Guard the Truth

For the week of May 23, 2020 / 29 Iyar 5780

A golden shield with the words of this week's title

B’midbar
Torah reading: B’midbar/Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 20:18-42
Edited version of a message originally posted the week of May 23, 2009 / 29 Iyar 5769

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

But the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, so that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the people of Israel. And the Levites shall keep guard over the tabernacle of the testimony. (B’midbar/Numbers 1:53; ESV)

The tribe of Levi was set apart by God for the work of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and later in Israel’s history, the Temple. The cohanim (English: “priests”) were a subset of the tribe of Levi as they were the sons of Aaron, Moses’ brother, both of whom were Levites themselves. The cohanim were responsible for the sacrifices, while the rest of the Levites looked after all sorts of other things regarding the Mishkan. One of the Levites’ responsibilities was to guard the Mishkan. According to the verse above, the reason for this was “…so that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the people of Israel.” The protection of true religion with its priesthood and rituals was for the welfare of the people.

Religious leaders need to stand guard on behalf of the things of God. The preservation of true religion is necessary to ensure that people relate to God according to his reality. Otherwise it is not really God they are encountering. And if it is not really God whom people encounter, they will suffer harm through delusion, demonic influence, and immorality.

In order to effectively stand guard for God’s Truth, we must first understand that God isn’t the one who needs protecting. God is God, he will show himself to be who he is. His truth is eternal and will prevail. We are the ones who suffer when God’s Truth is misrepresented. We need to protect God’s Truth, not because God needs us to, but because people need us to.

Second, religious leaders aren’t called to stand guard for God’s Truth for self-protection. Too often religious leaders are threatened by perceived attacks on the things they espouse. But if their motive is to protect self and position, they will not be able to discern the difference between an attack on the Truth or a necessary correction to their own errors.

What does need to be protected is the Truth of God as given to us in the Scriptures. Too many people, who otherwise claim to uphold the revelation of God, become careless in preserving an accurate understanding of God’s Truth. In most cases this carelessness is due to one of three things. The first is a commitment to one’s tradition over and against the Truth of Scripture. What is being protected in this case is something other than the Truth itself. The result is the Truth of God is neglected and/or made inaccessible to others.

The second cause of carelessness stems from an outright denial of God’s Truth. These are leaders who remain part of traditions that at one time carefully guarded the things of God, but now have turned their backs on the Truth, purposely redefining it due to their denial of Scripture.

The third cause is most difficult to identify because it comes from what appears to be such a positive and God-centered motive – a desire to make God’s reality accessible to as many people as possible. These leaders tend to think of the notion of guarding God’s Truth as harmfully restrictive. They fail to see that preserving an accurate revelation of God is necessary for people to truly know the God they are anxious to make known. By not insisting that the God they claim to offer people is in strict accordance to the truth of Scripture, they are actually doing people far more harm than good.

But, when leaders are careful to stand guard for God’s Truth, insisting that he is accurately represented to the world around us, then people will have the opportunity to really know him and be effectively equipped to live life the way God designed us to.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Give It a Rest!

For the week of May 25, 2019 / 20 Iyar 5779

Man resting in a park, sitting on the grass with his back against a tree

Be-Har
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2
Haftarah: Jeremiah 32:6-27
Originally posted the week of May 16, 2015 / 27 Iyar 5775 (revised)

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the LORD. (Vayikra/Leviticus 25:2)

Everyone who believes that the entire Bible is God’s inspired and authoritative written Word faces the challenge of working out how to apply it to our lives today. It’s not as if the Scriptures are simply a collection of general spiritual sayings or a compilation of moral tales. While it includes such content, the Bible is much more than that. Almost all of Scripture was originally intended for a particular people at a particular time. From its stories, laws, prophetic utterances, and letters, and so on, we seek to deduce truths about God and life in an effort to determine how those truths apply today.

In both Jewish and Christian communities there is much controversy in particular over the section of Scripture called the Torah, the five books of Moses. Orthodox Jews claim to fully observe it but do so through the filter of rabbinic tradition. That includes making up for the impossibility of fulfilling key commands – including the offering of sacrifice – due to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem about two thousand years ago. Non-orthodox Jews tend to see Torah as ever evolving as they accommodate it to changing times. Christians, on the other hand, have tended to relate to Torah in one of two ways. Some claim that it has been rendered obsolete by the New Covenant, having been superseded by the teachings of Yeshua and his followers. Others insist it continues to be binding except for its ceremonial aspects, which have found their completion in the Messiah.

