Give It a Rest!

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

The words "Give It a Rest!" superimposed on a photo of a man sitting on the ground, resting, with his back against a tree in a green field.

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

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

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

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 Some claim that it has been rendered obsolete by the New Covenant, having been superseded by the teachings of Yeshua and his followers.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

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

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

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

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

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

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Perfection

For the week of May 18, 2019 / 13 Iyar 5779

Three arrows in target's bull's-eye with the word "Perfection"

Emor
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 21:1-24:23
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-31
Revised version of “Perfect Offerings,” originally posted the week of 20 Iyar 5758 / May 16, 1998

And when anyone offers a sacrifice of peace offerings to the LORD to fulfill a vow or as a freewill offering from the herd or from the flock, to be accepted it must be perfect; there shall be no blemish in it. (Vayikra/Leviticus 22:21)

Offerings to the God of Israel were to be without defect. Certainly one of the reasons for this was that the people were not to bring their leftovers and undesirables to him. For a sacrifice to be meaningful and acceptable, it had to be valuable. But apart from value, the perfect nature of these offerings has much to teach us about God, his creation, the Messiah, and ourselves.

First, by insisting that these animals have no blemishes, deformities, or disease, we are reminded that God himself has no defects, weaknesses or faults. We tend to create religion and spirituality that accommodates our own imperfect nature. But God calls us to something much higher. God is perfect. So what we offer to him must be of a fitting quality. To offer him anything less is to lower him to our level.

Next, we are reminded that the world was created perfectly. The imperfections and blemishes of life are a result of human rebellion against the Creator. By bringing some of the best of our possessions, we are confronted with an ideal that once was and will be again. Having to reject the defective, emphasizes the nature of the perfect. A day is coming when the creation will be renewed; the curse upon it will be no more.

For generations the people Israel had to carefully examine the offerings they brought as they were to be of only the highest quality. Little did they know that they were acting out what God himself would one day do himself. For what the animals could not accomplish, God did through the perfect offering of his Son, the Messiah, whom Peter refers to as “a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:19).

Yeshua lived the only perfect and sinless life ever, preparing him to provide the way for imperfect people like us to be fully accepted by God. We read in the New Covenant book of Hebrews:

For if sprinkling ceremonially unclean persons with the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer restores their outward purity; then how much more the blood of the Messiah, who, through the eternal Spirit, offered himself to God as a sacrifice without blemish, will purify our conscience from works that lead to death, so that we can serve the living God! (Hebrews 9:13-14; Complete Jewish Bible).

On our own, because of our imperfections, we cannot approach God and serve him in the way he intends; we are disqualified. But if we trust in Yeshua and his perfect offering on our behalf, we are made acceptable to God, blemishes and all.

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Caution! Warnings Ahead

For the week of May 11, 2019 / 6 Iyar 5779

Yellow diamond warning street sign with the words, "Caution! Warnings Ahead"

Kedoshim
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27
Haftarah: Amos 9:7-15

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The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Say to the people of Israel, Any one of the people of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 20:1-2)

Have you ever seen one of those lists of “interesting” warnings for various products? For an iron: “do not iron clothes on body.” For a microwave oven: “Do not use to dry cats and other pets.” One would assume that such things would be so obvious, they wouldn’t need to be mentioned. But, then again, I am sure my readers and listeners could send me stories of things they or people they know have done that might merit such warnings.

We tend to label some of the things we humans do as foolish or idiotic, but I don’t think this is necessarily an issue of intelligence or lack thereof. Some of our most ridiculous decisions are due to our thinking, at the time at least, of something as a good idea, even the best idea. Pressures from others and of time, lack of information, and inexperience can all lead to serious miscalculations in judgement.

The thing that happens in the moment, and this is true for all sorts of choices we make, big and small, is that we perceive that the benefit of our course of action outweighs the negatives. This is not only the case for bad decisions, but for good ones as well. Surgery, for example, often has significant downsides. Even without the risk of infection and death, there’s the inconveniences and discomfort. Yet the potential benefit is so great, we are usually willing to give up our normal comfort and schedule for the sake of the hoped-for benefit.

This is how sacrifice often works. We give up something of value in the hope of something better. This is not only true in the spiritual/religious realm. We might do without something we would like now in order to save money and be able to acquire something better later. This explains to me why we need the warnings against child sacrifice. I know that sounds like quite the jump, but don’t give up on me yet.

