The Motions

For the week of March 23, 2019 / 16 Adar II 5779

Blurred people moving in different directions

Zav
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36 (English 6:8 – 8:36)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 7:21 – 8:3; 9:22-23 (English 7:21 – 8:3; 9:23-24)

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For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them: “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.” (Jeremiah 7:22-23)

Why would God make it sound as if he didn’t say something that he so clearly said? Why would he say that he didn’t speak to the people of Israel about sacrifices when so much of the content of his instructions was about just that? The sacrificial system was central to the life of the community and makes up a large percentage of what he revealed to Moses for the nation.

In terms of the chronology of events, it’s true that sacrifice was not the first item on God’s revelatory list for the people, though neither were the words “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people.” Could it be that Jeremiah was referring to an alternate understanding of early Israelite history that doesn’t include the sacrificial system? That’s the sort of thinking I have run into from some scholars. It’s not that I don’t appreciate high-level scholarship – far from it – as I have been so blessed by some people of deep learning. Still, once you allow yourself to become suspicious of the integrity of the biblical text, it’s simple to dismantle it in so many ways. Personally, I don’t have much respect for theories that claim there were all sorts of disparate sources that were eventually sewn together, resulting in the Scriptures we have today. If there are ever found ancient manuscript evidence to back up such claims, I would give such an idea some consideration, but there aren’t.

Sensitive readers of Scripture are able to pick up on God’s intentions found within his Word without resorting to complex theories. The point God is making in this particular example from Jeremiah should be clear. Of course God spoke about sacrifices to his people following the Exodus. The extreme statement that sounds as if God was silent on sacrifices contrasted with his word about obeying him is purposely designed to make a strong point. There’s something about the nature of sacrifice that leads people to confuse their priorities. This tendency is common to all external ritualistic observances. Going through the motions of a ritual or other outward expression without possessing the necessary internal heart attitude is something we can all slip into.

We express words of appreciation for people we don’t appreciate. We give them gifts, not out of love and generosity, but because we feel obliged or want to get something from them. We recite formal or not-so-formal creeds, not as a passionate expression of faith, but to assert membership in the group. And, if you can believe it, we sing worship songs and pray without giving God attention, not to mention the honor, he deserves.

The people of Israel in Jeremiah’s day were simply going through the motions. Even though they were fulfilling God’s expressed requirements, their hearts were so far removed from what they were doing, it was if they weren’t doing it at all. If this is what sacrifice is, then God said nothing about sacrifice in the first place.

Just going through the motions means absolutely nothing to God. This is not to say that every single thing we do in his name must be fully thought out to make sure that every ounce of our being is completely in synch with God’s desired intentions. If we are honest, we all struggle with at least some level of hypocrisy and mixed motive. Yet if we fail to have some genuine heart inclination towards God, our supposed acts of worship are useless or worse.

It’s so easy to get caught up in going through the motions. Genuine heart-felt earnestness becomes distracted by externals when we lose focus. The things that he himself requires can take the place of what he is actually saying when we stop paying attention to his voice.

Thankfully, it’s never too late to change. Once we realize that doing activities that look good and godly, while lacking authentic God-focus, mean nothing to him, then we are in a place to hear again what he is actually calling us to do. He may even direct us back to do the very things we have been doing all along. Only now they will be of a nature that he truly desires.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live (Special Purim Edition)

This year, Purim (the Festival of Esther) begins Wednesday evening, March 20. On the next edition of TorahBytes Live Alan Gilman will tie in some Purim reflections with a follow-up to this week’s message  (The Motions). This special Purim edition of TorahBytes Live will be live streamed Wednesday, March 20 at 2 p.m. Eastern Time. Recorded version will be available immediately following.

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Rule of Law

For the week of March 16, 2019 / 9 Adar II 5779

Collection of justice symbols: balance, books, gavel

Vayikra & Zakhor
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26 (English 1:1 – 6:7) & D’varim/Deuteronomy 25:17-19
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 15:2-34

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When a leader sins, doing unintentionally any one of all the things that by the commandments of the LORD his God ought not to be done, and realizes his guilt, or the sin which he has committed is made known to him, he shall bring as his offering a goat, a male without blemish and shall lay his hand on the head of the goat and kill it in the place where they kill the burnt offering before the LORD; it is a sin offering. (Vayikra/Leviticus 4:22-24)

It is difficult to overstate the remarkable nature of the Torah. I am not referring to the more sensational parts such as miracles. I am aware that miracles and other references to God, angels, etc. seem farfetched to many, but in its day, to include supernatural stories, whether portrayed as fact or fiction, would have been expected. There are actually other aspects that are far more remarkable given the Torah’s time period’s psychological, religious, relational, economic, and political perspectives within or outside Israelite society. Living in the 21st century and influenced as many of us are by a western way of thinking, we easily miss Scripture’s overwhelmingly astounding insight.

