Positively Negative

For the week of September 26, 2020 / 8 Tishri 5781

Silhouette of a large finger pointing aggressively at a silhouetted intimidated man

Ha’Azinu/Shuva
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:1 – 32:52
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2-10 (English: 14:1-9); Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-17

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If they were wise, they would understand this; they would discern their latter end! (D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:29)

The annual Torah reading cycle comes to an end during the High Holiday season. Whenever a festival falls on Shabbat, a special Torah reading replaces the regularly scheduled ones. This year that happens quite a bit; this week being the one exception. It is also unusually negative.

We live in unusually negative times. I am not referring to the general intensity of the current challenges we are facing, including the pandemic and various political and social issues. It’s the loud angry tone of accusation being incessantly fired at real or perceived wrongs, be they current or past, systemic or not. Somehow it has become acceptable to harshly and angrily criticize those with whom we disagree and blast those deemed to be the source of injustice.

I in no way want to suggest that the concerns being addressed are necessarily unjustified. Perhaps some are. I personally believe that we should do our best to listen to the complaints of others. I know it’s difficult to hear the content of what someone is saying when they are very angry. But just because their presentation is upsetting and extreme shouldn’t mean they should be automatically disregarded.

That said, I also believe there is an underlying misnomer about life in general that is fueling the anger. Perhaps if the victims of injustice and their supporters would take a moment to catch some of what is being addressed by Moses in this week’s reading, we all might have a better chance at resolving many, if not all, the issues we are facing today.

These are some of Moses’ final words to the people of Israel before he died, thus the Torah is near completion. The Books of Moses are foundational to the whole Bible and contain core stories such as creation, human rebellion, and the early beginnings of God’s restoration plan. It’s in Torah we learn of God’s choosing of Israel and the demonstration of his power through the exodus from Egypt, followed by the revelation of his word at Mt. Sinai and subsequent teaching through Moses. Throughout Torah’s pages we discover God’s worldview and the delineation of his ways as they touch on all aspects of life. Yet, as Moses completes his mission, his outlook is bleak. Instead of the expected, “You can do it!” pep talk, he tells his people, “You are going to fail!”

His words may be negative but are designed for a positive result. Moses isn’t trying to discourage the people; he is helping them to take a realistic view of themselves. They have a problem, a deep-seated spiritual and moral problem. Essential to understanding this problem is to accept that they all have it. It may sound as if Moses considers himself an exception, but remember he had been recently barred from entering the Promised Land due to his own misbehavior. No one is exempt from this negative assessment.

The good words of Torah, while being an overall blessing, testify against Israel by exposing the negative condition of human nature. This is not exclusive to Israel, of course. For Israel was chosen partly to demonstrate to the whole world our twisted state. This is what the Bible calls, “sin.” In the subsequent years Israel would face their sin as God would teach them (and through them the world), that only he possesses the remedy. It’s only by humbly admitting our need and receiving God’s forgiveness and power through the Messiah that we can be the people we were meant to be.

The current rage has failed to grasp that we are all in this together. No one can claim to be in possession of a nature that is morally and spiritually superior to anyone else’s. Sin may express itself differently in and through each one of us, but it will express itself. Thankfully, the remedy too is available to anyone willing to receive it.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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God Hears

For the week of September 19, 2020 / 1 Tishri 5781

Message information over oil painting of Hagar and Ishmael.

Painting: “Hagar and Ishmael” by Benjamin West. 1776, reworked 1803. Metropolitan Museum of Art collection. Public Domain (Creative Commons).

Rosh Hashanah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 21:1-34; B’midbar/Numbers 29:1-6
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 1:1 – 2:10

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And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.” (Bereshit/Genesis 21:17)

This week’s Torah readings are special for Rosh Hashana, which literally means “head of the year.” A more biblical term for this festival is Yom T’ruah, meaning “Day of Blowing (the Shofar),” which over time became the occasion to mark the civil new year for the Jewish people. When major festivals fall on a Shabbat, the normally scheduled reading is postponed and replaced by special readings pertinent to the festival. Rosh Hashanah, being observed for two days (this year beginning the evening of Friday, September 18), there are different readings for each day.