It might seem like a ridiculous warning, but God directed Israel away from child sacrifice. This was a particular ritual in the worship of Molech. People used to burn their children as an offering to this false god. Why would anyone do such a thing? Whatever an individual’s motive may have been, somehow they concluded that the benefits of their child’s death in this way not only outweighed the loss of the child, but the suffering he or she would experience.

What could be so good to warrant child sacrifice? Maybe it wasn’t the sense of reward from the false god that motivated the offering. Perhaps it was the relief of not having to care for the child. If the god is happy to relieve me of my parental responsibilities, I may be happy to worship him like this. Either way the sacrifice of the child outweighs preserving him or her.

I am not aware of formal Molech worship today, but its essence permeates much of the world. Is this about elective abortion? I would include that, but to regard abortion as the only form of child sacrifice today is to miss the point. The real question we need to ask ourselves is how much are we valuing other things over children. I am not saying we should be child worshippers. That’s a different issue for another day. But how much of resistance to marriage and childrearing is due to supposed other benefits? According to God’s value scale, is career, success, money, vacations, convenience, freedom, and so on, really more valuable than children? If not, then why are there over 50 million abortions a year and a below replacement birthrate within affluent countries? If so, then perhaps the warning isn’t so ridiculous after all.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Lifeblood

For the week of May 4, 2019 / 29 Nisan 5779

The word, "lifeblood" on a marble background

Aharei Mot
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 16:1-18:30
Haftarah: 1 Sh’muel/1 Samuel 20:18-42

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For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. (Vayikra/Leviticus 17:11)

This statement by God through Moses clarifies the sacrificial system’s operative dynamic. Or, in other words, that which makes sacrifice work. Within God’s design of creation, a creature’s life was in its blood. Whether this be metaphorical or literal, I can’t say for sure, though I suspect it’s both. The blood on the altar represents the giving up of the life of the sacrificed animal.

So, it’s not so much the physical presence of blood that makes atonement. The word for atonement, “kaphar,” means “to cover.” And while blood is an effective covering; it’s the life which the blood represents that is doing the covering. That which needs to be covered is our souls. What is missed in English, however, is that the word “life” in the phrase “the life of the flesh is in the blood” and the word for “soul” here is the same Hebrew word “nephesh.” If we more precisely reflect the Hebrew word in both cases, we would better understand that the Jewish sacrificial system established that it was the giving of the offered animal’s life that provided cover for human life.

Why covering? Our first parents were created by God to have intimate unobstructed fellowship with him. When they turned to the creation over against the creator by heeding the voice of the serpent over against God’s word, they were overwhelmed with shame, attempted to cover themselves with leaves and hide. They knew they were no longer fit to be in God’s presence in this condition. Their being cast out of the garden reflected the resulting distance between them and God. Every additional misdeed done by them or their ancestors (including us) is a manifestation of the twisted nature they introduced to humankind. It would require the tragic ongoing loss of life to allow for any semblance of fellowship with God by covering the shame of human sinfulness.

For the nation of Israel, all the sacrificial system could do was maintain the tentative presence of God in their midst. It was a needed, albeit temporary, solution to the sin problem that did more to remind the people of Israel of the problem than to resolve it. As we read in the New Covenant book of Hebrews:

For since the law (Torah) has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10:1-4).

The stopgap measure of the ancient sacrificial system prepared Israel and the world for the life that would not only cover human shame but release us from it forever. The shed blood of the Messiah is the giving of his sinless life, not only for Israel, but for anyone who avails himself or herself its power. It’s the giving of his life on our behalf that reestablishes intimate relationship with God. It’s no wonder that within forty years of his death the sacrificial system would be no more. The Messiah’s lifeblood is now freely available to all.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Bread of Affliction

Note: I sent this repost at Passover time last year and thought it was well worth sharing again. – Alan Gilman


For the week of April 27, 2019 / 22 Nisan 5779

A stack of matza (Jewish unleavened bread)

Pesach 8
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 14:22 – 16:17; B’midbar/Numbers 28:19-25
Haftarah: Isaiah 10:32-12:6
Originally posted the week of April 11, 2015 / 22 Nisan 5775

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You shall eat no leavened bread with it. Seven days you shall eat it with unleavened bread (matza), the bread of affliction – for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste – that all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt. (D’varim / Deuteronomy 16:3)

If you attended a Pesach (English: Passover) Seder the other day, or any other time for that matter, you most likely heard the following words when the matza (English: unleavened bread) was uncovered near the beginning of the evening: “This is the bread of affliction that our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt.” But perhaps you didn’t know that calling the matza “the bread of affliction” is taken directly from the Torah.