One truly remarkable example of an approach to life and society unheard of then, and increasingly forgotten today, is what is called “the rule of law.” When God gave the Torah to Israel through Moses at Mt. Sinai, he established a new kind of society. The Torah was not to be a mysterious, impossible-to-understand, spiritual text under the control of a religious elite, who exclusively held the interpretive key. While teachers would have their role to play, it was to be accessible to everyone. Not only that, its directives were to be adhered to by all regardless of role or status. Peasants, priests, and royalty were all governed equally by this law. As we see in the quoted passage from this week’s parsha (English: weekly Torah reading portion), leaders, like everyone else, were expected to publicly own up when they did wrong.

Typically, the elite in ancient societies were regarded as having a special in with God or the gods. These societies claimed to be theocratic (i.e. ruled by God), when they were, in fact, aristocratic (meaning, “rule of the best” or so-called best). On the other hand, God established through Torah a system whereby the elites of Israel (the priestly and royal classes) weren’t allotted special privileges. Instead Torah provided objective standards for everyone to live under and to be judged by equally. No exceptions.

The contemporary secular society, which minimizes, if not dismisses altogether, references to religion and divine power, still tends toward aristocracy, as we are ruled by some sort of elite. We may claim to adhere to the rule of law, but whenever politicians and other power brokers conduct themselves by a different standard for whatever reason, be it society’s betterment for the sake of political, economic, or social stability, we are no longer a true democracy under the rule of law.

God’s Torah isn’t an arbitrary set of values and principles imposed on ancient Israel for some highfalutin religious reasons. Apart from certain elements designed for Israel in particular at that time, Torah is the revelation of how life really works. That includes how people and our leaders are to live in relation to the law. Double standards which allow the rich and the powerful to avoid justice will eventually destroy them and the society that bestows on them special status.

A dismal end is not inevitable, however. This same parsha reminds us that when leaders, like anyone else, honestly and publicly confess their wrongs along with the appropriate sacrifice, they will be forgiven. God didn’t expect moral perfection. Instead he made a way to maintain a stable and prosperous society through the possibility of forgiveness. As then, so today, forgiveness is available. If our leaders would come clean about their wrongdoings rather than living by a different standard from everyone else, and accept the Messiah’s sacrifice on their behalf, our cities, regions, and countries would be blessed.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

Following up this week’s message, Alan Gilman discusses the place of God’s law (Torah) in our lives today. This edition of TorahBytes Live will be live streamed Thursday, March 14 at 2 p.m. Eastern Time. Recorded version will be available immediately following.

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Let Him In

For the week of March 9, 2019 / 2 Adar II 5779

Rays of light through the open white door on orange wall

Pekudei
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 38:21 – 40:38
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 7:40-50

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Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. (Shemot/Exodus 40:34)

After many chapters containing intricate details of every aspect of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle), it was finally finished. It must have been really something for a nation of former slaves to have completed their first building project that was for themselves. It was for God, of course. But it was also, in a very real sense, their own. Located in the center of their community, Israel now had a tangible expression of their unique peoplehood and faith.

However satisfying the Mishkan was or impressive it was to see, nothing can compare to what happened next. The pillar of cloud and fire, which was a physical manifestation of God himself, filled it. In some real way God himself took up residence in his house. The “everywhere” God localized his presence in the midst of the people of Israel.

What would the Mishkan be without God inside it? Since it was built under his direction and according to his instructions, it was a legitimate place of true worship. The cohanim (English: priests), who were responsible for the sacrifices and the maintenance of the inner buildings, and Levi’im (English: Levites), who assisted them, were sanctioned by God through Moses. As long as they were faithful to the Mishkan’s Torah regulations, their activities would be pleasing to God and of benefit to the people. The understanding of God reflected by the Mishkan and its proceedings would proclaim the truth of God, his word, and his people.

