Teachability

For the week of July 7, 2018 / 24 Tammuz 5778

Son on father's lap, both sitting on floor, thinking

Pinchas
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 25:10 – 30:1
Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3

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But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 1:7-8)

I love to teach about Abraham for many reasons. I’ll get to Jeremiah shortly. Abraham is the biblical exemplar of a person of faith (see Romans 4:16). And with faith so central to having a genuine relationship with God, there is much we can learn from his life. One of the essential lessons we learn from Abraham is that we are never too old to make a positive difference. We don’t meet him until he is seventy-five, well past the normal age for what God called him to: leave family and the familiar for a foreign land and have a baby, the latter not happening until he was one hundred. Abraham is not the only senior citizen that didn’t get going on his God-given mission until later in life. Moses, being the next great example, received his marching orders at eighty.

Unlike our day, old age is highly esteemed in the Bible. We read in Mishlei (English: the book of Proverbs): “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life” (Mishlei/Proverbs 16:31). The   Scripture places on the elderly may lead some to devalue youth except for its potential. Obviously, there are lessons inaccessible to the young, because they can only be learned through experience over a long period of time.

This is apparently what Jeremiah was thinking when God called him. He disqualifies himself from being God’s spokesperson (that’s what a prophet is) on the basis of his being, in Hebrew, a na-ar, which is a reference to the period of life from infancy through adolescence, pre-adulthood in other words. We can’t determine his exact age, but he was most likely in his latter teens. Even if he was older, it is clear that he saw himself as unable due to his lack of life experience.

From God’s perspective, however, Jeremiah’s experience or lack thereof was irrelevant. Age doesn’t matter, because the God of unlimited resources is the one who equips us to effectively serve him. Because God often calls us unto the impossible, taking personal inventory is not going to encourage us to rise up to the occasion. Does that mean, then, that this is a case of all of God and nothing of us? When God enables us to do his bidding, are we no more than empty shells that he animates for his purposes? For him to truly work through us, are we to disengage self and get out of God’s way? Is that what God calls us to do? Is that what he called Jeremiah to do?

Every person’s life, whether acknowledged or not, is completely dependent on God. We wouldn’t be here without him. We wouldn’t survive, much less thrive, without him. That said, are we to be completely passive while he overtakes our person like a body snatcher? Of course not. Obedience to God is accomplished by cooperating with him. He has endowed human beings with all sorts of abilities specially designed to fulfill his purposes on earth. Submitting our abilities to his will allows us to be what he made us to be.

Jeremiah thought he was lacking the necessary experience to be a prophet of God. That he lacked experience is correct. What he didn’t take into account – he may not have been aware of it – was that he did possess a, if not the, foundational qualification: teachability.

God knew that he could teach Jeremiah how to be a prophet during one of the most difficult and confusing times in Israel’s history. His lack of experience likely worked in his favor because the type of message God gave him was so different from the normal prophetic tradition. There was no precedent to tell God’s people to surrender to the enemy as Jeremiah had to do.

The story of Jeremiah may lead you to think that youth are more teachable than the elderly, but that’s not true. Abraham and Moses were two of the most teachable men who have ever lived. In fact, it can take many years of a great variety of life experiences before one finally becomes teachable. As a young person, Jeremiah may actually be an exception. Many young people are know-it-alls. But whether young or old, we will never become what God wants us to be unless we are teachable.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The God-Led Life

For the week of June 30, 2018 / 17 Tammuz 5778

Three-stage process cycle business diagram

Balak
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 22:2 – 25:9
Haftarah: Micah 5:6-6:8 (English: Micah 5:7 – 6:8)

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He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

This statement by the Hebrew prophet Micah is one of the most concise and balanced descriptions of the pursuit of the good life. When in tandem, these three things enable us to make a positive difference in the world. Conversely, the neglect of any one of the three is potentially destructive. Neglect, not overemphasis, because keeping each in mind even to a small extent mitigates against the extremes that emerge when neglecting even one of them.

The Hebrew word for justice is mishpat. It refers to the bringing about of what is right. The world is full of what needs to be righted. Saying asah mishpat instructs us that this is the activity aspect of the triad. Making things right is something we need to purposely work at. To do justice demands being aware of injustice, devising practical strategies to confront it, and finding ways to make it lasting. That’s a heavy task, especially since the forces of injustice are not passive, nor do they play fair.