It seems to me that the root of the confusion has more to do with what Torah really is, both then and now. Contrary to much Jewish and Christian thought, the Torah and the Sinai covenant given through Moses are not one and the same even though the Sinai covenant is often called, “Torah.” The Sinai covenant was designed as the constitution for the nation of Israel. With the giving of the New Covenant through Yeshua (see Jeremiah 31:31-33; compare Luke 22:20) and the destruction of the Temple, the Sinai covenant was rendered obsolete along with the particular elements given to maintain it, such as the sacrifices.

But there was more to the Sinai covenant than its constitutional function. God used the giving of this covenant to reveal, first to Israel and then to the whole world, his ways regarding every aspect of life, including business, sexuality, justice, and so on. The establishment of the New Covenant in no way abolishes God’s eternal ways or his “Torah.” In fact under the New Covenant, Torah is internalized. For God says through Jeremiah: “I will put my Torah (English: law) within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” Discerning what of Torah was temporary, being limited to the Sinai Covenant, and what is ongoing until now is not always an easy task, but well worth the effort.

Sadly however, it seems that we often regard God’s directives as oppressive restrictions that get in the way of things we want to do. It’s too bad we are slow to see that our reluctance to embrace God’s will is due to the forces of evil that continue to get the upper hand in our lives. God’s ways as revealed throughout the whole Bible, and understood correctly, are always life giving. Take Sabbath laws for example. Under the New Covenant, it is clear that Sabbath laws were not to be imposed upon non-Jewish believers (see Galatians 4:10; compare Acts 15:19-20). But does that mean all believers must disregard God’s weekly rhythm and embrace the 365-day/year, 7-day/week, 24-hour/day lifestyle so prevalent today? It’s not that long ago that countries with strong biblical roots took weekly days off – real days off – when most businesses were closed and a majority of people attended worship services, taking time to rest and be with family. Perhaps we would do well to consider Sabbath again.

Or take the Sabbatical year as mentioned in the verse I quoted at the beginning. Covenantally, like the weekly Sabbath, we have no justification to enforce such a custom, but should that stop us from considering its possible benefits? Is the Sabbatical year strictly a ritual for the sake of the Sinai covenant only, or are there benefits in allowing farmland to take a rest one year in seven?

The sabbatical year is but one of many reminders in Torah that in our responsibility to be stewards of the planet (see Bereshit/Genesis 1:26) we must avoid exploiting our resources. It is so tempting to try to extract as much as we can for ourselves in the moment. But if we do that, we will create a disastrous situation for future generations that could have easily been avoided. God, who himself rested on the seventh day and was refreshed (see Shemot/Exodus 31:17), designed his creation to require rest as well. Whether it’s you personally or your sphere of work, maybe it’s about time you gave it a rest.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

No Leftovers

For the week of May 9, 2020 / 15 Iyar 5780

Slices of left-over meat within a prohibited symbol

Emor
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-31

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

And when you sacrifice a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the LORD, you shall sacrifice it so that you may be accepted. It shall be eaten on the same day; you shall leave none of it until morning: I am the LORD. (Vayikra/Leviticus 22:29-30)

The regulations for the various Torah sacrifices are difficult for us to understand since we are not provided with all their whys and wherefores. I have the impression that sacrifice was deeply embedded within Israelite and non-Israelite cultures of the day before God gave the Torah. God’s directions through Moses therefore provide understanding and guidance for what they were already doing. Thus, it is a challenge to determine the purpose behind a directive such as we just read here. It’s impossible to know for sure why, in the case of thanksgiving sacrifices, God required they be eaten on the same day they are offered; no leftovers allowed.