So, what difference did his localized presence make?  It might surprise you if I don’t say “everything.” It’s not “everything” due to its legitimacy and the benefits I briefly tried to describe. But it is still a really big difference. The presence of God within the Mishkan allowed the people to go beyond good and true concepts of God to encountering him personally.

This personal dynamic is key to genuinely experiencing God. I wonder how much well-intentioned believers are content with a life that is more akin to the Mishkan without God’s presence. Most things in our lives appear to be in order. We believe the right things. We go through all the right motions. We avoid bad stuff (at least most of the time). But, if we are honest, God remains a concept; there’s no personal dynamic. God is around certainly, but he isn’t right here, not to mention inside us.

I know there’s lots of controversy about what the New Covenant Writings refer to as being filled with the Holy Spirit. Much of that controversy is wrapped up in people’s attempt to explain and formulize the personal dynamic of God’s presence in the life of the believer. Forget the controversy for a second. Is our experience of God supposed to be like the Mishkan without God? The New Covenant refers to us as the Temple of the Holy Spirit both corporately (1 Corinthians 3:16) and individually (1 Corinthians 6:19), because we are to be like the Mishkan with God inside.

If God isn’t in you the way he wants to be, let me offer some suggestions as to why. First, you may not truly believe in Yeshua. You may know that already, you may be lying to yourself, or others have deceived you into thinking that you are a true believer when you are not. If that’s the case, that can easily change right now. Turn from your sin and call out to God in Yeshua’s name. Second, the Bible speaks about grieving (Ephesian 4:30) the Holy Spirit. You may have come to believe in Yeshua, but your lifestyle is creating all sorts of barriers to truly experiencing him the way you should. The solution to that is the same as the first. Stop the bad behavior and turn to Yeshua. Let him direct you from there. Finally, you may have been conditioned against the work of God in your life. The Bible also speaks about quenching the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19). You have been taught to be suspicious of emotions, impressions, inklings, voices, and visions – these and other ways that God makes himself known to us personally. This one is more difficult that the other two, since it so insidious. Some people have been taught that many of the things that God is doing in your life is of the devil. Can’t do much about that until you have a major paradigm shift (completely new way of looking at life). Good news though – nothing is impossible for God. He can show you what’s right. But for that to happen, you’re going to have to let him in.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

Watch this week’s edition of TorahBytes Live (broadcast Thursday March 7, 2019 at 2 p.m. Eastern Time). In a follow up to this week’s message, Alan will discuss the importance of the personal dynamic of knowing God.

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Willing Hearts

For the week of March 2, 2019 / 25 Adar 5779

Female team leader, teacher or coach feeling satisfied looking at business audience team people or students raising hands up voting as volunteers at group meeting

Va-Yakhel & Shekalim
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 35:1 – 38:20 & 30:11-16
Haftarah: 2 Melachim/2 Kings 12:1-17 (English: 11:21 – 12:16)

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And Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whose mind the Lord had put skill, everyone whose heart stirred him up to come to do the work. (Shemot/Exodus 36:2)

What do you want to do? Have you ever thought about it? Maybe it’s all you ever think about. You may be driven by desire. Others find themselves caught in a web of obligations and responsibilities; perhaps self-imposed or imposed by others. Many of us try to balance the demands on our lives with “me time” when we get to do what we like to do. But how about for Yeshua followers? Do we ever get to do what we want? Are we not supposed to be servants of the Most High God? As servants, is considering our wants ever appropriate?

For the keeners among us, the answer is likely, “No.” But tragically, this kind of passion is often more self-driven than God-led, blinded by workaholism, not service. Try to speak to such folks about biblical principles of rest and we may be dismissed as lazy as they continue in their misguided zeal towards burn out.

Certainly as God’s servants we have obligations of all kinds. As stewards of the creation, we are responsible for all sorts of things, both general as human beings and specific to whatever roles we are called to play. Genuine love for God includes a duty component, whereby it is necessary to do all sorts of things that we may not feel like doing in the moment. But is a life of service to God completely defined by duty?

Not according to this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion). We are at the beginning of the building of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle), the semi-mobile, tent-like structure that was the precursor to the Temple. God had given the instructions and now it was necessary for it to be built. But who was going to build it? While there were certain people appointed to leadership, the workers were volunteers: (“everyone whose heart stirred him up to come to do the work”).