Once the concern for justice captures our hearts, it can blind us, however, to the other essentials of life. Thus, the brilliance of it being stated along with the other two. Too often the purveyors of justice leave much damage in their wake, forgetting that while we are instructed to do justice, it is not to overwhelm our affections. Instead we are to love kindness. The word for kindness here is hesed, which is far more than simply being nice. Hesed, is steeped in committed relationship to God and to others. Depending on the context, hesed can mean “covenant love” or “loyal love.” It’s the type of kindness often shown to a relative or long-time friend. It’s having a generous heart toward someone because of the bonds of a committed relationship.

When adjoined to doing justice, hesed allows for needed change, while at the same time avoiding hurting people in the process. Making things right can be painful, but true committed love greatly reduces potential harm to individuals and communities. When focusing on what we think is right, it is far too easy to forget that on every side of every issue is a fellow human being. It is loyal love for God and others that helps us keep everyone’s best interest in mind even when we adamantly disagree with them.

We might think that these two are sufficient counter-balances to each other. Too much justice and we unnecessarily hurt people. Too much kindness allows injustice to flourish. What more do we need? Without the personal involvement of God, all we have is what is termed principle-based living. Principle-based living can be very appealing but is deceptively misguided. Tragically, the Bible is often abused by treating it as an instruction manual. Passages are read in order to reduce them to moral lessons that we try to apply to contemporary situations. Because God is continually referenced, we don’t realize that we disregard him.

God didn’t inspire the Bible and then remove himself from human affairs while he watches history unfold from afar. The Hebrew, v’hatznei’-a le’khet im elohei’kha describes a life of continual reliance on him.

God doesn’t expect us to figure out life on our own. How do we know whether or not our sense of urgency and allocation of resources match God’s? The Bible provides us with life’s foundations and general priorities, but not the specifics. Wisdom, the ability to implement scriptural truth, is not drawn from study and intelligence alone, no matter how well informed we may be. Rather it stems from a life that keeps in close step with our Heavenly Father.

Doing justice and loving kindness, without the intimate God-dynamic, however noble and well-intentioned, remains self-focused. The greatest of virtues driven by our own agendas eventually become idols. No wonder so many endeavors done in God’s name have defamed him. But if we allow him to initiate what we give ourselves to and correct our course as needed; if we look to him to fill us with genuine love for others as we remember his faithful love for us; then we will become the embodiment of his intentions, accomplishing his purposes in his time and in his way.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Displacement Guilt

For the week of June 23, 2018 / 10 Tammuz 5778

Migrants and refugees camping at the Greek-Macedonian border, April 15, 2016

Migrants and refugees camping at the Greek-Macedonian border, April 15, 2016

Hukkat
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 19:1 – 22:1
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 11:1-33

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But the LORD said to Moses, “Do not fear him, for I have given him into your hand, and all his people, and his land. And you shall do to him as you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who lived at Heshbon.” (B’midbar/Numbers 21:34)

This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) includes two key incidences in the history of ancient Israel. The people are nearing the end of their wilderness wanderings. Moses will die soon, and his leadership will pass on to his protégé, Joshua. In contrast to thirty-eight years earlier, the people will enter and conquer the promised land. In God’s providence he provided these events to more than prepare them for success in the future. They would also serve as reference points when facing greater challenges ahead (see D’varim/Deuteronomy 31:4; Tehillim/Psalms 136:17-22).

There was no explicit plan to inhabit the lands to the east of the Jordan River. At this stage in their journey Israel was simply continuing their travels. To get the right picture, remember that Israel numbered around two million. This was no family hiking vacation. That the residents of the region would have concerns about this foreign presence is reasonable. And so was Israel’s request for safe passage. It wasn’t until Israel was mortally threatened that battles ensued; battles they won, resulting in their permanently displacing the prior inhabitants.

These preliminary limited conquests function as prototypes for the far more comprehensive dispossession of the peoples of the land to the west of the Jordan. Few items in the Bible are viewed with as much disdain as these today. How could a good and loving God not only tolerate but encourage population dispossession and in some cases genocide? I sympathize with the various theological and philosophical gymnastics used to overcome the stigma of associating with such distasteful behavior. Yet attempting to distance God or ourselves from these events, while perhaps making God and the Bible more appealing, results in misrepresenting Scripture.

Similar disdain is expressed by many today in the Western world for our being products of European colonialization’s displacement of indigenous peoples. I see this as a psychological condition akin to survivor’s guilt. Survivor’s guilt is when a survivor of a tragedy has trouble coping with their continued existence while others who went through the same tragedy didn’t make it. They feel bad for surviving even though they may not have had anything to with it and certainly can’t reverse history. Similarly, what I am calling “displacement guilt,” is also due to tragedy experienced by others. Yet instead of being survivors of that tragedy, we are descendants of the perpetrators. As with survivor’s guilt, we can’t change the past.

Don’t get me wrong. Past injustices can and should be addressed, especially when the effects of the past are still controlling the present. However, we are not talking about righteous indignation, which channels itself into practical expressions of justice. Instead, displacement guilt rages uncontrollably over the past, harboring bitterness and resentment as we unsympathetically judge our own forebears. Thinking our harsh critique of the past should free us from inheriting responsibility, we nonetheless are burdened by guilt, since we continue to benefit – even enjoy – a lifestyle that deep down we believe was wrongly built on the backs of others.

Every one of us is the product of the events of history, including the brutal, at times unjust, and usually complex displacement of peoples. In the case of Israel, we know from Scripture that people such as the Amorites were displaced because they were extremely wicked (see Bereshit/Genesis 15:16). If it wasn’t for this particular displacement, then the world would be a lot worse than it is. God’s installation and development of Israel in the place of the Amorites and other wicked people groups at that time laid the foundation for much of the goodness that would one day be extended to the nations through the gospel.

Similar to Israel’s past, the current world configuration is largely the result of all sorts of conflict and strife. It’s too easy to sit in the present, pointing fingers at the past. Thinking we would have done differently from our forebears is proof of how extremely blind we have become to the reality of human nature. Life’s circumstances have changed; people have not.

As survivors of history we would do well to be students of history. If we don’t understand where we have come from, we won’t understand how we got here or understand where we are going. If anything, the Bible is painfully honest. It reminds us that history is full of brutality and conflict and that even the best of human endeavors have often resulted in disaster. But if you are reading this, then you are still here, and you can make a positive difference. To do that requires hope in God’s future, not bitterness towards the past.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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That’s Not Fair!

For the week of June 16, 2018 / 3 Tammuz 5778

Boy celebrating with checkered flag

Korach
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
Haftarah: 1 Shmuel/1 Samuel 11:14 – 12:22

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They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” (B’midbar/Numbers 16:3)

I was traumatized the other day – maybe I should say “triggered.” My wife, our two youngest children, and I along with several other homeschooling families participated in an annual track and field day. We have been homeschoolers for a long time, beginning with our youngest child (we have ten in all) in the mid-1980s. Having lived in different parts of four of Canada’s largest cities and being committed to tailoring each child’s schooling as best we could to their individual needs and abilities, our education experience has been quite varied. From time to time we have been involved in formal and informal co-ops, where we would connect with other families to provide subjects and/or activities to complement what we were doing at home. This school year, we enrolled our two youngest (the only children still living at home) in a once-a-week formal co-op. For many years in the region where this occurs, parents have been putting on an annual field day.

That’s all to say that it has been a long time since I have attended, not to mention been involved, in such an event. I remember similar days from my own school years. Just like this one, they tend to be a mix of classic track events, such as running races of various distances, standing and running long jumps, etc. and fun ones, such as the three-legged race. It was a most pleasant event for the most part, except for what triggered me.

Before I get to the truly painful part, I was first taken aback by the giving of ribbons for first through fifth place. When did they add fourth and fifth place? Will this generation be lobbying the International Olympic Committee for more medal categories? I wonder what they would be made of? Would you believe in 2012 a man from England took it upon himself to have pewter medals made and sent to fourth place finishers of the Summer Games in London? But my relatively minor state of shock over extending winning ribbons beyond third place didn’t prepare me for the BIG TRIGGER. As I was watching one of the races of the younger children (six-year-olds, perhaps), it was so obvious that some children were genetically superior than the others. It wasn’t even close as this one child (note my purposeful gender-neutral language) ran with superhero speed (comparatively speaking).

I stood there with dropped jaw. It was incredulous that well-meaning parents (as I assume these were) would allow such disparity of ability to be flaunted before impressionable minors. This child (as were a few others) were clearly physically privileged. No wonder they had ribbons for fourth and fifth places. My daughter’s group only had five competitors, so that was fine, but others had more. I don’t know how the ribbon-less children were able to show their faces in public after such a shameful display of inequality. Speak of unfair!

Korah and company who challenged Moses in this week’s parsha understood this and they were even more irate as I was (whether I really was traumatized or not is up to debate. You decide if I am being satirical or still bitter over being such a loser at athletic events). I know the parallel isn’t exact. The inequality demonstrated at the field day had to do with athletic prowess, while Korah was angry over what he perceived to be prejudicial preference. Yet I don’t think the resentment principle at work in these two contexts are that different, especially when you take God into account.

Korah, like Moses, was of the tribe of Levi. They were appointed by God to serve the priesthood, while God gave the priesthood itself to Moses’ brother Aaron and his descendants. Being specially set aside by God to be Levites was not enough for Korah as he wanted the priesthood as well. While he accused Moses of favoritism, in reality his resentment was targeting God himself.

Life isn’t fair. Not everyone gets to be a priest. Nor is everyone graced with the same abilities. Not everyone is born into the same life situation. Not everyone experiences the same challenges and/or opportunities. Not everyone handles their challenges and opportunities the same way. Life’s not fair.

What are we to do about it? Hand out ribbons for tenth place? Don’t hand our ribbons at all? Don’t have competitions? Some may think so, especially if equality of outcome is a high value.

But is that what we want, really? More importantly, is that what God wants? With all the attention given to diversity in our day, do we know how to truly celebrate actual diversity? We are all so different. And to a great extent, it’s by God’s design. It may not be fair, but it is only when we commit ourselves to utilizing our God-given differences to their maximum potential, free of resentment, that each and every one of us can discover what we were created for.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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When If Means Since

For the June 9, 2018 / 26 Sivan 5778

Random Scrabble tiles with the word "words" on top.

Shela Lekha
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24

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If the LORD delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. (B’midbar/Numbers 14:8)

When we communicate, whether spoken or written, we process what we hear very rapidly, giving little conscious thought to the actual words. While misunderstanding is common, at times contributing to all sorts of issues, most of the time we communicate quite accurately. That’s because most communication is done within context, and it is context that determines meaning.

Not only can we easily tolerate wrong words in sentences – accurately understanding what is being communicating in spite of mistaken word choice – the words we use often have a wide range of meaning. I don’t know if this is generally true for all languages, and/or if it is due to the age in which we live, but contemporary English has great tolerance for imprecision. The most extreme example I know of is what has happened to the word, “like.” Whatever we might think about this phenomenon, clearly it is tolerated by the vast majority of English speakers today. And by tolerated, I mean understood. While it is often nothing more than a silence filler, in the same way “uh” or “um” are used, or to punctuate what is about to be said or to introduce a quote (“She like ‘It’s so good to see you!”). It’s also used for “approximately” (“I think we are allowed like two cookies each”), not to mention older common usages of comparison (“this tastes like chicken”) or preference (“I like chocolate”). There are more, but you get the idea.

Our ability to easily tolerate lack of precision in language, doesn’t mean that there is no benefit in scrutinizing words more closely, both in how we give and receive within the communication process. While at times it might be inappropriate to scrutinize for precision, especially in personal, non-technical situations (I may correct my kids’ vocabulary too much), our tendency to not take the time to give more careful thought to what we say and what we hear prevents us from communicating at anything more than a superficial level.

Which finally brings us to this week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion). Included in this reading is one of the more tragic episodes of Israel’s biblical history. The rescue from Egypt was not a liberation unto some sort of general freedom; it was the breaking of the oppressive bonds of slavery with the expressed aim of their acquiring the Promised Land. The process of getting from Egypt to Canaan was an arduous one partly because it was necessary training to equip them for the challenges that lay ahead. While success was assured, it would nonetheless necessitate engaging formidable opposition that would fight to the death. I have no criticism of their feeling intimidated.

It’s therefore understandable that confidence was in short supply as the twelve scouts returned from their reconnaissance mission. Be that as it may, the minority opinion of Joshua and Caleb was based on very firm evidence. But why did they say, “If the LORD delights in us”? Were they unsure as were the others? On the contrary. They were convinced that God delighted in Israel. They knew that because of his great love and faithfulness, whatever the odds, victory was guaranteed. So, what’s with the “if”?

The Hebrew word for “if” is im (pronounced “eem”) and indeed means “if.” Most often, as we would expect, it is used as a conditional. For example, its first occurrence is God’s warning to Cain, Abel’s brother, when he says to him, “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” (Bereshit/Genesis 4:7). In the eventuality that Cain would do one thing, certain results would follow; otherwise different results would occur. But that’s not how Joshua and Caleb were using im. They meant “since the LORD delights in us.” Then why not translate it “since”?

Well, there is actually something slightly iffy about Joshua and Caleb’s statement, but not in the normal conditional sense. They are not suggesting the people will only be okay in the event God might perhaps delight in Israel. Rather, the conditional aspect is dependent, not on God, but on whether they will live their lives based on his faithfulness. While it is certain that God delights in his people, if they live as if this is a lie, then the reality of that fact will be lost on them.

This is like my saying to someone “Why are you bringing your raincoat, if it is sunny outside?” That it is sunny is certain. Yet, I am implying it is inappropriate to wear rain gear under the condition of good weather. Whether or not you benefit from this condition is up to you. Thus, the if. If (meaning “since”) you are in right relationship with God through the Messiah, then you can have confidence that he delights in you and will enable you to face whatever challenges come your way. Whether or not you believe that and benefit from it is up to you.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Relational Dynamic

For the week of June 2, 2018 / 19 Sivan 5778

Angel-looking large cloud over baseball field

Beha’alotcha
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 8:1-12:16
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English: 2:10 – 4:7)

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At the command of the LORD they camped, and at the command of the LORD they set out. (B’midbar/Numbers 9:23)

There are so many misconceptions about the nature of God in the Old Testament. So much so that from the early days of what became Christianity, there have been attempts to separate New Covenant faith from its roots in the Hebrew Scriptures. Most typical is the angry vs. the loving God as if Moses and Yeshua were representing two completely different deities. While few Bible believers would make such an explicit claim, this misrepresentation of Holy Scripture has saturated the minds of many, creating a default suspicion towards the older Testament.

One of the areas that tends to be misrepresented is what I call the relational dynamic. There’s a tendency to overstate the contrast between the times before and after the coming of the Messiah regarding how people personally related to God. There is a contrast for sure. God’s heart for Israel was to dwell among them. This was what the ceremonial aspects of Torah were all about. In a sense God’s presence was located within the inner sanctum of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and later the Temple. Yet, at the same time, he was not fully accessible to the masses. This was designed to vividly illustrate to the people their alienation from God in the hope that they would be ready for the time when this alienation would be resolved through the Messiah.

However, it wasn’t as if their distanced condition necessarily implied lack of meaningful relationship to God. Not only was the unconditional covenant made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob a clear statement of God’s ongoing commitment to Israel, acting as a firm foundation in spite of their condition, he revealed himself and his ways to the people through Moses. But doesn’t this also emphasize their alienation from God? Yes and no. Yes, God did anticipate a time when his communication with his people would be more personal and direct, but no, in that whether direct or not, God truly and personally revealed himself to them albeit through an intermediary.

Interestingly Moses’ intermediate role in the time prior to the Messiah was not absolute. Take the phenomenon of the cloud in this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion). If Moses was an absolute intermediary, he would be the exclusive receptor of God’s revelation, who then would relay his intentions to the people. While he did fulfill that role to a great extent, the cloud was something that everyone would see. The people didn’t have to wait for Moses to give the word as to when they were to break camp and where their next destination would be. The whole nation would be witnesses to God’s direct leading.

That it was never God’s intention to speak through Moses exclusively is demonstrated all through the Hebrew Scriptures as we see God appearing and speaking to all sorts of people. David, for example, who loved God’s written Word, didn’t believe for a minute that knowing his Creator and Master was wrapped up only within Scripture as he lived out a vibrant intimacy with him. The Scripture taught him that there was a relational dynamic.

This relational dynamic, so clearly attested to by the Hebrew Bible, is amplified under the New Covenant. We recently observed the harvest festival of Shavuot (English: Weeks, aka Pentecost), the anniversary of the fulfillment of the words of the Hebrew prophet Joel, who predicted a far more intimate and general awareness of God’s presence among his people (see Acts 2:1-21; compare Joel 3:1-5 [English: 2:28-32]).

Sadly, many believers have been misled to believe that with the completion of the whole Bible, God is less present with us than even in Moses’ day. They assert that we are to rely solely on the objective testimony of the ancients as the way to know the God of Israel. We speak of “personal relationship” with God and reject anyone who claims to know him in ways reflective of Scripture.

It doesn’t help that some who make such relational claims are misguided due to their rejecting of God’s Word. As the Spirit illumines Scripture, Scripture enables us to discern the Spirit. Unless we keep within the Bible’s parameters, we have no way of knowing the difference between God’s direction and that of our own thoughts and feelings.

It’s only when we keep within the parameters of Scripture we learn that while God has provided general directions for every aspect of life, the only way to truly and effectively live out his directions is by personally relying on him. It’s not as if God speaks only in generalities, leaving it up to us to figure out life’s details. Rather, he wants us to rely on him as he teaches us to intimately follow him day-by-day, moment-by-moment.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Good Wishes

For the week of May 26, 2018 / 12 Sivan 5778

Illustration of positive words emanating from an open hand

Naso
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 13:2-25

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The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them, “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.’ So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” (B’midbar/Numbers 6:22-27)

My understanding of dominant religious thought during the period of Israel’s wilderness wanderings is that most ancient peoples believed that the gods had to be appeased. Their rituals developed as a way to ensure (in their minds at least) that they might be able to keep their health, remain safe, and that their crops would grow. The underlying concept driving them was that spiritual forces were, for the most part, out to get them. Fear of harm and/or disaster kept them in line.

Regrettably many people think of the “Old Testament” in similar terms as if the sacrifices, for example, served a similar purpose. After all, didn’t God through Moses and the prophets clearly warn the people that if they didn’t abide by the rules, they would be in big trouble? This misconception is further tainted by the supposed contrast between the testaments, where the New Testament features a much nicer deity who so loves us that he is blind to our misdeeds.

Perhaps you never noticed that the Torah sacrificial system doesn’t contain the notion of appeasement. The people were severely warned of disaster, but only when the essence of their lives became defined as contrary to God’s ways. The consequences of ignoring God’s directives were not a result of ticking off God, but of ignoring life’s design, which God had graciously revealed to them. Sacrifice was far more an expression of an already established relationship with God than an attempt to draw his favor. In fact, engaging the sacrificial system as a means to make up for the kind of appropriate heart attitude which bears the fruit of a good and righteous life is regarded as extreme hypocrisy.

Far from being negatively predisposed toward his people, God’s heart for Israel was fundamentally positive. Look at the blessing he gave the cohanim (English: the priests) to speak over the people blessing, protection, and grace. That his face may shine upon us and that his countenance would be lifted upon us, are ways of saying, may God be positively disposed toward us. You may think that if such a blessing was necessary, then these words constitute a wish contrary to God’s normal posture. It’s as if my wishing that God might do good to you necessarily means his intentions toward you are bad. But that’s not it at all! Who gave these words to the cohanim to speak in the first place? This blessing is the way God was putting his name upon the people. To know him, was to also know that God truly wished them well.

God is not out to get you. He is not out to get anyone. That doesn’t mean that he is a simplistic “nicey nice” God. (I couldn’t think of a more technical term). Some of the same folks who skew the Hebrew Scriptures by mischaracterizing the God of Israel as an angry, vengeful dictator, do similarly with the New Covenant writings as they misrepresent him as a doting grandmother (no offense to doting grandmothers). An intelligent reading of the whole Bible reveals a great consistency in God’s character as someone who wants the absolute best for each and every one of his human creatures, but on his terms, not ours.

To ignore God’s ways is to invite harm to ourselves and those we love. He cares enough about you and me to tell us so. Pretending otherwise is to live an illusion – a fantasy that becomes a nightmare when we take the negative consequences of our lives that are due to our ignoring a loving, all-powerful God and read back into him malintent.

If we are constantly looking over our shoulder wondering when God is going to mess up our lives, we have believed a lie. Again, if we have not dealt with the seriousness of our misdeeds, we will be out of sorts with him. If left unresolved, we will find ourselves on a permanent road to destruction. But even being aware of that prospect is a gift from the One who has gone out of his way to bring us back from the brink.

God wishes us well. God wants to bless us. It’s time we stopped missing out on the abundant life he yearns to give us and receive the blessings he desires to speak over us.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Climate Change

For the week of May 12, 2018 / 27 Iyar 5778

Climate chance concept image

Behar & Bechukotai
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34
Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19 – 17:14

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If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. (Vayikra/Leviticus 26:3-4)

There are few issues today that capture people’s attention as much as climate change. Climate change is far more than whether the global climate is significantly changing. It’s the great concern over its apparently inevitable devastating effects and that human beings are its chief cause. For many the climate apocalypse has taken the place of the threat of nuclear war as the world’s biggest fear. Destructive storms, unstoppable fires, and coastal flooding are lurking just around the corner.

There was a time that talking about the weather was considered polite small talk. Now it’s the stuff of international summits and overarching government policies. According to many leaders unless we drastically decrease our consumption of fossil fuels immediately, the world as we know it will no longer exist. It might even be too late.

The Torah includes insights to help us effectively deal with this issue. First, that we should care about the environment is a concern all people should share. This may come as a surprise to some people of biblical faith, especially those who mistakenly detach things spiritual from things material. God placed human beings on earth as caretakers of the planet, a responsibility never rescinded, superseded or redefined. From the Bible’s perspective, the importance of spiritual matters is deeply connected to the material realm. Spirituality in all its expressions, good and bad, is lived out in the physical world, not apart from it or in denial of it.

The Torah is clear that the health of the environment is dependent upon human activity. Some of that is obvious as in those things where our actions have immediate consequences. We have learned to burn wood in our fireplaces and natural gas in our homes in such ways so as to not poison ourselves with fumes. The industrial revolution caused great pollution, and smog was a major health hazard. I wonder how many people are aware of how cites like London and Los Angeles have effectively addressed such problems. Climate change is much more difficult to analyze because we don’t readily observe its effects or what the causes might actually be. The Bible however shares the concern of climate change proponents, though not necessarily what’s fueling it (pun intended).

According to the Bible the prime factor controlling the environment is morality and plays out in two ways. First, cause and effect – not in a way readily observable, but more obvious than we may think. While there are large regions of the world that are very poor, history has never seen the level of affluence many of us take for granted. Who thought even a few years ago, that it would be common for young people to carry (in their back pockets no less) a device worth hundreds of dollars that gets completely replaced every one to two years. The demand for individual convenience, pleasure, and status has resulted in overly excessive consumerism and waste. Yet, tragically, many people of faith refuse to consider greed and selfishness as issues to be concerned about. We produce far more than we need and in such a way that results in mind-boggling waste. Do we really think God will allow us to get away with this forever?

That brings us to the second way morality affects the environment. The Torah is clear that there is more than simply direct cause and effect going on. The well-being of the planet is dependent upon a relational dynamic. The earth belongs to God, and it matters to him whether we live according to his ways. When we do, the environment cooperates; when we don’t, it doesn’t.

I would suspect that many of those so very concerned about climate change would scoff at my tying spirituality and morality to the environment. But that connection may not be as mysterious as some may assume. Can we not see, for example, how sexual liberation, by undermining the traditional family as the basic building block for society, greatly contributes to the ever-increasing production of goods with its accompanying waste? Then we are told that if only there were less people, we would be better off, failing to understand that while humans contribute to the world’s problems, we are still God’s chosen solution. We can only make a short- and long-term positive difference if we live God’s way.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Cultural Appropriation

For the week of May 5, 2018 / 20 Iyar 5778

Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, & family on an official government trip to India, February 2018

Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, & family
on an official government trip to India, February 2018

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

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Thus Moses declared to the people of Israel the appointed feasts of the LORD. (Vayikra/Leviticus 23:44)

Something we frequently hear about lately is “cultural appropriation,” the concept that it is inappropriate in some, if not all, circumstances to take on foreign cultural forms and expressions. The Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, was taken to task for this very thing on his trip to India earlier this year. When cultural appropriation first came to my attention some time ago, I frankly thought the strong objection to it was a bit strange, not because I don’t understand the concern, but because I am so used to it (sort of).

As a Jewish believer in the Messiah, whose spiritual relationships are mainly among non-Jews, I encounter cultural appropriation constantly. In fact, Christianity is and has always been an exercise in cultural appropriation. Generally, Jews and Christians are not aware of this, however, since most Christian cultural expression wouldn’t be recognized as Jewish. The fact is there is almost nothing within Christianity’s core beliefs that isn’t derived from the Jewish world. Some are more obvious than others. The primary document for Christians is the Bible, both Old and New Testament written almost exclusively by Jews and focused on activities happening to or done by Jewish people. Even as global outreach developed, its development and implementation was in Jewish hands. The God of the Christians is the God of Israel. The religious and theological concepts adhered to by Christians are all Jewish in origin, such as sin, righteousness, sacrifice, and holiness. Then there’s the very center of all core concepts, the Messiah. While the Jewish and Christian worlds have traditionally been divided over the Messiah’s identity, Christianity is founded on the conviction that Yeshua (Jesus) is the Jewish Messiah. Using Greek-oriented instead of Hebrew-oriented terminology obscures the cultural connection. That many Jews and Christians aren’t conscious that Christ and Messiah, for example, are synonyms doesn’t negate the Jewish nature of the messianic concept.

Other key Jewish components of Christianity are not as obvious. Most people don’t realize that baptism was originally a Jewish custom that was done as part of the conversion process as well as when an estranged Jewish person wanted to return to God. The development of the church as the place of community teaching and prayer was based on the synagogue. Communion, also called the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, is taken from Passover. The hope of the resurrection of the body was an exclusively Jewish concept. We could go on.

The early Jewish believers went out of their way to allow the Good News about the Messiah to function freely and fully in a non-Jewish context. Through God-given wisdom they freed the core of biblical faith from Jewish cultural control, allowing the nations to work out the essentials of biblical spirituality within their own contexts. What I don’t think the early believers envisioned is how far from a Jewish frame of reference the Church would go.

Many non-Jewish believers over the past hundred years or so have sought to re-contextualize Christianity within a Jewish frame of reference. Some correctly understand that the freedom to adapt biblical teaching within foreign cultures, while helpful in many ways, can tend to skew biblical truth, especially when cut off from its Jewish roots. At the same time, however, the passion to restore biblical faith to its ancient roots can go overboard. This is where appropriate cultural adaptation can become misappropriation. This happens in two ways: first, by confusing Jewish culture with biblical truth. Not everything that is Jewish is necessarily biblical. Much of Jewish culture found in the world today is recent in origin. While we don’t know the tunes of King David’s psalms, we are fairly certain that they were not anything close to what is thought of as Jewish music today. Similarly, Jewish foods are normally adaptations of local fare throughout the world where Jewish people have lived. Apart from the limits of kosher laws, there is nothing intrinsically biblical about the vast majority of Jewish cuisine.

The second type of misappropriation is in regard to actual biblical material. For example, take the feasts as listed in this week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion). It is tragic that this key component of the Books of Moses, like most of the Hebrew Scriptures, has been virtually ignored by Christians. There is so much to learn from the feasts as they teach us about God’s character and activities. Yet it is easy to go from a healthy renewed focus on Scripture to a misguided emphasis on cultural expression. Much of Jewish festival observance today is based on tradition, not Bible. Tradition isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is culturally bound to the people who developed it. People don’t often possess the level of sensitivity necessary to adapt cultural forms. That doesn’t mean it should never be done. Perhaps we need to meaningfully get to truly know the people whose culture it is before we treat it as our own.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Intentional Design

For the week of April 28, 2018 / 13 Iyar 5778

General Instruction Manual

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

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And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the LORD your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the LORD your God. You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 18:1-5) 

This week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion), specifically chapter eighteen, contains a list of forbidden sexual behaviors. The word to describe God’s take on these things is “tō-ei-vah’,” most often translated into English as “abomination.” It is a very strong word, describing God’s abhorrence of such things, including bestiality, homosexuality, incest, and intercourse during menstruation. That these prohibitions are to be taken as universal principles for all people for all time is clarified by what God says at the end of the chapter. It was because of such behaviors that the previous inhabitants of the Promised Land were judged.

I have the impression that many people regard such directives as arbitrary, as if there is no reason for them apart from God’s authority – something like the kid who owns the soccer ball saying, “My ball, my rules. Do it my way or you don’t play.” It doesn’t matter that his rules are solely based on his personal preferences or that they undermine the true nature of the game. His position of power allows him to dominate others just because he can. For many people that’s exactly how God operates. Some try to put a positive spin on it by clinging to God’s goodness and love: “I have no idea why we have to do this, but I know he has our best interests in mind.” Others accept God’s rules begrudgingly: “I don’t know why I have to do this silly rule, but I guess I have to anyway.” Still others, just reject them as archaic: “I guess they may have had some sort of purpose in times past, but in our modern world they clearly don’t apply anymore.”

If anyone in the universe has the right to arbitrarily set the rules of the game, it’s God. But I don’t have any reason to assume that any directive he has ever given to anyone at any time has been arbitrary. While we may not understand the reasons for God’s directives, whether more general universal ones such as those in our passage, or the more specific ones given to individuals in particular situations, it is far more reasonable to conclude that it’s only our inability to fully understand God’s ways that makes them appear arbitrary.

Why am I so sure? The Bible expresses itself within its own context. It is not a collection of disconnected abstractions: good ideas of life spouted by enlightened ones. Rather, it is an epic story of God’s workings within real history in order to rescue human beings from the oppression of evil. Foundational to this epic is that God designed and implemented the universe.

Connected to the idea that God’s directives are arbitrary, is regarding the creation in the same way. It feels like a necessary tenet of biblical faith to assert that God could have made the world any way he liked; that the way things are is only one of infinite possibilities. But even if that is true, if God would have done it differently, matter and existence would be of a completely other kind than what we currently know. I can say this, because even miniscule adjustments to things like the earth’s spin, orbit, and distance to the sun would mean we couldn’t exist. And that’s only three finely tuned factors of the universe we inhabit. The actual list upon which the universe depends is beyond comprehension and is evidence of anything but the creation being arbitrary.

The Book of Proverbs reminds us “The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens” (Mishlei/Proverbs 3:19). He didn’t make things just ‘cause. He made it according to his infinite understanding, knowledge, and ability. That he spoke everything into existence reflects that it is an outcome of supreme intelligence. We marvel at the creation, not just because of its intricate beauty and divine origins, but as a display of what happens when the only God makes a universe.

Therefore, when the Creator reveals to us how life is to be lived, he is not simply asserting control to show us who’s boss. He is generously and lovingly providing us with aspects of his design specifications in order that we might live good, healthy, and productive lives. To ignore his instructions is to unnecessarily put ourselves and others in great danger.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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