In spite of the lack of explanation, we can see how following these instructions would affect the psyche of the people. Whether they could articulate it or not, they would develop an understanding of the nature of thanksgiving due to the ritual of thanksgiving established by God. First, thanksgiving was expected. To give thanks is an acknowledgment that the good things we have came to us from outside ourselves. This requires both thought and action. While gifts obviously come to us from outside ourselves, things that are the result of our labors may not be so obvious. When we work for something, we tend to think that the results we get are extensions of ourselves, not the blessing of God. But we don’t posses the kind of power that brings anything into existence. While we have our part to play, the positive results that emerge from our involvement are actually rooted in God, not self. Giving thanks to God, therefore, is an acknowledgement of this reality. Failure to do so is to deny the truth of how the universe works.

Practicing thanksgiving through sacrifice, not only acknowledges the truth of our being the recipient of God’s generosity, it is a tangible and public demonstration of that truth. Going through the ritual takes a concept of thanks and connects us, our family, and others to it. Remembering to say, “thank you,” is one thing, but to publicly give back to the giver in the sight of others expresses sincerity and encourages others to do the same.

I am aware that sincerity can be faked. Scripture is clear on the disgrace of pretending to honor God. As a result, we may be tempted to dismiss all forms of ritual, forgetting that being called out on hypocrisy doesn’t undermine ritual itself. Rather, it encourages us to engage ritual in the way it was intended, with sincerity.

Which brings us to God’s directive against having leftovers. Demanding that thanksgiving sacrifices were either to be consumed the same day as offered or burned up, made the offering exclusive to the purpose for which it was designed. The offering of thanksgiving was to have no other purpose. It was essential for the ritual to focus the attention of the person giving the offering. To allow leftovers reduced the intensity of the experience, thus diminishing the offering of thanks. Unless thanksgiving is focused, it is not the real thing.

In these days of COVID-19, it is important to take time to remember all the good things we have despite the challenges we are facing. But perhaps we need to do more than that. God is worthy of our focused attention. Maybe there are ways that we can offer sacrifices of thanksgiving by dedicating particular time, energy, and resources in an exclusive way. Remember, no leftovers!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Reasonable Restrictions

For the week of May 2, 2020 / 8 Iyar 5780

Hand stopping falling sticks marked "COVID-19" to illustrate preventing its spread.

Aharei Mot & Kedoshim
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27
Haftarah: Amos 9:7-15

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

For everyone who does any of these abominations, the persons who do them shall be cut off from among their people. (Vayikra/Leviticus 18:29)

As the COVID-19 crisis continues into another week, an increasing number of people are getting frustrated with the restrictions imposed upon us. This is exacerbated by all sorts of critiques of these cautionary measures and the supposed reasons for them. Doubt over the effectiveness of and motives behind the closure of businesses and schools, social distancing, and travel restrictions are clearly wearing on the masses. In democratic societies, governed by the people’s representatives, it is incumbent upon our leaders to openly inform us as to the justification of their policies. Obviously, they want to avoid unrest at all costs.

As time moves on, especially in regions where the percentage of infections and death are relatively low and/or on the decrease, people will naturally become less and less cautious if not outright rebellious. Unless the authorities continue to provide a good case for continued restrictions, people will find ways to get around them.

I am not advocating ignoring government policy towards the current crisis; I am only describing what I understand to be normal human behavior especially when doubting the legitimacy of such policies. And I do so this week, because of the parallel between COVID-19 directives and God’s directives in the current parsha (weekly Torah reading portion).

We are in a section of Torah that contains directives regarding sexual behavior. And much like how some people are feeling about their government’s policies over COVID-19, many regard God’s words of caution here as overblown and unnecessary.

It doesn’t help that many would find the term “abomination” offensive. The Hebrew word “to-ei-vah’,” means “disgusting” or “repulsive.” According to Torah this is what God thinks of certain behaviors. However, no one, myself included, likes it when someone else looks negatively at something that we value. Ironically in many modern societies, such harsh regard toward anything has become the worst abomination of all. How dare anyone judge anyone else!

But this is not about personal preference; it’s about the welfare of both individuals and societies. God doesn’t label something as an abomination just because he is in charge. Nor are his moral dictates arbitrary. They may appear that way to us because we don’t understand the basis for such directives.