The great and awesome God, who spoke the universe into being didn’t twist arms. He could have, but he didn’t. The people who did the work, essential that it was, did so because they wanted to. And they wanted to without being coerced or compelled by God or anyone else.

No one was guilted into participating. This is similar to the earlier fundraising campaign to underwrite this same project. People gave or didn’t give as they wanted to (see Shemot/Exodus 35:4-9). Think of the confidence God had in the people. He knew that a sufficient number of people had generous and willing hearts, plus the practical skill to build.

This level of freedom established in the early days of the community of Israel is wonderful on its own. How many volunteer organizations have as much faith in their people as God had in his? But think how remarkable this is given the fact that they were former slaves. They had spent their whole lives forced to do what their masters dictated. They had no choice but to build cities for the king of Egypt. Yet the King of Kings offers his people a choice to build or not to build. It’s up to them. How freeing that must have been. A freedom they must have enjoyed because they responded by getting involved.

People are made by God to use the gifts and talents they have been given. People are made to respond to requests like these. They don’t need to be manipulated into doing what they don’t want to do. I can hear panic arising in the hearts of some leaders and organizers. They believe without their tactics, nothing will get done. Perhaps those things shouldn’t be done. They are likely distractions from the things God is actually calling people to do, the things they really want to do.

The Spirit of God works in the hearts of people to direct them in godly directions. This is especially the case among Yeshua followers. We don’t need human manipulation to fulfill God’s will. What we need is opportunity. Not just any opportunity but opportunities inspired by God. When God’s people are presented with God’s projects, we might find people whose hearts are stirred up, coming to do the work.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

Watch this week’s edition of TorahBytes Live (broadcasted Thursday February 28, 2019 at 2 p.m. Eastern Time). Alan will follow up this week’s message with a more in-depth discussion on tp balance responsibility and personal willingness. Recorded version will be available immediately following.

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Really?

For the week of February 23, 2019 / 18 Adar 5779

Open hand with a sample of frankincense

A sample of frankincense I was given recently.

Ki Tissa
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 30:11 – 34:35
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 18:1-39

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The LORD said to Moses, “Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part), and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy.”  (Shemot/Exodus 30:34-35)

The other day someone gave me a piece of frankincense. I’d never seen one before. I had no clue what it looked like, felt like, or smelled like. You might be an expert in aromatic resins, but I didn’t know frankincense was an aromatic resin let alone know what an aromatic resin is. But like most, if not all, of you, I have heard of frankincense. It was one of the three gifts the Magi brought to Yeshua shortly after his birth. It’s found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s first occurrence is in the passage I just quoted from the Torah. The Hebrew is l’vonah, derived from the word for white, which is apparently its color in its purest form.

When the frankincense was put in my hand, something special happened to me. As I looked at it, felt it, and smelled it, the vague and uninformed concept of frankincense became real to me. It was no longer an element in a story, albeit a true story, but a story nevertheless. It was now an object that existed in the real world – not just in my mind. In that moment, that which the Magi offered to the Lord was in my hand. A connection immediately formed between me and a two-thousand-year-old event. Even though I already believed the event, the actuality of it came rushing at me, all because I encountered a small sample.

This is similar to what I went through repeatedly when visiting Israel. I’ve read the stories over and over again. I’ve seen countless photos, but being there was something else. Standing on the shores of Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), overlooking the mountains and the valleys, being in the Judean wilderness, seeing the caves in which David hid from King Saul, beholding the Temple Mount, everything I had read and heard came into full texture and contour.

I don’t doubt the Bible stories. After all my years of grappling with Scripture, I have learned to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt. I have wondered at times why some people are so excited about discovering the remains of Noah’s Ark, for example. I know it happened. I have no need for it to be discovered. That said, archeological digs are fascinating. I loved seeing the excavation at Shiloh, where they are hoping to find some tangible evidences of the Mishkan (English: the Tabernacle). I think that would be amazing, but not because I need its existence proven to me. And yet, being there and meeting the people involved in the project was a similar experience to the frankincense.

I think I know what is so impactful about the frankincense. It’s real. I knew it was real before it was in my hand. Yet it’s existence in the real world was never truly established in my life personally. Now it is. No longer will frankincense be simply a concept. From now on, whenever I read about it, I will experience the actual object all over again. Its significance in Scripture will be enhanced by the actual object and the object will be understood through the lens of Scripture.