The word for “affliction” in Hebrew is “a’-nee,” and refers to being in an oppressive state, such as hardship or poverty. Matza as a key symbol of Pesach would always serve as a reminder of the great suffering in Egypt with or without referring to it as the bread of affliction. But the verse I quoted at the beginning makes it sound as if the matza is not a reminder of the slavery experience but of freedom: “eat it with matza, the bread of affliction – for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste – that all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt.”

Indeed it was the rush to leave Egypt following the tenth and final plague that is the reason for the eating of matzah. We read:

The Egyptians were urgent with the people to send them out of the land in haste. For they said, “We shall all be dead.” So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls being bound up in their cloaks on their shoulders (Shemot/Exodus 12:33-34).

So if the matza is connected with leaving Egypt, why is it not called “the bread of deliverance?” The answer is found a few verses later. Regarding the preparation of the unleavened dough they took with them,

And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, because they were thrust out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves (Shemot/Exodus 12:39).

Even though the exodus from Egypt was a momentous liberating event, in its own way it too was a hardship. Anyone who has been released from long-term personal or corporate abuse knows how difficult such transitions can be. Free from slavery, yes, but Israel had to endure a harsh, unknown wilderness with little to no prepared provision. This resulted in all sorts of next-to-impossible challenges to the point that some would eventually pine after their former slavery. Unless they learned to depend on God, they wouldn’t make it. And many didn’t. Almost the entire adult generation that left Egypt were kept from entering the Promised Land due to their unfaithfulness to God (see Bemidbar/Numbers 13 – 14).

After the initial euphoria of newfound freedom subsides, the harsh realities of strange and perhaps hostile environments, a lack of familiar social structures and personal and communal resources must be faced with tenacity and hope for a better future. Whether it be an immigrant from a worn-torn land or someone newly distanced from an abusive situation, denying the reality of the new challenges faced by freedom can create unnecessary obstacles to the benefits of freedom.

The matza does more than simply remind us of the hardship of liberation, however. It is assures us that the God who frees us will give us all we need to face the challenges of newfound freedom. It’s not always easy to walk in freedom, but he who rescues us from bondage, will also equip us to live free.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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But for Passover

For the week of April 20, 2019 / 15 Nisan 5779

Illustration of slaves carrying bricks with the words, "But for Passover"

Pesach 1
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 12:21-51; B’midbar/Numbers 28:19-25
Haftarah Joshua 5:2-6:1; 6:27

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For the LORD will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you. (Shemot/Exodus 12:23)

When we celebrate Passover, what are we commemorating? We were slaves; now we are free? That goes down well. Celebrating liberation is cool. Good script for a movie. But is that Passover? In a way it is if we consider the larger story. The people of Israel oppressed by an evil ruler to build his cities, subjugating them so that they don’t side with his enemies one day. In spite of his near-to-insane stubbornness, Pharaoh allows his free (to him) workforce to depart after the Angel of Death slays the nation’s firstborn, human and animal. Yet it isn’t until the parting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptian army that Israel is finally liberated from Pharaoh’s clutches for good.

That we remember the broader story under the title of Passover is understandable, but it’s all better labeled as “The Exodus” or something else that covers all the various events that resulted in Israel’s freedom. Why then Passover in particular? While the parting of the Sea was the final shutting of the door behind them, it was the death of the firstborn that flung open Israel’s long-time bolted prison door. Israel’s liberation wasn’t won until the tenth and final plague.

Pesach in Hebrew, Passover in English, describes the passing over of God’s final act of judgment on an oppressive regime. Death was coming to each and every home in Egypt. Nine horrific plagues weren’t enough to change Pharaoh’s mind. To think that anyone, no less a leader, would be willing to sacrifice the lives of his people for the sake of his pride. However shocking we may find that, I wonder how different we would be in his situation. Regardless, he was responsible for inviting God’s wrath upon an entire nation, the people of Israel included, but for Passover.

