Bridging Social Distance

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

Zav

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Missing the Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Glory Standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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It’s Up to You!

For the week of March 14, 2020 / 18 Adar 5780

Happy Purim in English and Hebrew along with weekly title information

Ki Tissa & Parah
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 30:11 – 34:35 & B’midbar/Numbers 19:1-22
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16-38

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For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this? (Esther 4:14)

With Purim (the Festival of Esther) beginning this evening (Monday, March 9), I thought it would be good to share a thought from this remarkable story. It’s also a great follow-up to last week’s message, where I discussed how we all carry various responsibilities. In the story of Esther we meet a young Jewish woman, who was chosen to be the replacement queen to the King of Persia. No one at the time could have foreseen that this would set her up as a potential influence in preventing genocide.

When the edict announced a special day to kill the Jews, Esther’s former guardian, her cousin Mordecai, realized she was placed within the halls of power to make a difference. He therefore got word to her, urging her to speak up. Reticent at first due to the risk associated with approaching the king uninvited, Mordecai reminded her that her royal position wouldn’t exempt her from suffering the same plight as the rest of her people. Whether or not this was what changed her mind, she eventually determined that approaching the king was worth the risk.

Contrary to convention, in spite of approaching the king uninvited, he graciously received her. As the rest of the story goes, the evil plot of the king’s highest official, Haman, was exposed, resulting in his execution on the very gallows he had prepared for Mordecai. In addition the Jewish people were given permission to defend themselves, which they did most successfully.

Since then the Jewish world has joyfully celebrated this ironic event with parties, carnivals, plays and special food. But do we get what might be this story’s greatest lesson – the lesson of the difference one person could make? This is not to say that Esther singlehandedly saved the day. The story is much more complicated than that. If Mordecai wouldn’t have brought the situation to Esther’s attention as well as urge her to get past her fears and speak up, we may have no story to tell. Same if the king hadn’t shown unusual favor towards Esther. How much of that was due to Esther or due to God’s working behind the scenes through this story which doesn’t reference him even once, we don’t know. Certainly we are right to give full credit to God, but don’t forget, God works through people.

In this story Mordecai and Esther work as a team. This kind of team is one which emphasizes the individuality of each participant. Similar to a relay race, at the time of each person’s participation, the outcome of the task is completely on the shoulders of that individual. Mordecai gets word to Esther, Esther responds, Mordecai counters her concern, Esther accepts the challenge and approaches the king. If either of them dropped the metaphorical baton at any time through the process, it would be “game over” for the Jewish people.

The responsibilities we are called upon to bear are awesome. Not that we all will have to face the potential destruction of our entire people group as Mordecai and Esther did. Whatever our God-given responsibilities, they are awesome, because they emanate from the plans and purposes of an awesome God, who made us in his image. God designed the human family to be one that functions this way. At the beginning our first parents were directed by our Creator to subdue the earth. We their children share in this responsibility in virtually infinite ways. Whether it’s the day-to-day work we do, from homelife, to education, business, or various types of service; or the urgent and crucial “for such a time as this” responsibilities, it up to you and me to do whatever it is we are called to do.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

For a fuller discussion about both Purim and a biblical perspective on the role of the individual, check out this episode of my “Thinking Biblically” podcast:

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What Are You Carrying?

For the week of March 7, 2020 / 11 Adar 5780

Man in business suit struggling under the weight of the earth on his back

Tezavveh & Zakhor
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 27:20 – 30:10; D’varim/Deuteronomy 25:17-19
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 15:2-34

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As a jeweler engraves signets, so shall you engrave the two stones with the names of the sons of Israel. You shall enclose them in settings of gold filigree. And you shall set the two stones on the shoulder pieces of the ephod, as stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel. And Aaron shall bear their names before the LORD on his two shoulders for remembrance. (Shemot/Exodus 28:11-12)

This week we are looking at one particular aspect of the elaborate garb of the Cohen HaGadol (English: Chief or High Priest). Over his main clothing, he was to wear an ephod (Hebrew is pronounced similarly), an apron like over-garment with special spiritual significance. On each of the ephod’s shoulder pieces was a stone with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. We read: “Aaron” (meaning he and his successors) “shall bear their names before the LORD on his two shoulders for remembrance” (Shemot/Exodus 28:11-12). The Cohen Hagadol, therefore, literally carried the names of the tribes into the presence of God.