Experience is the connector that takes a concept and allows us to encounter it as a real thing in the real world. It exists in reality apart from our experiencing it, but its reality means little to us until we genuinely experience it for ourselves. People of faith can easily miss this. They may even resist it. For many, the primacy of faith suggests that the most important things of life are intangible items that exist in the unseen spiritual world only. Since our senses easily misguide us, faith is often leveraged to deny the real world of things. It is true that our senses can misguide us, that God’s truth through his Word is the only reliable interpretive key for life. But that doesn’t mean we live disconnected from the world around us. On the contrary. Biblical faith enables us to experience the reality of life God’s way.

If the Bible is true, then we should see evidence of that on an ongoing basis. There are real things that cannot be seen or perceived by our physical senses, such as God himself or essential events of the past (the giving of Torah, the resurrection of Yeshua, etc.). At the same time, since God is real and these events really happened, then they should affect our lives and the world in which we live in tangible ways. Whether it’s an answer to prayer, personal transformation or a piece of frankincense in my hand, we should expect to experience those things to which the Bible attests. Really.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

TorahBytes returns on Friday, February 22, 2019 at 12:15 p.m. Eastern Time. Alan will follow up this week’s message with a more in-depth discussion on how experience is the bridge between concept and reality. Recorded version will be available immediately following.

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Be the Light

For the week of February 16, 2019 / 11 Adar 5779

The siege of Jerusalem as depicted on the Arch of Titus in Rome.

The siege of Jerusalem as depicted on the Arch of Titus in Rome.

T’tzaveh
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 27:20 – 30:10
Haftarah: Ezekiel 43:10-27

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You shall command the people of Israel that they bring to you pure beaten olive oil for the light, that a lamp may regularly be set up to burn. In the tent of meeting, outside the veil that is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the LORD. It shall be a statute forever to be observed throughout their generations by the people of Israel. (Shemot/Exodus 27:20-21)

One of the most recognizable symbols of the Jewish people is the menorah, the seven-branched candelabra, intended for exclusive use within the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and later the Temple. It’s ironic that it became so recognizable, given its location, a hidden room into which only the cohanim (English: priests) were allowed to enter. The reason why we know what it looked like is because it is included in the depiction of the siege of Jerusalem on the first century Arch of Titus in Rome. Where the menorah ended up, we may never know. In spite of theories claiming items such as the Ark of the Covenant (or Testimony [see last week’s TorahBytes message]) being in safekeeping somewhere, as far as we know all the Mishkan/Temple’s furnishings, including the  menorah, are lost for good.

The menorah had a most practical purpose. It was the only light available within the ha-kodesh (English: the Holy Place). Without it, it was pitch black in there. Without it, the cohanim couldn’t fulfill their duties. The carrying away of the menorah by the Romans, like the destruction of the Temple, seemed to indicate the extinguishing of Israel’s light.

The centuries that followed were dark ones for the Jewish people. Yet, even without the menorah and the priestly service, the scattered nation never lost hope of the return of the divine light. Some may claim that the light never went out because the fire of hope in the hearts of the people never stopped burning.

The eternal light of God can’t be snuffed out. The menorah had more than a practical function. It was a symbol of the illuminating presence of God. Israel was chosen by God to be people of light, the bearers of truth for the world. God’s revelation of himself and his ways allowed Israel to clearly see the world as it is in contrast to the other nations having to grope about, trying to figure life out in the darkness of alienation from God. The time would come when the light would not shine upon Israel alone, but would flood the world with its brilliance.

And that time came.

It’s no coincidence that within a generation of the Messiah’s coming, the menorah would be carried off into the center of one of the greatest empires of all time. This was not to show that the light of God shifted from Jerusalem to Rome, but that the light of God would no longer be hidden away in the Temple.

Israel’s light was never extinguished, for eleven Jewish men were commissioned by the Messiah to bring that light to the nations. Since then each follower of Yeshua is called to bear that same light, wherever we may go.

For that to happen, each of us needs to be a menorah so to speak. In the same way that the menorah needed to be continually tended, so we need to tend to the Messiah’s light in us. Tragically, too many take his light for granted, thinking he will do what he will do in and through us, with or without our attention. But it doesn’t work that way. Like the priests of old, we need to make sure his light keeps burning bright. Yeshua’s warning not to hide our light under a basket (see Matthew 5:15) is an intentionally ridiculous image to emphasize how ludicrous it is when we do just that.