Let me illustrate with something from these unusual days of COVID-19. The other evening my wife and I needed to make a delivery to a family member who lives near one of the more lovely areas of town, where there is a park and beach by a river. As it was also the nicest evening of the spring so far, we ventured on a stroll to see the sunset. In keeping with the city’s rules, we walked through the park, enjoying the beauty as we did. As we were returning to our car we happened upon a clear violation of the current guidelines: four young people, while observing social distancing, were throwing a ball to one another. If COVID-19 is as lethal as some think, they were being completely irresponsible. Since each person may themselves be a carrier, sharing contact via the ball potentially extends the risk of infection to not only each participant, but to anyone else each participant comes into contact with afterwards. And to think that the virus on the ball may find its way from the park to a seniors’ residence where it could engulf the elderly, plus the staff and their families, what the four were doing in entertaining themselves was more than irresponsible, it was an abomination! To be honest I didn’t really think that, because I have my doubts over whether such behavior is as risky as some say. But if it were, then such an extreme reaction would be legitimate.

Unlike our government, God, the master designer of the universe, intimately understands the details of his design, so when he regards particular behaviors negatively, it’s because he is fully aware of their implications. As I read at the beginning: “persons who do them shall be cut off from among their people.” First, note that this is one of the rare Torah passages that clearly speaks to all peoples, not just Israel. And because it is a universal statement, “cut off from among their people,” it is not about shunning or other forms of community judgement as might be the case if this were a directive specific to Israel. Instead it is a serious warning of the consequences of these behaviors.

Although governments struggle to figure out the true nature of COVID-19, we have been gifted with God’s all-knowing insight on the nature of human sexuality. Societal leaders may or may not have a handle on what is really going on; they may or may not have our best interests in mind. Yet, the limitations on our behavior that Torah delineates are rooted in God’s understanding of the safest and most healthy way to live.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Isolation

For the week of April 25, 2020 / 1 Iyar 5780

Younger woman visiting older woman who is behind a window

Tazria & Metzora
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33 & B’midbar/Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Vayikra/Leviticus 13:46)

With the rare exception, human beings don’t like to live alone. Even most loners don’t want to be alone all the time. And when they do, they want to be alone by choice. It’s no wonder that one of the worst punishments people have ever devised is solitary confinement. We were meant to be in community, not in isolation, except under certain circumstances.

We are living in most unusual times. Never before have we seen what some are calling: “the quarantine of the healthy.” Normally, when there is a serious outbreak of illness, it’s the sick who are isolated. According to this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion), this is the prescription for those afflicted with infectious skin diseases. Note that the God of Israel didn’t direct his people to do incantations, concoct potions, or other things we might expect from ancient peoples. Instead, the cohanim (English: priests) are told to conduct straightforward examinations based on objective standards.

What is strange for us moderns is the intimate connection between community health and ritual purity. It appears that the need for isolation was to protect the community from two types of contagions: human sickness and ceremonial uncleanness. The first we easily appreciate. But the second sounds like ignorant superstition. How would a disease, apart from its effect on other people, make a difference to God? Some may dismiss the genuineness of the ritual elements by taking them as a way to trick pre-scientific folks into doing what’s healthy in the name of religion. If that’s the case, it’s an argument for the divine origins of Hebrew Scripture, for how would the ancients understand the science behind illness? But far from being a trick to protect community health, the Torah’s integrated perspective of spirituality and physical health is a far more balanced approach than today’s “science explains everything” misguided philosophy.

While illnesses have symptoms that help determine their nature, illness itself is a symptom of the general broken nature of human beings. God did not design us to get sick at all. That doesn’t mean that every sniffle or cough is a direct indication of a particular moral failure. Rather, like everything else wrong with us, sickness is another reminder of the distance from which we have fallen. Isolating afflicted persons from Israel’s God-given rituals was therefore one of the ways that the community was reminded of our general separation from God. The protection allotted to the masses through this isolation undergirded God’s desire for health and restoration.

Reading about the quarantine of diseased persons in ancient Israel instead of the isolation of the healthy today may prompt some to question the direction of many of our government leaders. Without wading into the waters of my ignorance, the difference between the type of diseases listed in this section of the Torah and COVID-19 is the invisibility and severity of the threat. As far I as I do understand, the skin diseases listed in our portion are easily prevented and cured through today’s medical expertise. COVID-19, on the other hand, is invisible and potentially lethal. The call to social distancing and other types of isolation is due to how susceptible the general population is along with the great risk of being carriers to the vulnerable.