Passover was God’s prescription of protection and rescue. Follow the directions and avoid the inevitable. Whole families were saved from the deadly visitor, because they trusted in God and his word by smearing their doorframes with the blood of the lamb.

Egypt’s plight is the plight of the whole world. The self-centeredness of human beings throughout time has put us out of sorts with the Creator. Whether our dysfunction naturally leads to inevitable trouble or God’s anger burns against our abuse of his beloved creation, the Angel of Death hangs over us all, but for Passover.

We may be too distracted to be aware of the return of the Angel of Death. Whether he’s already come or on our doorstep; he’s not far away from any of us. The Oppressor has subjugated us into doing his bidding and is delighted to keep us in bondage until death has its way with us. But it’s Passover! We don’t need to be slaves to Evil’s agenda any longer. A greater Passover Lamb has come. The Messiah has shed his blood for our liberation. Now, like the Israelites of old, we need to avail ourselves of his protective covering by putting our trust in him. Then we can truly celebrate Passover, not simply to commemorate the ancient Israelites, but to join them as we leave bondage behind.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Restored!

For the week of April 13, 2019 / 8 Nisan 5779

Yellow sponge cleaning a dirty wall with the word "Restored!"

Mezora
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33
Haftarah: 2 Kings/2 Melachim 7:3-20
Updated version of Restoration (originally posted the week of April 15, 2000)

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And he shall sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease. Then he shall pronounce him clean… (Vayikra/Leviticus 14:7)

According to Torah, victims of certain serious infectious skin diseases became outcasts. The negative social and spiritual consequences must have been devastating. Having the disease was bad enough, but not to be able to engage their community in any way would have made them feel worthless.

While it would have been wonderful to be cured of such diseases, it would have likely taken a great deal of additional time to fully reintegrate. When people suffer such afflictions, it’s common for others to continue to ostracize them, even after their health is restored. The effect of this ordeal would understandably cause the afflicted one to develop a very negative view of self.

This may be one of the reasons for the elaborate cleansing ceremony described in this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion). Over and over again the person would hear: “You are clean.”

But not only was their healing to be publicly announced, they would experience complete restoration. A surprising aspect of the cleansing ceremony is that the blood from the sacrifice was to be placed on the cured person’s right ear, thumb, and big toe. The only other time anything like this was done was when the cohanim (English: priests) were set apart for service. So instead of saying to the ex-sufferer, “You can come back now, but don’t get too close,” they were treated most special. After this ceremony everybody would know that they were truly healed, cleansed, restored, and accepted.

This vividly illustrates for us what it means when God restores us to himself through the Messiah. Because of sin in our lives, we don’t have the kind of relationship with God we were designed for. And because of this break in our most basic relationship, we lack the depth of community we were meant to have.

But God’s forgiveness is thorough and complete. When he restores us, he wants us to know that we are fully accepted by him. No longer does he take our past wrongs into account; they are forgotten for good. We are accepted as his children, and he desires to use us in his service.

Note how, in this passage, restoration occurs within the community of God’s people. To experience restoration, we need to publicly acknowledge our sin within a safe and trusting community environment, just as the afflicted needed to reveal their condition. Then we need to hear God’s words of acceptance through others. When this occurs, we can then function in life as we were meant to – restored!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

Tune into to TorahBytes Live, Thursday, April 11, at 2 p.m. Eastern Time, for further discussion. Alan will explore God’s restorative power and how we can avail ourselves of it. Click on image to set up a notification. Recorded version is available immediately following the live stream.