Have you ever thought of how we hide our light away? Perhaps others have reacted to you, because of your faith in Yeshua? Hopefully it was for a good reason – the Lord’s light was exposing evil in their lives. What did you when that happened? Did you apologize and dim it down? Or did you let the light do its job? Perhaps you don’t even bother shining in certain situations. You leave it at home, only turning it up during a personal prayer time or when you are with other believers. It can get tiring shining your light in one place and not another. It’s on when you’re in your car listening to music, off at the coffee shop or at work, and back on again at gatherings. I don’t think that’s how to tend the light. No wonder it’s getting so dark in some places.

It’s time to tend the light. We need to give attention to Yeshua’s presence in our lives so that he shines brightly through us. We can’t fabricate it. We can only tend it. We can only tend what we have. If you don’t have it, ask God for it. And once he sets you ablaze, keep it burning.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Lost Meaning of the Ark

For the week of February 9, 2019 /4 Adar 5779

Stylized title: The Lost Meaning of the Ark

Terumah
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 25:1 – 27:19
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 5:26-6:13 (English 5:12 – 6:13)

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And in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. (Shemot/Exodus 25:16)

You probably have heard of the Ark of the Covenant, if not from the Torah, then in the series of movies, starring Harrison Ford. You may know that it was a gold-gilded chest that God commanded the Israelites to build in the wilderness. Eventually it was kept inside the inner sanctum of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and later the Temple. Inside it were special items: the tablets of the Ten Commandments; a sample of the manna, the special bread-like substance God provided during the years of wilderness wanderings; and Moses’ brother Aaron’s rod that budded, the miraculous symbol of God’s confirmation that his descendants were to be the cohanim (English: priests). But of these three, the primary meaning of the ark had to do with the Ten Commandments.

What do you think of when you think of the Ten Commandments? God’s ancient rules? While they certainly contain God’s directives for ancient Israel at least, if not beyond, understanding them as simply commands, directives, or principles misses the point. While in no way diminishing their life-benefitting power, they had a much greater function within the community of Israel.

The Ten Commandments, especially in tablet form, stood for the whole of the covenant that God established with Israel at Mt. Sinai following their rescue from bondage in Egypt. This is why a common descriptor for the ark was “aron ha-brit” (the Ark of the Covenant). The tablets were a tangible sign of the relationship God established with Israel as their Rescuer. The presence of the ark, containing the tablets, was an ongoing reminder of God’s commitment to his people and their obligations unto him in response.

Here’s something I didn’t realize until recently even though I have read the relevant passages so many times in the past. While “Ark of the Covenant” is the most common name for the ark, it is not the most common in the Books of Moses, especially in Shemot (Exodus) where it is first introduced. The earliest references to the ark are as “aron et ha-edut” (the “Ark of the Testimony”). While some may regard “testimony” here as another way to express “covenant,” which is perhaps why we refer to the Old and New Covenants as Old and New Testaments, that misses the point.

A testimony is a witness unto something. Witnesses in court give testimony. They say what they saw; they tell us what happened. Advertisements often provide testimonies as in “I used this product and it works exactly as claimed.” The tablets of the Ten Commandments were designed by God first and foremost as a testimony. What they state is essential, but that God stated them, that they are his testimony of his existence and his committed relationship to Israel, is what they are really all about.

The Ark of the Testimony was evidence of the reality of God and that he spoke to the people of Israel through Moses. The Ten Commandments were never to be reduced to a system of principals or to be regarded as a set of wise sayings. They are that, but they are so much more: they are the very communication of the one true God.

As the Ten Commandments testified to God’s reality, so should we. Our lives should be a testimony to who he is, what he has done, what he is doing, what he has said, and what he is saying. As God’s foundational demonstration of himself is a communication of himself and his will, so we too should reflect who he is and share his word with anyone and everyone. As far as we know the ark is lost, but we are not. Let us be the People of the Testimony.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Bridging the Abortion Divide

For the week of February 2, 2019 / 27 Shevat 5779Two road signs pointing in opposite directions: Have a baby/Abortion

Mishpatim
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 21:1-24:18
Haftarah: Jeremiah 34:8-22; 33:25-26

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When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Shemot/Exodus 21:22-25)

On January 22, to coincide with the forty-sixth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision over abortion rights, the State of New York has further liberalized their abortion laws. The procedure will now be permitted (under certain circumstances) up until birth and will no longer be regulated by their criminal code. These measures have virtually brought the state in line with Canada’s decades-old approach to the procedure. Canada has no abortion-specific regulations, creating a legal vacuum that has been interpreted as absolute legalization through all nine months of pregnancy.