Be it the skin diseases listed in Torah, COVID-19, or all the other highly infectious and deadly diseases ravaging the world, we are sick. We are sick with a sickness far deadlier and just as, if not more, contagious than any of these. And whether we are close to or disconnected from those we love; we have been enduring a much greater isolation than called for by COVID-19. The pain of isolation we are experiencing due to the current crisis is deeply rooted in our alienation from God. And just like the Messiah was willing to break convention by touching (and healing) the infected, isolated people of his day, so he wants to touch us today. As he heals our uncleanness (sin) and restores us to God, we will no longer be isolated even if we are alone.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Understanding Tragedy

Note: The following TorahBytes message was originally written a day before one of Canada’s most tragic road accidents. Just over two years ago, on April 6, 2018, a tractor-trailer struck a bus, killing sixteen people and injuring thirteen others, most of whom were players from the Humboldt (Saskatchewan) Broncos hockey team. I thought it would be appropriate to repost this message during the current coronavirus crisis, not only because so many are struggling due to this pandemic, but because it’s not the only tragedy people around the world are dealing with. – Alan Gilman

*      *      *

For the week of April 18, 2020 / 24 Nisan 5780

Sun poking through the cloudy horizon over a turbulent ocean

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

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. (Vayikra/Leviticus 10:1-2)

There are two insights into human tragedy that I would like to share from this grim incident. The first is straightforward; the second not so much. The first is that God isn’t someone to be handled lightly. Dealing with him is serious business and fooling around with his way of doing things can cost you your life.

Many people avoid this aspect of God’s character, preferring a one-sided version of him that is nothing but nice. No matter what we do he not only loves us but accepts us as well. That is nice, perhaps, but definitely not good, not to mention just. Making the Supreme Being supremely agreeable actually turns him into a monstrosity of infinite proportions. That God would put up with anything human beings conceive of is tantamount to abuse by passivity. That might be your standard for friends, but if it is, they are not your friends, not good friends anyway.

What happened to Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu is a tragic story like so many tragic stories of abuse of place and position for selfish purposes. The consequences here reveal to us what God thinks about misuse of his directives. This is a dramatic picture of how serious religious and spiritual misdeeds really are. Instead of being offended at was happened to Aaron’s sons, we should wonder why God doesn’t bump off more of their kind.

I think one of the reasons why God is often taken to be a softy towards sinful behavior is that the plight of Nadab and Abihu is an exception rather than the rule. It’s not that their wrong was greater than everyone else’s; it’s that most of the time, God doesn’t zap us when we do wrong, even great wrong. Otherwise, we’d all be dead by now.

The New Covenant writings sum this up as “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4). This echoes Israel’s entire biblical narrative. It’s libelous how some misrepresent the Hebrew Bible by claiming it reveals an angry, wrathful God, who punishes people left, right, and center. An accurate depiction of the Master of the Universe is that, if anything, he is too patient. The vast majority of judgement upon his people is after centuries of waiting for change. Only after a very long time of continued obstinacy, does he finally punish.

While what happened to Nadab and Abihu was the exception, not the rule, it is not unique. From time to time, God responds to wrongs quickly and suddenly. Why he deems it necessary to do so, we don’t know. But let’s not be fooled into thinking that God’s hesitancy to act in the majority of cases implies they are not as serious.

What makes what happened to Aaron’s sons unique is the second, not-too-straightforward, insight. Tragedy is common in the human experience. People die unexpectedly. Most people don’t. Most people in the world will return safely to their beds tonight. Still, tragedy will strike in innumerable ways within the next twenty-four hours. What then makes Nadab and Abihu’s tragedy unique? It’s that we know why it happened. We know, in their case, God punished them for priestly mismanagement. But most of the time when tragedy strikes, we have no idea why. And most of the time, we would be absolute fools to think we can figure it out.

Not everyone who is killed due to a mysterious outbreak of fire is being judged by God. Much of human suffering is simply due to the sin-cursed nature of the creation. Bad things just happen sometimes. Other times, there is cause and effect at work. Impaired or distracted driving is mortally dangerous for example. Still, even when every precaution is taken, things can go wrong.