The first Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah includes the birth of Isaac, the son promised to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. This section of Bereshit/Genesis was likely chosen because it is acting as an introduction to the second reading later in the same book, when God provides a ram to be sacrificed in place of Isaac. The connection to the festival is due to the ram’s being caught by its horns in a thicket, and that the ram’s horn, shofar in Hebrew, is the central symbol of the festival.

The first reading also includes the account of Hagar’s and Ishmael’s final separation from Abraham’s household. Ishmael was the product of a surrogacy arrangement urged by Sarah as a way to resolve her barrenness. This was the second time that an issue between Sarah and her maidservant, Hagar, led to Hagar’s leaving. The first time Hagar was instructed by God to return (see Bereshit/Genesis 16), but this second time the separation was to be permanent. The first time, when she was still pregnant, she was told by an angel that she would bear a son, named Ishmael, and that God would give him many offspring. This second time, she is told he would become a great nation.

What I would like for us to notice in this encounter, is the statement: “God heard the voice of the boy” (Bereshit/Genesis 21:17). Every year in synagogues all over the world, these words are chanted: “God heard the voice of the boy.” Every year at the beginning of what has become the holiest three weeks in the Jewish calendar, the people of Israel are reminded, “God heard the voice of the boy.” Which boy? Ishmael—rejected from being a member of God’s covenant community. Yet, God heard him. In fact, his name means, “God hears.”

This one sentence to this one person tells us something about the God of Israel that is too often forgotten. From this earliest stage in the development of the Chosen People, Torah makes clear that the God of Israel isn’t the God of Israel only. The ears of God are open to all. This is not to say that every representation of the spiritual domain humans have invented is correct. Neither does this justify misguided actions of those who claim to be true believers. The Bible in no way condones an anything-goes approach to God and life. But it also doesn’t condone any attempt to claim exclusive rights to him.

The chosenness of Israel was established by God to bless the nations of the world (see Bereshit/Genesis 12:3). Israel was chosen as a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Without in anyway downplaying God’s eternal commitment to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, chosenness was never to result in an exclusive claim on God.

It took the early followers of the Messiah some time to grasp this. A breakthrough in this regard happened when Peter was called by God to be the first to present the good news of the Messiah to a non-Jewish household. He said, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). He didn’t understand that before. He should have, but he didn’t. Now he did.

I assume that many reading or hearing this at least theoretically understand that “God shows no partiality,” but do we really? While good definitions of appropriate faith are essential to walking in God’s truth, I wonder how many unnecessary boundaries we have placed on our particular brand. It’s one thing to cluster with like-minded people, but there is a fine line between preference and arrogance. If God is willing to hear people from outside our strictly defined groupings, then perhaps we are well advised to hear them too.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Individualism vs. Collectivism

For the week of September 12, 2020 / 23 Elul 5780

Multiple darts flying together toward a large target while a single dart heads to a separate small target

Nitzavim & Vayeilech
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30 (English 29:10 – 31:30)
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9

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You are standing today, all of you, before the LORD your God: the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and the sojourner who is in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water, so that you may enter into the sworn covenant of the LORD your God, which the LORD your God is making with you today, that he may establish you today as his people, and that he may be your God, as he promised you, and as he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. It is not with you alone that I am making this sworn covenant, but with whoever is standing here with us today before the LORD our God, and with whoever is not here with us today. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 29:9-14; English: 29:10-15)

One of the cultural clashes we are experiencing in our world today is individualism vs. collectivism. Some claim the successes of the Western world are built upon stressing the value of the individual, leading to individual freedoms, rights, and responsibility. Pop culture has derived “you can be whoever you want to be” from this way of thinking. Most of the world for most of history has downplayed the individual in favor of the collective. According to collectivism, who you are and your role in life are derived solely from your family and community. According to this way of thinking you are born into a particular station in life and are expected to remain there.