There are few issues in our ever increasingly polarized society that lack a genuine discussion as this one. Let me illustrate the divide through a personal example that isn’t about abortion. My wife and I recently significantly downsized. We moved from a home in which at one time all ten of our children lived. Over the past several years one, then another, then another has moved out on their own. Currently we only have our two youngest, teenagers, still living with us. It took us a while to understand how radically different life was with our tiny (to us) family. Moving to a new, smaller home presented us with various challenges, one being: what do we get rid of? It’s amazing how much stuff we humans can accumulate. You are probably not surprised that my wife and I had differing opinions on this. As far as I can tell, most of the time, we kept our thoughts to ourselves, but every now and then there was something significant enough to one of us or both that merited a discussion. The problem is that if there was a difference of opinion over this or that item, apart from the item being the topic of discussion, it was as if we weren’t talking about the same issue. At least not the same aspects of the issue. The person wanting to get rid of the item focused on how keeping the item was detrimental to them or the family: no room, doesn’t work anymore, expensive to maintain, outlived its use, and so on. The person wanting to keep it was focused on how precious and essential the item was: it means a lot to me, it was a gift, you never know when we might need it. Before you know it, it’s personal. Either party may accuse the other of not caring about them and their feelings positively or negatively toward the thing. But what about the thing itself and its ongoing place in our lives? Can’t two people intelligently discuss the actual pros and cons of keeping vs. getting rid of something? We tried and succeeded, I think.

Similarly with abortion most of time the two sides are not discussing (arguing!) the same issues. The pro-abortion side is focused on the woman, especially her right to not have the state or anyone else tell her what to do. Pro-lifers, on the other hand, are focused on the preborn child. The existence of a human life demands protection whatever state or condition the prospective mother may be in. For one side, it’s about the woman; for the other, it’s the baby.

But is this lack of true discussion really necessary? Can’t we approach this issue together with concern for both mother and child? In this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion), concern over mother and baby are addressed together. Should a violent altercation that leads to premature birth result in further harm, the offending party must make amends. It isn’t clear if the harm is to the mother, the child, or both. Harm to either deserves justice.

Both the mother and the baby matter to God. Both should matter to us. However we resolve our differences regarding abortion, let’s keep all affected parties in mind.

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Greater

For the week of January 26, 2019 / 20 Shevat 5779

The symbols "! > ?" superimposed on a blue sky with one cloud

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

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Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods… (Shemot/Exodus 18:11)

Last week I explained that in certain contexts knowing God doesn’t necessarily relate to having a personal relationship with him. For the Egyptians to know the God of Israel is to say that they experienced the reality of his character and ability as a result of the incident of the Red Sea.

Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, uses the same word “yada,” meaning “to know” differently. He didn’t experience God’s power first-hand as the Egyptians did. Instead he received it via Moses’ retelling of the events: “Then Moses told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had come upon them in the way, and how the Lord had delivered them” (Shemot/Exodus 18:8). Yet simply hearing the stories of what happened had a greater impact on him than the impact of what the Egyptians experienced had had on them. Even though the Egyptians experienced the reality of God’s power as well as his favor towards the Israelites, it made no lasting difference in their lives. Jethro, on the other hand, truly learned something, the realization “that the Lord is greater than all gods.”

We don’t know how far Jethro went with this knowledge. He was a priest of Midian (see Shemot/Exodus 3:1). And yet following his realization, he brought offerings to God in fellowship with Aaron and the elders of Israel. This is followed by Moses receiving some helpful administrative advice from him. Then he returned home, which is the last we hear of him in the biblical record. Did he forsake the Midianite gods and establish an outpost of Truth outside of the community of Israel? We don’t know. He is regarded as the chief prophet of the Druze religion, but there is no biblical support for this.

Whatever the rest of his life looked like, we do have what he said. Through Moses he came to know that the God of Israel is greater than all gods. For readers of the Bible, this is the most basic of truths. The God of Israel is God alone. Nothing or no one compares. In fact, other gods are not really gods even though they may be called gods. In some cases, they are figments of people’s imaginations. In other cases, they are demonic or natural forces that are given god-like status. Jethro’s statement appears to reflect the common belief that other so-called gods did exist. Yet, none match the greatness of the God of Israel.