In many tragedies, our natural cry to know why is a question that may never be answered. But in tragedy, we need more than answers. It’s no wonder that God’s peace is described in Philippians 4:7 as something that surpasses understanding with the effect of guarding our hearts and minds. More than anything, this is what we need when everything else falls apart.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Generation to Generation

For the week of April 11, 2020 / 17 Nisan 5780

Three generations, grandfather, son, and grandson, walking together

Pesach
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 13:1-16; B’midbar/Numbers 28:19-25
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:37 – 37:14

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

You shall tell your son on that day: It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt. (Shemot/Exodus 13:8)

Pesach (English: Passover) begins this year the evening of Wednesday, April 8. One of the reasons for this annual commemoration of Israel’s freedom from slavery in Egypt is to retain connection from generation to generation, “l’dor vador” as it is said in Hebrew. The ritual aspects of the retelling of the exodus were designed by God to not only remind subsequent generations of this wonderful, foundational story from our history, but to intimately bind our descendants to the original event to the extent that they see themselves as actually there when it happened. Every year when celebrating Pesach, we are to say to our children: “It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.”

But isn’t this statement for the originals only? Would it not be more correct for the children of the released Hebrew slaves to say, “It is because of what the Lord did for my parents when they came out of Egypt”? Certainly understanding oneself as connected to a historical event through one’s ancestors isn’t identical to being there. That’s technically correct, but technicalities of this sort obscure the depth of meaning found in the intense identification the statement demands.

Even technically, we are far more connected to our history than we normally think. However genetics actually work, the experiences of the past indelibly stamp themselves on our psyches. To some extent, we carry the past with us and pass it on to our children whether we or they are conscious of it. For subsequent generations to benefit from the events of the past, be they good or bad, it’s better to be not only conscious of those events but consciously understand them properly.

From the days of Moses and the departure from Egypt every Jewish person was to regard themselves as a freed slave. To lose that would be to lose the core of our identity and begin to become something that we are not.

Retaining connection to this story is not for the Jewish people alone. When Yeshua leveraged his last Pesach celebration to function as the key reference through which his followers would remember him and his sacrifice, he opened the door for everyone, Jewish or otherwise, to realize the commonality of all peoples. Israel’s oppression to tyranny in Egypt functions as a picture of the oppression of all people to evil. Yeshua’s giving himself as the supreme Passover Lamb, provides freedom to all who trust in him. Just like the Angel of Death passed over those Jewish homes that applied the Passover lamb’s blood to their doorframes in faith, so God’s judgement passes over anyone, Jewish or not, who figuratively places the Messiah’s blood over themselves by trusting in him.

As we tell the story of our deliverance that we inherited from those who have gone before, their story becomes our story. This has never been as important as it is today, when we are facing a global pandemic. In spite of social distancing we are seeing as never before how connected we really are. Rich or poor, young or old, famous or not, the plight of one has become the plight of all. But Pesach reminds us that this plight really isn’t new. The threat of death has been hanging over our lives from generation to generation. Pesach also reminds us that God is the God of deliverance for all. And if we make his deliverance ours as demonstrated by the exodus and offered to all people through the Messiah Yeshua, we will have the opportunity to tell our children, “This is what the Lord did for me.”

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Bridging Social Distance

For the week of April 4, 2020 / 10 Nisan 5780

Zav

Two hands stretching out to each other with a lovely blue sky with clouds in the background
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 6:1-8:36 (English 6:8 – 8:36)
Haftarah Malachi 3:4-24 (English: 3:4 – 4:6)

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction. (Malachi 3:24 [English 4:6])

We are in sobering times. Most of us alive today have never seen a global pandemic nor have had to endure such drastic measures. Time will tell whether or not the restrictions imposed upon us are justified. But for now, the lives of millions, if not billions, have been disrupted due to the COVID-19 virus.

We don’t know what the world will be like when this is over. We don’t know who will live and who will die. We don’t know what businesses will survive or not. Entire industries may vanish. Nations may collapse or at least hitherto stable governments may fail. People’s value systems will be transformed. Yesterday’s causes may seem insignificant compared to the new challenges the world will face. Are we prepared? Are we prepared to face death? Are we prepared to face life?

