut them down, you forgo a necessary food source. Without food, people die. Can’t win wars that way. And even if you do, it might be a very long time, if ever, before new fruit trees can be planted and bear fruit again. You can cut down non-fruit-bearing trees, but not the fruit trees.

That makes sense doesn’t it? Makes sense, but it may not be that obvious at the time. Human nature, being what it is, when we are in the situation, it is so easy to get completely focused on the goal at hand – which in this case is the need to win a battle through the technology of siegeworks -that the obvious may not be so obvious after all. In the moment, I suspect no one would seriously consider cutting down all the fruit trees at once. But what’s wrong with one or two? We can eat the fruit off of them, their wood is good, and they’ll be more than enough fruit trees left over. But once we justify the cutting down of a few, the next thing we know it’s a few more, and a few more until they are all gone. God understands us better than we do ourselves.

But what is it that drives this kind of near-sighted compulsion? Note it’s not that it is a sin to ever cut down a fruit tree as if they themselves are sacred. A healthy orchard demands good husbandry techniques, necessitating keeping it from becoming too dense, thus creating the need to cut down a tree here or there. The commandment is specific to the using of their wood for military advantage. God deemed such a directive essential, because he knows what happens to us when we are focused on a goal, especially in dire situations such as a war. In fact, there’s no telling what we might do when facing any kind of dire situation – or situations not that dire, just dire to us. We might even undermine our own survival in the pursuit of our goals.

How many “fruit trees” are we cutting down in the pursuit of the things we want? We are willing to abuse the sources of life that God has provided in an attempt to resolve our problems and pursue our desires. We abuse loved ones to satisfy ourselves in the moment. We poison the environment because we give preference to our current generation over future ones. We kill off our offspring in the womb because they may cramp our lifestyle. Fruit trees all of them! Cut them down! Use them up now! Do what it takes to please ourselves even if it is at our own expense! And that’s what we fail to understand about this. Sure, we should be concerned about our loved ones, the environment, and the preborn for their own sake. Absolutely! But can’t we see what we are doing? As we cut our fruit trees down, all the while thinking we are contributing to our own welfare and success, we are actually undermining our own survival! Whatever might be gained in the moment is nothing compared to what we lose in the long run.

This may be more difficult to realize in our day compared to that of Moses. For compared to ancient Israel, we have so much more stuff, so many more distractions. The result is that we fail to recognize how poor we really are. We don’t even know that we suffer from a lack of nourishing life fruit as we become more and more self-focused in the midst of a cynical meaningless world.

It doesn’t need to be like this though. God is a God of restoration. More than that! He is a God of resurrection. The Scriptures teach that the power that raised Yeshua from death is at work in his followers (see Ephesians 1:15-23). Whatever fruit trees we have cut down can be brought back to life by trusting in the Messiah. The life of God is so powerful, you would be amazed at what he can do once we stop destroying the fruit trees he has provided and look to him to resurrect the dead.

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Exclusivity

 

For the week of August 15, 2015 / 30 Av 5775Exclusivity

Re’eh
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17;
Bemidbar/Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11-55:5; Isaiah 66:1-24

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You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. (Devarim/ Deuteronomy 12:31)

Many people seem to be uncomfortable with idea that God places limitations on how he is to be worshiped. Actually the only kind of spirituality that the power brokers of Western societies approve of today is one that views God as anything you want him to be, and you also have to regard everyone else’s view of God as equally valid to yours. Don’t confuse this way of thinking with tolerance. For if your view is that there is only one God, and that God is particular about how humans are to relate to him, your view is anything but tolerated.

Please don’t be offended, but I find the rejection of this kind of God, which happens to be what constitutes the biblical one, bizarre. That people reject the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not in itself strange. That’s been going on since the Garden of Eden. It’s that the reason for rejecting him is his claim to exclusivity. That exclusivity is a problem makes no sense. If God was nothing more than an extension of human imagination, expressed historically through traditions, I could understand why some people would find exclusivity distasteful. To insist that one’s view of God is not only preferable but the only view, would be the worst kind of arrogant presumption. But if there really are powerful spiritual forces beyond what’s going on in our heads, why wouldn’t or couldn’t those forces be defined based on who or what they really are, rather than our perceptions of them? If they really exist, then they are not whatever we perceive them to be; they are what they are. The next step would be to determine their true identity and nature. This then takes us back to the kind of discussion about God and spiritual things that most people for most of history have had: Is there really a God? If so, can he be known? And so on. That approach is intellectually honest, but rejecting the exclusivity of the biblical God on the basis of his exclusivity alone is confused, misguided, or outright dishonest.

How can I say that? Look around. We live in an exclusively oriented universe. Things are the way they are. Yes, it is true that people have different and conflicting perspectives, but they are not all equally valid. Some opinions are correct, some are partly so, and some are absolutely wrong. Sometimes someone thinks they have a complete insight on something, when they just have a piece of the puzzle, but that people may have an overblown opinion doesn’t make all other opinions equally correct. We do need to learn from each other, but pretending that truth is what you make it to be is nonsense.

For example, there may be more than one way to make an airplane, but there are many more wrong ways. And of the right ways, they must be built based on sound aeronautical principles or else they won’t fly, at least not for long. I wouldn’t want to get in an airplane built by a manufacturer who applies the same kind of “to-each-his-own” principles to airplane design as some people apply to spirituality. Contrary to popular thought the universe is not the product of meaningless, randomization, but purposeful design. Everywhere you look we find complex systems that work the way they do, because they are designed to work that way. Why would spiritual forces be any different?

You know the saying “all roads lead to Rome.” You know that’s not true, don’t you? Only the roads that lead to Rome do. The other roads take you somewhere else. Yeshua said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). You can try getting to the real and true God any other way besides the Messiah, but you won’t get there.

This is why the people of Israel were told by God through Moses not to attempt to worship him on their own terms. God is who God is. He instructs us as to how we are to relate to him. To reject that notion may actually lead to a society that sacrifices its children on the altar of personal preference.

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