It isn’t clear whether the “remembrance for the sons of Israel” refers to the need for the Cohen HaGadol to remember the people of Israel in his priestly service, or if in his priestly service he was bringing the people of Israel to the remembrance of God. Either way he was symbolically carrying the weight of the nation on his shoulders. That this was symbolic makes what he was doing no less real. He obviously wasn’t carrying the people themselves on his shoulders, but the burden of the cares of the nation is a heavy burden – one that would intensely affect most people.

Like the Cohen HaGadol, we carry burdens on our shoulders. Any responsibility, be it family, job, congregation, and so on, is a burden – a burden that may or not feel burdensome, but a burden nonetheless.

God had clearly placed the people of Israel on the Cohen HaGadol’s shoulders. What you and I are to carry, however, may not be so clear. At times we find ourselves overwhelmed by the cares and concerns of others. I suggest we take the time to ask God, whether or not these are our assigned burdens or if we have mistakenly put them on ourselves.

Sometimes we are carrying burdens given to us by God, but make them heavier than they really are. We might misunderstand the nature of the responsibility, leading us to take misguided courses of action. It is important to let God clarify for us how he wants us to do the things he gives us to do. Don’t be deceived into thinking that going extreme on something is the same as being faithful to God. Doing more than we should can be as destructive as neglect.

Frankly, I don’t know how common this is, but you might find it helpful. I have experienced the sensation of being burdened without knowing what it is I am burdened about. At times I find myself feeling heavy, thinking that I am personally struggling emotionally, when actually God is placing a concern on my heart for someone else. When you find yourself carrying a weight, but don’t know what it is, as in everything else, ask God what is going on. You might be bearing the burden of another. If so, then ask him what he wants you to do about it.

While very few are called to carry the burden of an entire nation, what has God placed on your shoulders? Unlike those who find themselves overly burdened or misunderstanding what it is they are carrying, perhaps you have been too busy to notice. Few carry the responsibility level of a Cohen HaGadol, but all people carry something. As bearers of God’s image, created by him to fulfill his plans and purposes on earth, we all have some part to play, some burden to carry, a responsibility to fulfill.

Yeshua said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Often when this is referenced, the lightness of his burden is so emphasized that we can forget that there is still a burden to carry. What God calls us to do is not designed to crush us, but we are called to carry it.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Mercy Place

For the week of February 29, 2020 / 4 Adar 5780

3D Illustration of the Ark of the Covenant

For illustration purposes only. Not intended to provide exact representation of the Ark.

Terumah
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 25:1 – 27:19
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 5:26 – 6:13 (English: 5:12 – 6:13)
Originally posted the week of March 4, 2017 / 6 Adar 5777

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You shall put the mercy seat on the ark of the testimony in the Most Holy Place. (Shemot/Exodus 26:34)

As part of the building of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and its furnishings, God directed Moses to build a “kapporet,” an ornate cover to be placed on top of the “aron ha-b’rit” (English: the Ark of the Covenant). The aron ha-b’rit was an elegant box that contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, a jar with a portion of manna, and Aaron’s rod that had budded. It resided in the Mishkan’s inner sanctum called the “kodesh ha-k’dashim” (English: the Most Holy Place), and it represented the very presence of God within the community of Israel.

When the “Cohen Ha-Gadol” (English: the High Priest) entered the kodesh ha-k’dashim once a year at Yom Kippur (English: the Day of Atonement), the kapporet was the focus of his attention, for he was to apply the blood of the festival’s special sacrifices before it and over it (see Vayikra/Leviticus 16:11-4). The purpose of this ritual was to provide purification for the inner sanctum from the people’s uncleanness, transgressions, and sins.

The kapporet was a lid made of pure gold overshadowed by the wings of golden “k’ruvim” (English: cherubim). The Scriptures tell us little about these creatures. We are introduced to them when Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden and God placed them to guard the tree of life. It is possible, therefore, that their being symbolically part of the kapporet was to remind Israel that the way to everlasting life remained blocked during the days of the Mishkan and its successor, the Temple.

Many English Bible versions translate kapporet as “mercy seat.” This goes back to one of the earliest English Bible translators, William Tyndale, whose 16th century translation became the core of the King James Bible and much of subsequent English translation tradition. It appears that Tyndale’s rendering of kapporet as mercy seat is based on Paul’s use of the Greek equivalent “hilastērion” in his letter to the Romans as he refers to the Messiah Yeshua, “whom God hath made a seat of mercy through faith in his blood” (Romans 3:26; Tyndale’s version). Hilastērion is the word for kapporet used by the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, that was common in Paul’s day. While hilastērion had a different usage in Greek outside the Bible, Paul must have had its biblical use in mind, a connection that Tyndale choose to make abundantly clear.

Regrettably, in my opinion, the translators of the King James Bible and many other later English translations chose not to preserve this connection. Instead most go with the pagan Greek meaning, “propitiation,” which is the idea of appeasing an angry god. Ironically, the King James and many other English translations that use “propitiation” in Romans retain Tyndale’s “mercy seat” in Exodus even though the reason for translating the kapporet as “mercy seat” is because Tyndale was drawing from Paul’s allusion in Romans to the place of God’s presence and mercy where cleansing occurs.

You may not be aware of the great controversy among scholars over the meaning of Paul’s use of hilastērion. This is part of a discussion about how Yeshua’s suffering and death provides forgiveness and acceptance to those who trust in him. But however it works, let us not miss the power of Paul’s allusion. Through Yeshua’s giving of his life, he has become our kapporet – the place of mercy. What was once hidden and inaccessible has become available to all. If we put our trust in him, God purifies us once and for all, making us fit to freely enter his presence.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Caricatures

For the week of February 22, 2020 / 27 Shevat 5780

Artistic-style image of Alan Gilman along with weekly message title, etc.

Mishpatim
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 21:1 – 24:18; 30:11-16
Haftarah: 2 Melachim/ 2 Kings 12:1-17 (English 1:21 – 2:16)

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You shall not spread a false report. (Shemot/Exodus 23:1)

Two years ago I commented on this same passage on what is still a relevant topic of “fake news” (http://torahbytes.org/78-18/). This week, I want to get personal. I don’t mean personal with you necessarily, but to look at how this directive affects people personally.

This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) contains a substantial section that includes a great assortment of rules, covering various issues, including kidnapping, liability, loaning to the poor, and treatment of resident aliens and much more. There’s even a passage that speaks to abortion.

The short prohibition we are looking at is part of a passage that expands on one of the ten commandments, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Shemot/Exodus 20:16). This is often wrongly thought of as “Do not lie to anyone,” when actually it is directed towards more official legal-type situations as is this passage, which I now fully quote:

You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit (Shemot/Exodus 23:1-3).

I trust that the seriousness of this is obvious. God directs his people to not misrepresent the truth against someone in legal matters. Note that includes showing partiality to the poor. While we should extend mercy to the oppressed of society, in matters of justice, there is to be no favoritism shown toward anyone including the underdog. While specific to a legal setting, “You shall not spread a false report,” it likely extends beyond the courtroom, since what is essential in the legal environment certainly reflects a general principle of life.

It’s not as obvious in English as it is in Hebrew that the wording of “You shall not spread a false report” is similar to another of the ten commandments, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Shemot/Exodus 20:7). This is not just about forbidding the use of God’s name as a curse word; it applies to the invoking of God’s name inappropriately. This would include taking a vow in God’s name that you don’t intend to keep or claiming to deliver a message from God when you know you are making it up. Taking his name in vain, therefore, is the lessening of who God is by misrepresenting him. This is what spreading false reports does to other people. Misrepresentation of others lessons who they really are.

Truth matters to God. In order for us and others to live effective godly lives it is necessary to relate to the world in which we live as it is. Skewed versions of reality cause us and others to unnecessarily hurt one another and undermine the plans and purposes of God. We need therefore to take great care in how we caricature other people.

Caricatures in the popular sense are humorous, most often light-hearted, drawings of people, purposely exaggerating physical or personality traits to create a particular impression about them. But when we caricature them out of frustration, disappointment, or outright malice, we skew who they really are in the eyes of others. People are far more complicated than the caricatures we paint of them. To present them, their actions, and opinions inaccurately is to undermine reality and therefore to misrepresent God.

Gossip is not an innocent pastime. It is a highly destructive activity that God deplores and should be avoided at all costs. Instead, let us endeavor to paint realistic portraits of others.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Eagles’ Wings

For the week of February 15, 2020 / 20 Shevat 5780

Eagle soaring over barren mountains toward a rainbow

Yitro
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 18:1 – 20:23 (English: 18:1 – 20:26)
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5

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You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. (Shemot/Exodus 19:4)

This has to be one of the more beautiful metaphors in the entire Bible. Israel, oppressed from generations under Egyptian taskmasters, helpless to alleviate their plight, cry out to the God of their ancestors for deliverance. The years go by and things go from bad to worse. Then the day comes; God to the rescue! Despite all odds, the Master of the Universe swoops down seemingly out of nowhere and miraculously carries the nation on his back to freedom.

Beautiful metaphor indeed, but that’s not what happened. Miraculous, yes. However it was much more of a process and a difficult one at that. From Moses’ first being given the exodus mandate to getting support from the Hebrew elders to Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to the ten plagues, culminating in the death of Egypt’s firstborn and their departure. Not completely free of their oppressors, they are then pursued by the Egyptian army that drowned in the parting of the Red Sea, while Israel made it safely to the other side. While this finally disconnected the liberated slaves from Egypt for good, the difficult process continued as they were learning to trust God for his miraculous provision and care in an uninhabitable wilderness on their way to Mt. Sinai and the Promised Land.

What is this about eagles’ wings then? I could imagine scholars musing over how such an image is nothing more than a mythic version of the exodus put into God’s mouth centuries after the fact. I am very aware how after a period of time the sting of hardship fades from memory and we just remember the good parts – and then the good parts are remembered so much better than they actually were. The problem with this train of thought is that the painful details weren’t forgotten. They have been well-documented and preserved from then until now.

How then could such an expression as “I bore you on eagles’ wings” be appropriate? Perhaps we picture riding on eagles differently from the Israelites of old. They wouldn’t share our Hollywood-influenced view of such an experience. In my mind I see the film version of “Lord of the Rings,” where near the end of this epic, Gandalf rescues Frodo and Sam with gigantic eagles that scoop them up with their talons, carrying them to safety as they blissfully soar through the sky. The Israelites, on the other hand, likely have related to “eagles’ wings” differently. Whether they pictured normal-sized eagles which would not be accustomed to carrying such loads or gigantic ones that are more the stuff of nightmares than what we see in Lord of the Rings, the image evoked may not have been a nice one. Instead, it might have included the precarious nature of the process they had to endure.

A more likely possibility is that the eagles’ wing picture of God’s rescue reflects the outcome and purpose of the exodus, not the process. This metaphor evokes an image of God’s intense and personal activity in bringing the people to Mt. Sinai where he would reveal his will to them, constitute them as a nation, and send them on a mission to establish themselves in the Promised Land. While the process was difficult, the outcome was never in question. He did whatever it took to accomplish his will. While the process was never forgotten, the impossibility and success of the exodus makes being carried through the sky an apt image after all.

No wonder many years later the prophet Isaiah would recall such a picture to encourage his generation of Israelites that their divine rescue was coming: “but they who wait (meaning “hope”) for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:1). In this case the people themselves become eagle-like as the power of God fills them with his powerful presence. But remember eagle-like doesn’t automatically mean easy or simple. Yet, however difficult the process may be, God will get you to where you need to go.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Testing God

Beshalalach

Four people holding full-size angry and upset emoticons in front of their faces
For the week of February 8, 2020 / 13 Shevat 5780
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 13:17-17:16
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 4:4 – 5:31

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And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD by saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?” (Shemot/Exodus 17:7)

The Torah includes two similar, but very different, stories that feature the people complaining against Moses about their desperate circumstances, particularly due to the lack of water. The similarities between this version and the one found in chapter twenty of B’midbar/Numbers prompt some scholars to claim that they are the same event. I believe we are better off taking them at face value. Apart from the locations being clearly different in spite of the similarity of place names, there are considerable differences in the details. Before continuing, whenever discussing the people of Israel’s bad attitude in such circumstances, note that I am not pointing my finger at them as if I would have done any better. It’s when we see ourselves in the Bible’s characters that we are in a place to learn its lessons.

When we read the Bible, we might assume that we are being given a play-by-play of the incidences it reports. But stories, be they non-fiction or fiction are rarely, if at all, communicated that way. Even what we call “play-by-play” – a term often used for the describing of sporting events is selective. Announcers choose what to say based on their assessment of how best to communicate the main substance of what is occurring before them. If they are good at what they do, they create a meaningful and accurate, but not exhaustive, picture in the mind of their audience. In the reporting of any story there are more details omitted than provided. But that doesn’t undermine the truth of the story. In fact the more carefully chosen are its pieces and how intelligently crafted is the order in which they are presented, the greater the possibility of accurate representation and impact on the audience.

I explain all this because of the incident’s closing statement: “And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested God by saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?” (Shemot/Exodus 17:7). The name of the place was called in Hebrew “Masa u-M’rivah,” meaning “testing and quarrelling” for the obvious reason given in this statement. But notice how the testing of God is represented as: “Is the LORD among us or not?” This is in spite of the people not saying this. In fact, they don’t mention God at all. What we see them saying is first, demanding water from Moses, and then accusing him of bringing them out of Egypt to kill them and their children.

There is no direct mention of God by the people, but if we think this is simply a story of Moses having a hard day at work, we miss what’s really going on. On one hand I get the people’s perspective. It’s a lot easier to blame the leader you can see than the God behind it all that you can’t see. Yet, it didn’t matter how they couched their complaint; it was God who brought them there; so it was God they were testing.

I don’t think the Creator of the Universe has an issue with people being troubled over great hardship. Having no access to water is a most horrible situation. But they should have known better due to all the great wonders they had experienced up to this point.

And we should know better than to think that much of our grumbling isn’t also testing God. We cloud the issue when we focus on others. Is God sovereign over our lives or not? If God is God, then does he not retain the upper hand in whatever circumstances we find ourselves? To demand from people what only God can provide is to test the reality and love of God.

We often go to people for what we should be getting from God, because we have lost faith in him. God can handle our fears and doubts. Taking them out on others, not only does us and others no good, it will make things worse not better. But we can make things better by offering our desperate pleas to our Heavenly Father instead of taking out our frustration out on others.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Tefillin

For the week of February 1, 2020 / 6 Shevat 5780

Pair of tefillin (phylacteries)

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

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And it shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the LORD may be in your mouth. For with a strong hand the LORD has brought you out of Egypt. (Shemot/Exodus 13:9)

This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) contains two of the four references in the Torah to what has been taken to be the basis of tefillin. Tefillin are the pair of black boxes attached to leather straps that are worn during certain prayers. The verses are the one quoted above, Shemot/Exodus 13:9, as well as 16, D’varim/Deuteronomy 6:8 and 11:18. The boxes contain hand-written parchment scrolls of the passages within which these verses appear (Shemot/Exodus 13:1-10, 13:11-16; D’varim/Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:12-21).

Using tefillin has become a mark of strong adherence to Judaism. Its use is ancient. How ancient, we don’t know. You might be surprised to learn that the oldest recorded mention of tefillin is in the New Covenant Writings (the New Testament), Matthew chapter twenty-three, verse five, where Yeshua is quoted as saying, “they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” Not very complimentary, as the Messiah is critiquing the general showiness of the religious leadership of his day. The casual reader may miss, however, the full impact of Yeshua’s critique here. For the most part, his comments focus on how these people made their religious objects in such a way to draw attention to one’s self. The fringes (Hebrew: “tzitzit”; plural: “tsitsiyot”) are the tassels that God directed to be added to the hem of one’s garment; so designed as a reminder to keep his commandments (see Numbers 15:37-40; D’varim/Deuteronomy 22:12). The Greek word that Matthew uses for tzitsiyot is “kraspedon,” meaning “tassle” – pretty straightforward. The Greek word for tefillin here is far more loaded. Matthew uses “phylakteirion.” Most English translations don’t actually translate the word, but rather transliterate it instead by using “phylacteries.” Other translations use “prayer boxes” or “scripture boxes” to more clearly describe tefillin. But the problem with that is it may miss Yeshua’s point. The Greek phylakteirion means “amulet,” an object worn or used to provide protection from evil forces.

Yeshua may have been adding an extra layer of criticism to his tefillin reference by considering them and those using them as superstitious. Not only were they attempting to show off their piety, they were dabbling in the magic arts at the same time. The other possibility is that tefillin was already commonly regarded as an amulet and that Matthew used the best Greek word to represent tefillin as they knew it. This is discussed in the article: “The Origins of Tefillin.”

Either way, morphing God’s word into a magical object is what happens when we allow it (or should I say “force it”) to take on properties God never intended. One needn’t be a Bible scholar to see that the references used as a basis for tefillin are metaphorical. If the “sign on your hand” and a “memorial between your eyes” were meant to be taken literally, then we should also be stuffing our mouths with Bible verses in order to fulfill “that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth.”

The purpose of the metaphor “sign on your hand… and memorial between your eyes” was to encourage God’s people to always be ready to obey him and to keep his word in focus. The result would be that it would flow from our mouths. As God used his word to create the universe, so our mouths should be filled with his word in order to bring blessing into the world.

It’s a lot easier to create objects to attempt to manipulate the forces of life than to fill ourselves with God’s word as it was intended. I wonder how many amulets we utilize, thus deceiving ourselves into thinking we are godly when all we are doing is showing off or worse. We adopt all sorts of techniques and formulas thinking they’ll provide us with shortcuts to God and his power. Instead, let us embrace his word as he intended, allowing him to fill our lives to overflowing, always ready to hear and obey.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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