Please understand, I hope the current crisis blows over quickly. It doesn’t look like it will. But if it does, let’s not pretend that we won’t face something even worse. If we don’t treat the current crisis as the “Big One,” then, certainly, we won’t be ready for it when it does come.

The prophet Malachi tells us what we need to withstand global disaster. Based on this, I regret to say that we have every reason to be concerned. The necessary condition to avoid God’s judgement is the integration and effective functioning of the family unit, especially as it relates to dad and the kids. Many of us from the baby boomer generation (people born between 1944 and 1964) and older remember the emergence of the generation gap as a result of the youth revolution of the 1960s and early 70s. These were the days of compelling slogans, such as “give peace a chance” and “make love, not war.” But what about “don’t trust anyone over thirty”? The youth of that day had become so cynical towards anyone deemed to be part of the establishment, that they whole-heartedly believed that they knew better than almost anyone older than they. This was a complete reversal of global history until that time, when it had been assumed that elders were not only wiser than young people but were trusted to lead society, due to their experience garnered through age.

Before I continue, let me be clear that I am making no direct connection between the generation gap and COVID-19. What I am saying is that the fragmentation of society due to the disintegration of the family makes the current crisis (which is the virus itself and society’s response to it) that much more disastrous. The pressures of coping with COVID-19 personally and relationally are driving us individually and societally to a tipping point. The family with dad as the point man was designed by God to be the basic building block of society. With the widespread dismantling of the Bible’s version of family, we have lost our God-given safety net that would have caught us when other aspects of our lives crumbled. Instead, the prevailing loneliness of most people, in spite of our continuous distractions, will expose the faulty foundations many of our lives have been built upon.

Thankfully, while we are still alive, it isn’t hopeless, especially if we take God’s words through Malachi seriously. It may be too late for you to reconcile with your dad or your children; something that may have been possible as recently as a few days ago. It struck me so hard the other day to realize that there are all sorts of people who I may have seen for the very last time. We should be grateful we have the technology to reach out to almost everyone wherever they live on the globe. Would you consider doing whatever you can to heal broken relationships especially with close family members? The best way to start is by forgiving them from your heart. That doesn’t excuse what they may or may not have done. It releases you from resentment’s control, so that you can initiate reconciliation. No matter their response or lack thereof, your heart will then be free to be turned towards them, thus inviting God’s blessing into your family circle. You will be surprised how much good that will bring to so many and the difference it will make right now and in the future.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Missing the Mark

For the week of March 28, 2020 / 3 Nisan 5780

Title "Missing the Mark" on photo of dart board with dart missing the bulls eye

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

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

If anyone of the common people sins unintentionally in doing any one of the things that by the LORD’s commandments ought not to be done, and realizes his guilt, or the sin which he has committed is made known to him, he shall bring for his offering a goat, a female without blemish, for his sin which he has committed. (Vayikra/Leviticus 4:27-28)

The Bible seems to be obsessed with a concept, which in English is called “sin.” There are several words referring to wrongs of various kinds, but the most common is the Hebrew cha-ta’, whose root appears almost six hundred times in the Hebrew Scriptures. Many of those times have to do with offerings for sin, not sin itself. Either way, it’s a core biblical concept. No wonder Solomon writes: “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin’?” (Mishlei/Proverbs 20:9); or Paul, in the New Covenant Writings: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

We don’t hear the concept of sin referenced in our society. I assume that a lot of biblically minded people would suppose the reason for that is that people deny its existence similar to the denial of God, especially the biblical God. That might have something to do with it, but I think it has more to do with the tendency for believers to over-spiritualization biblical concepts, not the concepts themselves. The meaning of cha-ta’ is “missing the mark.” While people in general often talk as if there is no objective standard of right and wrong, believers and non-believers alike acknowledge our inability to be what we think we should be. Every time someone perceives that they or someone else fails, they are missing the mark or in other words, sinning. While some of the standards we impose on self and others may be truly unreasonable, most of us, believers and non-believers, agree that we are all sub-standard in some way.