Individualists reject this type of deterministic thinking and look to remove what they regard as societal obstacles usually in terms of unnecessary government controls to provide individuals the opportunity to prosper. Collectivists on the other hand put their hopes on bettering community control, through greater government involvement as the way to prevent a small percentage of individuals from gaining inordinate advantage over the masses.

The reason for the intensity of the clash between these two ways of thinking is each views the whole of reality through their particular lens. Individualism only sees individuals.  They see collectivist leaders as nothing more than individuals riding the backs of the masses in the name of equality and equity. Collectivists don’t see individuals, but only an oppressive class to be replaced.

On the surface these may appear to be two different political approaches. But they are more than that, they are political approaches stemming from two different ways of seeing the world. What they have in common is that they are both wrong. Both create caricatures of the other based on skewed perceptions. Reality is best understood through a biblical lens. God’s perspective as revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures and New Covenant Writings is not just another way of looking at life. It’s the understanding of the designer of the universe himself.

According to Scripture, human beings are individuals intimately connected to identifiable groups. We see this reflected in the beginning of this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion). The people of Israel are being addressed by Moses as he nears the end of his life. That he is addressing a community is obvious. He reminds Israel that their covenant with God establishes them as a people whose community identity extends beyond the current generation. Yet, how he addresses them also emphasizes their being individuals within that community: “You are standing today, all of you, before the LORD your God: the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and the sojourner who is in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 29:9-10; English 29:10-11).

Throughout the Scriptures we see the dynamic of community obligation and individual responsibility. For ancient Israel the individual was at its best when he or she earnestly lived out his or her national community obligations. The greatest community builders in Israel were those who took very lonely stands for the greater good of the people, including Joseph, Moses, and David.

The basis for the well-balanced functioning of the individual and the community is that neither derived ultimate meaning in one or the other. Instead both individual and collective meaning and value were derived from God and his word. Focus on self or focus on community blinds us from the higher view of life that only God can provide.

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

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Differences Count

For the week of August 29, 2020 / 9 Elul 5780

Illustration of the world with costumed people of various nationalities holding hands around its circumference

Ki Teze
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10
Originally posted the week of September 17, 2016 / 14 Elul 5776

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You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest. You may charge a foreigner interest, but you may not charge your brother interest, that the LORD your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 23:19-20)

The verses I just read contain a biblical understanding of life that is being overrun today by misguided notions of tolerance, brotherhood, and unity. That’s not to say that tolerance, brotherhood, and unity are not biblical notions. Indeed, they are, but it’s the versions of these and many other noble principles that are misguided. Obviously the main issue addressed by God through Moses here is the charging of interest, which certainly deserves our attention, but there is an underlying concept of human relations that is foundational for what is being said about loans. And it is this concept that I want to focus on this week.

Whatever else is implied by the charging and not charging of interest, the people of Israel were directed by God to treat citizens differently from non-citizens. This seems to contradict what God says elsewhere: “You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the LORD your God” (Vayikra/Leviticus 24:22). But these are two different contexts. One has to do with life and limb; the other is about loans and interest. One is clearly a justice issue in which natives and foreigners were to be judged equally, while the other is financial. Note it doesn’t say not to loan money to foreigners, just that charging interest in their case was permitted.

So on one hand the Torah is very clear about social equality between peoples. When Yeshua centuries later used the Samaritans, a despised people group of his day, to illustrate to his fellow Jews what loving one’s neighbor really means (see Luke 10:25-37), he was not being a modern radical, but he was rather affirming Torah principles that were being denied by his fellow countrymen. Contrary to popular misconception the Scriptures are not the basis of bigoted racial theory, but actually clearly espouse the unity of the human family via Noah and Adam. According to the Bible there is only one race, the human race.

At the same time, God’s inspired written word recognizes – more than that! – it celebrates national distinctions. Even though the emergence of diverse languages and the resultant cultural and ethnic groupings were due to an ungodly attempt of self-preservation as recorded in the account of the city and tower of Babel (see Bereshit/Genesis 11:1-9), the hand of God is seen in the development of nationalities. The Book of Revelation’s depiction of the renewal of all things in keeping with the Hebrew prophetic writings in no way anticipates the homogenization of ethnicities but their continued national distinctions (see Revelation, chapters 21 & 22). The trans-national unity experienced by believers (see Galatians 3:28) was never intended to undermine the practicalities of ethnic diversity (see Acts 15 & 21:17-26; Romans 14:1 – 15:13).

And yet among Bible believers and the society at large there is a growing sense of embarrassment with anything that affirms nationalistic differences (except at times for certain cultural expressions like food and music). Both believers and non-believers alike have bought into a version of human unity that makes them uncomfortable with the idea we should treat foreigners differently from natives. But that stems from a denial of distinctions that God himself recognizes. Paul, for example, who was so passionate about the intimate unity we have in Yeshua, could still write that we need to prioritize providing for our families over others (1 Timothy 5:8), and that believers need to care for the believing community before expressing concern for outsiders (Galatians 6:10).

Recognizing lines of demarcation between communities is a good thing and is necessary for the healthy administration of societies. Full participation within any community, whether it be a small religious group, or a large country should be the result of a clear naturalization process. Differing requirements for members and non-members/citizens and non-citizens are not necessarily expressions of bigotry and prejudice, but the essential elements of belonging that are necessary for the effective thriving of any community. Claiming that all people everywhere have the automatic right to belong to whatever group they like regardless of who they are may sound nice, but in the end creates nothing but chaos and meaninglessness. We shouldn’t be surprised when those who impose their sense of so-called brotherhood upon us end up taking away every last vestige of true diversity with which God has graced us.

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

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Going It Alone

For the week of August 22, 2020 / 2 Elul 5780

A solitary man on a busy walkway with blurred passersby

Shoftim
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9
Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12

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You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 16:18-20)

I always found it a bit curious that while the Torah prohibits bribery, it only does so from the perspective of taking a bribe, not offering a bribe. The Hebrew word for bribe is “shachad,” and refers to the offer of money or items in order to unduly influence another person. The word also refers to a ransom, where the terms of the shachad are set by someone illegitimately holding back items or persons with the expressed purpose of demanding payment.

The Torah prohibition against bribery, albeit limited in scope is radical for its day. A scholar by the name of Jacob J. Finklestein, based on his study of ancient near-Eastern texts, concluded that such a prohibition was unique in addressing bribery. He could not find any other document that prohibited it at all. That should not surprise us as bribery was and is not only common, but in many places and situations is expected.

The Torah’s prohibition against shachad is not only limited to the taking of bribes, it is addressed solely to legal officials. The reason given is that officials were responsible for establishing justice. God knew that the taking of bribes would skew their judgment, and therefore forbid it.

I have heard stories of people travelling to certain countries where the giving of gifts or money was expected when dealing with immigration, customs, or law enforcement officers. In some cultures, it can be so customary that it may be deemed part of the cost of doing business. Those who are not used to such things may find this atrociously distasteful. Some may attempt to buck such a system, but to no avail. It’s pay the extra money or you may not be able to enter the country or get your luggage. When facing such a situation, it might be somewhat comforting to learn that it’s the taking, not the giving, that God prohibits.

When we realize how prevalent a practice bribery was and still is, it highlights what was at stake for those to whom it was explicitly forbidden. It’s one thing to be told not to do something that one may find appealing, such as taking bribes. It’s another when everybody else (or it seems everybody else) is doing it. That’s no justification for it, of course. It’s that resisting a supposed personal benefit when others are readily accepting it is much more difficult. Such things are even more difficult when they are part of the fabric of the society. It’s easier to take a moral stand on an issue when a culture is split over it. We can find comfort in resisting a common practice when a sizable group of resisters exists even if they are a minority. When an associate, friend, or family member looks at you funny for not going along with what they deem to be expected behavior, knowing that you are not alone in your stand is encouraging. But when a custom is taken for granted by the overwhelming majority of a society, that’s a whole other kind of challenge entirely. Taking a stand for what is right when you feel like you are the only one is really hard.

I would think this particular issue would have been a lot easier had God called the people of Israel to forbid all shachad in all situations. This may have at least created a sense of “bribery is wrong” that would have been easy to appeal to. But instead the commonality of such practices continued as normal. Perhaps God was aware that any attempt to regulate all forms of shachad would fail. I can’t say for sure.

What I can say is that this particular limited prohibition provides us with an example of the reality of living in a sinful world. The Bible doesn’t function as an extensive rule book covering all of life. Instead it equips us with everything we need to live effective godly lives. This includes difficult behavioral demands to be lived out within a broken world. It would be so nice if everyone around us bought in to the same set of godly principles to live by. But life doesn’t work that way. Rather, God expects his people to do what he calls us to do even when we must do it alone.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Outside In

For the week of August 15, 2020 / 25 Av 5780

Sunlight shining through prison window

Re’eh
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5

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See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you today, and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn aside from the way that I am commanding you today, to go after other gods that you have not known. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 11:26-28)

The welfare of ancient Israel was intimately tied to their adherence to the covenant established by God through Moses. Faithful adherence would result in blessing, the Torah term for possessing the potential for life, reproductive life. They would have large, healthy and thriving families over multiple generations; their animals would abundantly reproduce; and they would live in safety and security. Conversely, the consequences for disregarding Torah were curses, the removal of life, including illness, desolation, fear, and being overcome by their enemies resulting in eventual exile.

God never intended obedience and disobedience to be understood in absolute terms as if the tiniest infraction would be deemed as breaking covenant and thus inviting disaster. The God of Torah is merciful and patient, ready and willing to forgive when wrongdoers humble themselves. The grave disobedience that results in cursing is defined as “to go after other gods that you have not known” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 11:28). Breaking covenant was expressed by rejecting the one true God in favor of the false gods of idolatry.

The God of Israel’s prohibition against false gods was both personal and impersonal. It was personal in the sense that he alone was their savior. Not only did he establish them as a people through their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he became their redeemer by rescuing them from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. Therefor Israel owed their existence and their freedom to this God alone. To engage other gods would be a personal act of disloyalty.

The prohibition against false gods was also impersonal in that there are issues in engaging other gods that apply to all people and not only due to the kind of covenant relationship that Israel had with God. Whatever was true universally for all people regarding other gods would also apply to Israel in addition to that which uniquely applied to them due to the covenant.

The first universal principle would be that other gods are not gods. God-ness, so to speak, was erroneously ascribed to concepts and entities by people. To worship false gods was to create false reality. Not only does the worship of false gods misrepresent the truth of the God of Israel as being the only god, it misrepresents truth in general. People may enjoy or find some other perceived benefit in living in a false version of the world, but that has never gone well for them.

The second universal principle regarding other gods is that whether they be represented via a sculpted image, such as an idol; or a personalized force of nature, such as Thor the supposed god of thunder; or the de-religiousized gods of today, be they sex or success, they all are derived from the creation instead of from outside of it. Every other god is humanly based as the product of analyzing nature or imagination or both. The God of Israel precedes and dwells outside of creation. His word has been given to the world via the people of Israel from the outside in.

The myriad of false gods from time immemorial operate from the inside out. If only we can figure it out, we can make the world a better place. We somehow think we can find identity, meaning, success, and lasting joy within the creation. It can’t be done. Every attempt to accomplish salvation from inside creation not only fails but invites disaster. As beings made in the image of one who resides outside of creation we need outside help.

The warning to Israel is a warning to all. Life is not found in ourselves or the world around us. Life is only found in the creator God, the redeemer of Israel. Not only has he communicated his word into the created order through Moses and the Prophets, he embodies his word in the person of his Son, Yeshua the Messiah. Like the covenant of old, Yeshua came from the outside in to rescue those who put their trust in him. Once we discover the outside-in reality of the creator through Yeshua, then we are equipped to live life within the creation as we were truly meant to.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Avoiding Disease

For the week of August 8, 2020 / 18 Av 5780

Woman with medical mask holding out hand in stop gesture
Ekev
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25
Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14 – 51:3

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And the LORD will take away from you all sickness, and none of the evil diseases of Egypt, which you knew, will he inflict on you, but he will lay them on all who hate you. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 7:15)

We live in a health-obsessed age. This is one explanation for the high amount of compliance to government-mandated regulations with regard to the current pandemic. Even among detractors, the basis of their push back is often health concerns, be they physical or mental. Sure, there are other concerns such as the economy or fear of conspiratorial forces, but by and large concern for health is a dominant factor. I know that not everyone is a health fanatic, but I don’t think the world has ever seen this level of health consciousness. From diet to exercise to the multiplicity of conventional and alternate therapies, getting well and staying that way is a societal obsession.

The God of the Bible is health conscious too. He wanted Israel to have good health. It was to be one of the benefits of staying true to the covenant that he gave them through Moses. Questions arise when reading a verse like the one I quote above, such as, does the Torah provide us with a sure-fire health program, that if carefully followed, we are guaranteed to be free from any and all sickness? Given the full breadth of Scripture, it is safer to conclude that God is speaking in general terms. By adhering to God’s directives, Israel would experience substantial community health.

In the verse I quoted, there is a specific reference to “the evil diseases of Egypt.” These are not the Ten Plagues that led to Israel’s release from slavery, but terrible illnesses the Israelites themselves had experienced while living there. Faithfulness to Israel’s covenant obligations would safeguard them from such afflictions, while those who hated Israel would remain vulnerable. This may sound as if God would reward the behavior of Israel with health and judge their enemies with sickness disconnected from natural benefits and consequences of their respective lifestyles.

Biblically speaking, there is no need to separate God’s involvement in human affairs from the natural realm. The natural and so-called supernatural are far more integrated than many may think. I say “so-called” supernatural because we often think of God’s involvement as completely separate from the natural realm. These realms are better thought of in terms of the material and spiritual aspects of the one creation. God’s activity shouldn’t be viewed as an occasional invasion into our realm. Rather he is ever present, always working, and accessible to us. I accept that some of what is going on with “the diseases of Egypt” is the result of God’s direct activity among faithful Israel and their enemies, but that is part and parcel of and not separate from natural benefits and consequences.

Through Moses God provided Israel with a healthy lifestyle. Torah’s ritual cleanliness and sexual guidelines, for example, protected his people from all sorts of diseases. But how would Israel’s faithfulness to God’s healthy Torah guidelines result in their enemies being afflicted with the “diseases of Egypt?” Note that these diseases would afflict those who hated Israel. I imagine the disdain for God’s covenant people would result in the curse that was an element of God’s promise to Abraham in Bereshit/Genesis 12:3, which reads: “him who dishonors you I will curse.” But that doesn’t mean there’s no practical dynamic at play. To hate means to show no regard for. To hate Israel would result in an attitude of disdain for not only the nation in general but for their unique customs. Israel’s customs were not simply the result of evolutional cultural development, but ways of living revealed to them by the Creator himself. To disdain Israel’s God-given customs invited disease.

What was true in Moses’ day is still true today. Despite obsession over health, we will continue to be overwhelmed by all sorts of ancient and novel sicknesses unless we turn back to God and his word.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Justice Community Style

For the week of July 18, 2020 / 26 Tammuz 5780

White paper cut-out people in a circle surrounding another cut-out paper person

Mattot & Masei
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 30:2 – 36:13
Haftarah: Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4

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And the congregation shall rescue the manslayer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge to which he had fled, and he shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil. (B’midbar/Numbers 35:25)

The casual reader of the Hebrew Scriptures may be struck by the amount of violence found therein. Between plagues and wars, vengeance and judgement, it can seem as if one could hardly turn a page without someone or thousands of people dying. Those more familiar with the Bible should know that this is an exaggeration, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for getting that impression. One must pay close attention to catch that even in the most graphic of bloody situations, there is so much good to glean. Take this week’s Torah reading for example. We read here how Israel was to annihilate much of the Midianite population. This act of judgement and the reasons for it are difficult for many of us today. But that’s not what I want to discuss this week.

Further on in the portion we read about the cities of refuge. God directed Israel to establish several of these throughout the land for people directly involved in an alleged murder. It was the responsibility of a close relative of the deceased to avenge murder. Our translation obscures that the word for the avenger is ga-al, the same as “redeemer” in other contexts. A person responsible to restore impoverished relatives (as was Boaz in the Book of Ruth), may be called upon to do justice by way of executing a relative’s murderer. Either way, they are functioning as the ga-al.

There are two highly instructive elements for us today in God’s directives through Moses with regard to alleged murder. I want to look at the second one first, which is not part of the verse I quoted at the beginning. Verse thirty of chapter thirty-five reads: “If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses. But no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness.” More than one witness had to testify that they actually saw the murder. This implies that a process had to occur. The ga-al was not permitted to react to impressions but had to wait for the fact of the matter to be established by at least two witnesses. This is one of the reasons why “Don’t bear false witness” is in the Ten Commandments (Shemot/Exodus 20:16). God deemed making sure of the facts in such a case was of utmost importance. Second, God himself was willing to risk the guilty going free. Protecting the innocent in the face of the demand for vengeance was essential – so essential that cities were established to provide protection to accused murderers.

Now to the verse quoted at the beginning. Note that the responsibility for protecting the accused was given to the community. Israel was a people taught by God to do justice. I discussed this a couple of weeks ago in my message Formula for Change, as I considered the words of the prophet Micah: “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). Israel was to do justice but love kindness (Hebrew: hesed). While we need to seek to establish justice, our hearts must remain kind even to the accused until it is made abundantly clear that the alleged wrong was done. Until then it is the community’s responsibility to protect even those accused of the most heinous of crimes from uncontrolled vengeance.

If these are God’s protections for those accused of (what we would call) first-degree murder, how should we treat people accused of or rumored to have committed lessor crimes or other alleged repulsive acts. Are we to destroy people’s reputations on social media as a way to vent our anger and perhaps signal to the world that we are virtuous for doing so? That’s not the community’s job. If we really cared about justice, we would realize that we all benefit from going to great lengths to protect the accused until due process has taken place and the facts are fully determined. Then and only then can the appropriate consequences be applied in such a way that is truly just and beneficial to everyone.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Don’t Be Intimidated

For the week of July 11, 2020 / 19 Tammuz 5780

A man intimidated by an over-sized fist

Pinchas
Torah: B’midbar Num 25:10 – 30:1 (English: 25:10 – 29:40)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3
Originally posted the week of July 11, 2015 / 24 Tammuz 5775

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But you, dress yourself for work; arise, and say to them everything that I command you. Do not be dismayed by them, lest I dismay you before them. (Jeremiah 1:17)

We are in a culture war. That’s nothing new. A biblical case can be made that we have always been in one. When God pronounced judgement in the Garden of Eden following our first parents’ disobedience, he said to the Tempter, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Bereshit/Genesis 3:15). This verse, the first messianic prophecy, looks forward to the Messiah’s eventual defeat of the Evil One, but there is something else here that is often overlooked, the enmity God placed between the serpent and the woman. When Adam and Eve sinned, God didn’t give the human race completely over to evil, but instead caused there to be a great struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. This clash is a key theme of the biblical story, what we might call the culture war.

In Scripture, the culture war finds two main expressions. The first is in the development of the nation of Israel as they are called out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Under the Old Covenant Israel functioned more or less in isolation. Particular laws were given them to keep them separate from other cultures. They were not to concern themselves with the affairs of the outside world, except to prevent its influence. Eventually, through the latter prophets, God began to build an expectation within the nation that one day his reign would extend beyond their borders to encompass the entire world. How that would come about was not made clear until the Messiah’s coming and the establishment of the New Covenant.

Which brings us to Scripture’s second main expression of the culture war. Beginning with Yeshua’s early Jewish followers, it was time for the reign of God to be proclaimed everywhere. The new mandate for God’s people would no longer be one of preservation and purity of the nation but the call to the reconciliation and transformation of all peoples.

A major difference between these two expressions is found in the tools given us to fight this war. Under the Old Covenant, Israel was to enforce its cultural isolation through corporal punishment of its own members who put the nation’s integrity at risk and by the sword against the threat of foreign enemies. Under the New Covenant, we are given words. As Paul writes:

For although we do live in the world, we do not wage war in a worldly way; because the weapons we use to wage war are not worldly. On the contrary, they have God’s power for demolishing strongholds. We demolish arguments and every arrogance that raises itself up against the knowledge of God; we take every thought captive and make it obey the Messiah (2 Corinthians 10:3-5; CJB)

Sometimes I think the opponents of God’s Word understand this better than those who are called to proclaim it as they boldly assert their viewpoints without apology. The cultural changes we are seeing happening around us today are the result of a concerted effort that will not back down. In addition, its proponents have been very effective at shutting down dissent through intimidation, creating a great lack of confidence among God’s people.

In this week’s Haftarah portion, we read that when Jeremiah was called by God, he was solemnly warned against giving in to intimidation. The Hebrew word “chatat” refers to being emotionally shattered, resulting in a loss of confidence. Thus our translation uses the English “dismayed,” which is what happens when we give in to intimidation. In effect, God told him that giving in to intimidation would create an even greater sense of intimidation. If we don’t have confidence in God and his Word, he will not give us the courage we need to stand against those who oppose him and his followers.

How do we learn to not be intimidated by the opposition? First, we need to know what God is really saying. It’s not good enough to spout traditional values without knowing God-given truth as taught by Scripture. Second, we ourselves need to be people of integrity, living according to what we claim to believe. Hypocrites have no foundation on which to stand. And finally, we need to speak God’s Truth boldly and clearly. We don’t have to give in to fear. As we stand confidently upon the rock of God’s word, we will discover how secure it really is.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated

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Formula for Change

For the week of July 4, 2020 / 12 Tammuz 5780

Illustration of a girl with magnifier and scientist carry out an experiment

Hukkat & Balak
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 19:1 – 25:9
Haftarah: Micah 5:6-6:8 (English: Micah 5:7 – 6:8)
Revised version of “The God-Led Life,” (posted the week of June 30, 2018 / 17 Tammuz 5778)

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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 prescriptions for life and living. It is most instructive in times like these when we are faced with concerns over large-scale societal and systemic issues. When held in balance, these three directives equip us to effect positive change. 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 any one of the others.

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. The Hebrew, 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 last. 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, connecting it with the other two is brilliant. Too often the purveyors of justice leave much damage in their wake, forgetting that while Scripture instructs us to do justice, it is not to overwhelm our affections. Therefore, at the very same time, we must also love kindness. The word for kindness here is hesed, which is far more than simply being nice. The biblical concept of 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, a generous heart toward someone because of the bonds of committed relationship. But God through Micah is not reminding us to simply show loyal love to family and friends. It’s that the love normally reserved for those we hold dear is the love we are to extend to those we perceive as unjust.

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 they wrong us.

We might think that these first two are sufficient to balance each other. Too much justice and we unnecessarily hurt people. Too much kindness allows injustice to flourish. What more do we need? What we still need is the third directive: v’hatznei-a lekhet im eloheikha, “and to walk humbly with your God,” which is a way to express a life that continually and personally relies on him. Without that, what we have is what is termed principle-based living. Principle-based living can be 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 when we disregard him. God didn’t inspire the Bible and then remove himself from human affairs while he watches history unfold from afar. 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 those of 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 avinu malkeinu, our Father and our King.

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, gods of our own making. 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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