Do you agree with him? In keeping with biblical truth, you may reject the notion of other lessor gods. Still, there are other personal and impersonal forces at work in the world that you encounter every day of your life. You may or may not think of them as gods or any kind of entity whatsoever, but they seek to assert power over you. We call them circumstances and problems, or more positively, opportunities. Endless books have been written to help you overcome negative forces and leverage positive ones to prevent harm and achieve success. Based on how much time, energy, and money we spend engaging these forces, I wonder sometimes if we actually believe that God is truly greater.

Depersonalizing the myriad of forces in the world doesn’t necessarily reduce their control over our lives. We need to ask the question: who or what concerns us the most in life? Is it money, relationships, your job situation? Maybe it’s yourself. As I have struggled to truly know God for who he is, I have often lamented over myself as being my greatest problem. That might even sound biblical to you. Don’t we have to put off our old nature, for example? Yes, but when we think that the remnants of ungodliness (or however we may express our issues) have the upper hand, then do we not deny Jethro’s assertion that God is greater?

Whether it be our own selves or any other forces, when we assert that they have more power and influence than the good and loving God of the Bible, then we don’t only ascribe god-like status to them, we elevate them above the One whom we claim to worship. And speaking of worship, focusing on these forces in the way we do, whether cowering under their threats or overly investing in them for our benefit, that’s worship.

We don’t know what Jethro did with his realization “that the Lord is greater than all gods.” Perhaps, he had a wonderful spiritual experience with Moses and company, and then after going home, it was business as usual. But what about you and me? If we know that God is greater than every other force in life, will it be business as usual? The same old patterns, the same old fears, the same old tactics? Or are we going to make the appropriate adjustments and live life based on the truth that God is greater than all gods?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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What Do You Know?

For the week of January 19, 2019 / 13 Shevat 5779

A man not knowing what to do

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

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Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the people of Israel to turn back and encamp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall encamp facing it, by the sea. For Pharaoh will say of the people of Israel, ‘They are wandering in the land; the wilderness has shut them in.’ And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.” And they did so. (Shemot/Exodus 14:1-4)

Three times in Shemot (the book of Exodus), God says through Moses that one of the results of his freeing the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt is that the Egyptians will know who he really is. This may sound as if God was predicting that he would not only convince them that he alone is God, but that they would reject their false gods and turn to him. Witnessing his power through the plagues and the parting of the sea along with the drowning of the Egyptian army would bring about a change of heart and mind.

The problem with this is that there is no indication in Scripture or history that the exodus from Egypt had any such effect upon the Egyptians. It appears that individual Egyptians may have turned to the God of Israel, but there was no grand scale change in the religious and spiritual life of the nation. Perhaps these events didn’t have the predicted impact. Or maybe it did after all.

Saying: “the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord,” is not implying that they were to necessarily experience internal, lasting life change. “To know” doesn’t mean to be convinced of something as if these events were solely designed to teach them a theological lesson. That they were given such an opportunity to experience radical spiritual transformation is clear, but nothing needed to happen within the psyche of Egypt to accomplish God’s expressed purpose of them knowing what he wanted them to know. The only thing that needed to happen happened: due to Pharaoh’s obstinance, the Egyptians experienced the presence and power of God.

The Egyptians’ unwillingness to accept the truth of Israel’s God doesn’t mean they didn’t genuinely know it for what it is. Few people in history have been given such an opportunity to see God’s power on display in this way. Their reluctance to give credit where credit was due is not a reflection of their experience of him.

Even though few people have experienced what the Egyptians did, throughout time, all over the world, God’s power has been on display. Everyday people experience God. From his generous goodness to his harsh judgements he makes himself known, not to mention how the natural world proclaims his creativity for all to see.

It’s in this sense the Egyptians got to know God. Pharaoh knew better than to resist God’s word through Moses over and over again. His destructive stubbornness had nothing to do with lack of knowledge. He simply preferred to be selfish rather than submit to the obvious truth.

The rest of the world is no different. Refusal to submit to the God of Israel has little to do with lack of knowledge. That’s why we needn’t try to prove his existence. His evidence is everywhere. We simply need to point it out as we call people to a personal relationship with him through the Messiah.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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