We tend to refer to failure as mistakes, such as incorrect answers on a test. Yet, by calling them mistakes, we tend to lessen their seriousness. Is killing someone as a result of driving drunk a mistake? Is marital infidelity a mistake? These are all fails, examples of different ways we miss the mark. In this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion), we read some of how the ancient community of Israel was to deal with sin. Various kinds of sacrifices were to be offered as a way of dealing with missing the mark. Having to go through such rituals, the fact of human imperfection was instilled upon everyone’s psyche. Awareness of sin alone didn’t automatically free the people from its influence and consequences; but it did create the opportunity to experience freedom through forgiveness in relation to both God and the community. The honest acceptance of the truth about self, provides the opportunity to draw close to the Master of the Universe and find the freedom that comes from forgiveness. For that to occur however, a person had to take responsibility for their failure. Ignorance, denial, or refusal to acknowledge one’s failures results in remaining under the control of sin.

As the world takes drastic measures to cope with the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, it is tempting to look for who to blame instead of acknowledging that the threat of deadly sickness is yet another dramatic expression of the imperfections of the human race. This is not to say that this disease is due to sin as if it is directly related to something you or I may have done wrong. Rather, it is a reminder that we humans are not what we are meant to be. We fall short of God’s glory.

God has provided what we need to more than cope with this threat through the death and resurrection of the Messiah. How to connect with that must start with each of us acknowledging the ways we miss the mark. There is no better time than this to take self-inventory and admit our failures. Let’s humble ourselves before God, admit our wrongs, make amends with others, and receive the freedom of forgiveness that Yeshua offers.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The Glory Standard

Vayakhel & Pekudei
For the week of March 21, 2020 / 25 Adar 5780
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 35:1 – 40:38; & Shemot/Exodus 12:1-20
Haftarah: Ezekiel 45:16-46
Originally posted: the week of March 25, 2017 / 27 Adar 5777

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

Fire pillarThen the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. (Shemot/Exodus 40:34-35)

This week’s parsha (English: Torah portion) is a high point in Scripture. After many chapters describing the design and construction of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle), it is finally completed. God responds to this by filling the Mishkan with his kavod (English: glory). God’s glory in this context refers to a physical manifestation of himself denoting his presence in a very real way. God was tangibly showing the people of Israel that he was with them. While God is everywhere in the universe in one sense, this demonstrated that he was uniquely making himself known in and through Israel alone.

Every aspect of the development of Israel’s national life as revealed by God through Moses had to do with maintaining his presence, his glory, among them. From the sacrificial system to personal intimacy; from agricultural techniques to hygiene; from business practices to treatment of people with special needs – everything that God commanded was because he, the Master of the Universe, dwelt among them.

In the centuries that followed, Israel risked losing God’s glory. Eventually, this did indeed tragically occur at the time of the Babylonian captivity as recorded in the eighth through eleventh chapters of the prophet Ezekiel. Contrary to what many people think, the loss of God’s presence was not due to Israel’s moral imperfections. God had made provision in the Sinai Covenant for wrongs committed. The glory departed due to long-term rebellion against God as expressed mainly through idolatry. Israel hadrejected God in other words. But that is not the end of the story. Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the other Hebrew prophets predicted over and over again that God’s glory – his presence – would return to Israel. The restoration of God’s presence was guaranteed to Israel based upon his earlier unconditional and eternal promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

By the end of the writing of the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s glory had not yet returned. As prophesied by Jeremiah and decreed by the Persian King Cyrus, many Jewish people returned from Babylon. They resettled the land and rebuilt both the Temple and Jerusalem. But the nation continued in a state best described as tentative. On one hand God was with them during this period – there would not have been a return otherwise – but not to the extent anticipated by the prophets. For most of the time from the return until the destruction of the second Temple in the year 70, Israel continued under foreign rule, a sure sign that all was not right between them and God. Where was the promised Messiah?

It was not until Yeshua’s coming that the light of God’s glory began to appear on the horizon again. Those who believed him to be the Messiah rightly understood Israel’s prophetic writings that his arrival was the indication that God himself was returning to dwell in their midst.

This time it would not be in the form of a cloud filling the Temple, but something much greater. Through Yeshua’s sacrifice, his defeat of death through the resurrection, and his return to the heavenly temple to sit at God’s right hand, he poured out the Ruach Hakodesh, the Holy Spirit, upon those who placed their trust in him. Now the glory of God doesn’t live in a tent or a building, but rather in people. The glory of the God of Israel has returned as promised, taking up residence in and among those who believe in Yeshua.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail