Serious Consequences

For the week of April 10, 2021 / 28 Nisan 5781

Business man looking at his phone while stepping off a cliff

Shemini
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47
Haftarah: 2 Samuel 6:1 – 7:17

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And David and all the house of Israel were celebrating before the LORD, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God. (2 Samuel 6:5-7)

The connection between this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion) and its associated haftarah (excerpt from the Prophets) is very clear. The parsha includes the death of two of Aaron’s sons for their inappropriate offering. The haftarah also includes a death due to a mishandling of one of God’s most specially set-aside objects. It was during David’s first attempt to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. When the cart upon which it was being transported tipped, a man by the name of Uzzah attempted to stabilize it, and God struck him dead as a result.

The Torah incident doesn’t provide us with the specifics as to what Aaron’s sons did wrong. All we know is that it was, in Hebrew “zur” (“strange” or “unauthorized”); in other words, outside of that which was prescribed. The context suggests they may have been drunk. We don’t know if that in itself was what was deemed unacceptable and deserving of death, or if drinking led them to make a bad decision.

In the case of the Haftarah, however, the reason for the extreme result is much clearer. David had directed his people to transport the Ark in an unauthorized way. Instead of following the Torah protocol of it being carried with poles by Levites, they had it carried on an ox cart. We see the acknowledgement of this error sometime later when they resumed the plan; this time in keeping with Torah. The reason for the change of transport method is more explicit in the parallel passage found in 1 Divrei Ha-Yamim/1 Chronicles 15:1-2.

These are two examples of Bible stories that fall into my “don’t like it” category. I am not alone. Aaron who lost his two sons was understandably grieved, while David was upset and wouldn’t continue the journey with the Ark until sometime later. Yet, as I struggle with these and other unpleasant incidents in Scripture, I realize that life is full of things that I don’t like.

I have heard statements such as “I could never believe in a god who…”, referencing stories like these. It seems to me that such sentiments are loaded with all sorts of additional assumptions. There is likely little to no understanding as to the reasons behind such extreme consequences. Plus, little to no acknowledgement or understanding of God’s complex nature, purposes, and plans that could provide necessary context for such serious consequences.

Whatever one’s relationship is to the God of the Bible, life is full of serious consequences. I am aware that much of such harshness is inexplicable. But, at the same time, how much trouble have we gotten ourselves into because we haven’t taken life as seriously as we should? At times this ignorance is at an individual level as was in the case of Aaron’s sons. It appears they themselves should have known better. In Uzzah’s case, he suffered due to the leadership’s irresponsible handling of the situation.

We could learn to accept the way the world he made works or choose to reject the God who created such an environment for human beings. More and more people insist that we need a type of freedom that ignores the consequences of our actions. Our government may protect and/or mandate all sorts of preferences and/or lifestyles. But that will never change the way things actually work. Not doing things God’s way has serious consequences.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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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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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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God’s Instruments

For the week of January 30, 2021 / 17 Shevat 5781

Illustration of Moses' parting the Red Sea

Beshalach
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 13:17-17:16
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 4:4-5:31

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The LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward. Lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go through the sea on dry ground. (Shemot/Exodus 14:15-16)

The Bible is a book (a collection of books actually) about God. While it is historically sound, it is not a history book. It contains a great assortment of personal stories, but it’s not a biography. It is full of profound insight into human behavior; yet it is neither a psychology book nor is it a self-help book. The greatest contribution of the Bible is that it informs us as to the character, workings, and intentions of God. That said, the Bible isn’t about God in the sense that it reveals him to the reader at the expense of anything else. Rather, he is revealed to us through demonstrating his desire to work in and through his creation, particularly human beings.

This is clear from the very beginning as God entrusted our first parents with the responsibility of caring for Planet Earth. Their failure to do so didn’t cancel out humanity’s essential role in his plan. On the contrary, the Bible’s story is about God’s working to restore his mandate to rule the earth though humans under his direction.

The relationship of God to his creation as manifest through people was never designed to be one where God would leave orders and then take off for some far away disconnected realm. Rather, his intentions were for an intimate ongoing, communicative relationship with us. The distance from God that people have known all too well was due to Adam and Eve’s dismissal of that relationship. Despite the unintended distance that resulted, God continued to seek to re-establish intimacy with us.

The image of God unique to human beings is fundamentally expressed in our role as God’s representatives on earth. This is why, apart from a few exceptions, what God does on earth he does through people. We see this through the story of God’s rescue of his people, Israel, from Egypt. God didn’t directly speak to Pharaoh; he chose Moses to do it. Most of the ten plagues came about in response to Moses’ or Aaron’s stretching out their hands along with Moses’ staff. This happens again in this week’s parsha as God directed Moses, “Lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go through the sea on dry ground” (Shemot/Exodus 14:16).

There is no sense whatsoever that Moses, Aaron, or the staff, possessed magical powers. It was not as if they could wield it at will as if it were a divinely infused weapon. God initiated these events. God caused these events. God directed Moses and Aaron to use the staff as he worked through their obedience to him. This demonstrates the dynamics of relationship that he established from the beginning as he chose human beings as his instruments of blessing for the sake of the creation.

The question many are afraid to consider is what would have happened had Moses and Aaron not done their part. We can’t know what would have happened, since we only have what did happen. What we do know, however, is what happens when people disobey God. Things go very wrong. Yet, I have the impression we assume God will always have his way, whether or not people obey him. I agree, but only in an ultimate sense. God’s overall purposes will be accomplished, but along the way, the outworking of God’s plan is fraught with human irresponsibility, foolishness, laziness, distractedness, ignorance, stubbornness, and outright disobedience. And while God uses everything, good and bad, to meet his desired ends, so much unnecessary damage is done along the way by our bad behavior. That we cannot thwart God’s ultimate purpose is no excuse for mismanaging our lives.

I don’t like thinking about how I have failed to meet my God-given responsibilities be it in small or big ways. But I need to take this seriously. I am aware that some of us have to be careful not to be obsessed with self-focus in the name of serving God. Thankfully, God never intended that you and I should seek to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. But you and I can (must) give ourselves to those things God wants me and you to do. It may not be at the level of parting the Red Sea. But whatever it is, God wants us to be his instruments.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version 

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Escape to Reality

For the week of January 23, 2021 / 10 Shevat 5781

Child pretending to be a "Gruffalo."

Bo
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13-28

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And when in time to come your son asks you, “What does this mean?” you shall say to him, “By a strong hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” (Shemot/Exodus 13:14)

The other day, I happened upon a local school board promotional ad on a bus shelter that read, “Helping your child find out what they want to be. Even if it’s a Gruffalo.” If you don’t know what a Gruffalo is, as I didn’t, it is a character in the very popular (over 13 million copies sold), award-winning illustrated children’s book, entitled, “The Gruffalo” from the UK. It has been made into plays performed on both Broadway and London’s West End as well as a short, animated film nominated for an Academy Award and a BAFTA.

The main character of the book is not the Gruffalo, but a mouse, who, as he walks in the woods, is confronted by several animals. When, in turn, each animal expresses their desire to eat the mouse, the mouse escapes by fabricating an imaginary horrific beast – a Gruffalo – whose food preference happens to be whatever animal is threatening the mouse at the time. Surprisingly (to me at least), they believe him and run away in terror. Then to the mouse’s own surprise, he comes upon an actual Gruffalo, who is exactly as he portrayed him. The Gruffalo’s favorite food is actually mouse. But the mouse says he can prove that he himself is the scariest creature in the woods, if the Gruffalo would walk behind him as they visit the other creatures. The Gruffalo is so affected by the creatures’ frightened reactions, he becomes afraid of the mouse and runs away.

I think it’s wonderful when parents and educators strive to help children discover their true potential. I also think that encouraging children’s imaginations is key to this. Imagination enables human beings to envision what could be when the state of our lives appears otherwise. Perhaps the philosophy behind this promotion is based on the belief that human potential is based on placing no limits whatsoever upon a child’s imagination.

We have been hearing a version of this for a long time. It’s usually through movies that make assertions such as “You can be whatever you want to be as long as you put your mind to it.” There is some truth in this. God has given human beings the ability to overcome great obstacles. Working hard at something and not giving up often results in great accomplishments. But we can’t be anything we want. Just about anyone can learn how to sing, for example, but not everyone can achieve a performance standard.

The school board promotion takes this already extreme idea even further, however. At first glance, it sounds as if they are simply committed to do whatever it takes to help your child achieve their goals no matter what they may be. This might create enough positive feelings in a parent to prod them to register their child for kindergarten. I doubt that there are many parents thinking, “Finally an education system that’s going to help my child become a Gruffalo!” Still, this kind of ad could not be tolerated without a certain sentiment taking hold in our society. That sentiment is the physical world we live in, including our very bodies, is irrelevant to who we are as people. The material world; with its laws, properties, and other people; stifles our potential. Our imaginations enable us to break free from the material world’s control. Escaping from reality is the new salvation. We are mice deluding ourselves and others to control our lives with no repercussions, or so it seems.

In contrast we have another tale. A true story this time of a people oppressed by a world power. They had potential they had lost touch with. God sent Moses and Aaron to rekindle their collective imagination. It wasn’t easy to dream of a better life. Things quickly went from bad to worse at first, but eventually their oppression was miraculously lifted, and they began their journey to a new life.

In the not-so-distant past, the Gruffalo would have eaten the mouse. His manipulative concoction would have been his demise. Not so today. We have deluded ourselves into thinking that our illusions of self and life will set us free from the overbearing burdens of reality. We don’t want to accept that our delusions will eventually swallow us.

This is not to say that we, like the mouse or like the people of Israel, aren’t in trouble. We are. The world oppresses us, preventing us from being what we are meant to be. Yet, it won’t be fantasy that saves us. We cannot escape reality by becoming Gruffalos. Instead, with God’s help, like the people of Israel, we can escape to the reality of God’s will for our lives.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version 

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