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Deal with It

For the week of April 6, 2019 / 1 Nisan 5779

Mold on wall with spray bottle and scraper with the words, "Dealt with It"

Tazri’a / Rosh Hodesh / Hahodesh
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 12:1 – 13:59; B’midbar/Numbers 28:9-15; Shemot/Exodus 12:1-20
Haftarah: Ezekiel 45:16-46; Isaiah 66:1-24

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Then he shall examine the disease on the seventh day. If the disease has spread in the garment, in the warp or the woof, or in the skin, whatever be the use of the skin, the disease is a persistent leprous disease; it is unclean. And he shall burn the garment, or the warp or the woof, the wool or the linen, or any article made of skin that is diseased, for it is a persistent leprous disease. It shall be burned in the fire. (Vayikra/Leviticus 13:51-52)

As I have studied Torah for most of my life, I have come to see that there is far more to its teachings than the particular details it describes. Don’t get me wrong! The details are extremely important, but the details point beyond themselves to something much greater. I don’t mean that in some esoteric way as if the Bible is a code book of mysteries to be solved (in spite of what some may think!). It’s more straightforward than that. As we absorb its content over time, we are drawn into God’s understanding of the world in which we live. This worldview is not simply one possible way to look at life, but the only truly effective way. The God of Israel – the one who both designed and implemented the creation – is the only one who truly understands how best to negotiate the complexities of living. Through the Scriptures he has revealed that understanding.

Take for example the section of Torah we are in currently. God through Moses establishes strict guidelines with regard to certain infections. Note what’s missing. There is a great lack of spiritualization here. There’s nothing to suggest that people whose bodies or houses were afflicted were to blame in any way. While there was what to do in response, there was no reason to be ashamed of such things. Lack of shame encourages people to not hide their problems but bring them out into the open where they can be dealt with.

Not everything that looks problematic is serious. It was necessary for the general population and the leadership to learn the difference between those things that needed to be cut out and destroyed and others that could be left alone. A culture trained by God in this way would learn to approach all of life in a similar fashion. One doesn’t have to be a psychologist to know that negative human behavior can be as infectious as the examples given us in Torah.

In the New Covenant Writings, Paul provides an illustration of this (see 1 Corinthians 5:6-8). The faith community of the city of Corinth had allowed arrogance and malice to fester. He likened these negative influences to the way leaven pervades dough. Once the fermentation process gets in, it can’t be removed. It affects the entire batch. He therefore calls for a whole new lump of dough.

The problem with Paul’s illustration is when it comes to fermented dough, it’s permanent. If this was really about dough, then “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened” (1 Corinthians 5:7), would require throwing out the infected batch and starting with a new one. There’s no way he intends an exact parallel for the Corinthians. He isn’t saying that their community was beyond the point of no return; that they would need to start with a whole new group of people. What he is saying is that the transformative process required to resolve their metaphorical infection was drastic and would, therefore, require a resolve on the part of this community to take their situation seriously. They would have to do whatever was necessary to experience renewal. Thankfully, Paul’s extreme language emphasizes the potential of God’s transformative power available to them (and to us!) through Yeshua the Messiah.

Unless we are willing to identify and deal with potentially destructive issues, they will pervade our lives and spread to our loved ones and communities. God, through Yeshua, offers us complete cleansing. But we need to have the courage to take these things seriously and the wisdom to fully deal with them. While some issues are no big deal, some are. Let’s deal with them before it’s too late.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

Tune into to TorahBytes Live, Thursday, April 4, at 2 p.m. Eastern Time for further discussion. We will look at how we can best deal with our personal issues. We will also explore how the specific details of Torah equip us to most effectively engage the world in which we live. Click on image to set up a notification. Recorded version is available immediately following live stream.

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The Centrality of Israel

For the week of March 30, 2019 / 23 Adar II 5779

Set of old keys with Star of David symbol attached to a wooden door

Shemini & Parah
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47 & B’midbar/Numbers 19:1-22
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16-38

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And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. (Ezekiel 36:23)

The story of the Bible is the story of God’s rescue operation of the creation. According to the earliest chapters of the Bible, from the moment God cursed the world in response to our first parents’ rebellion, he determined to put a complete end to evil (see Bereshit/Genesis 3:15). Much of the rest of Scripture is the unfolding of that promise. The intricate interplay of the whole Bible is summed up by Paul when he calls God’s promise of blessing to Abraham, the “gospel,” meaning “good news” (Galatians 3:8; cf. Bereshit/Genesis 12:3). The good news is that the curse would be undone through Abraham’s descendants.

Yeshua followers are quick to point out that the realization of the promise to Abraham is wrapped up in the Messiah. That is certainly true. Yeshua’s death and resurrection provide forgiveness and eternal life to all who repent and put their trust in him. However, Yeshua’s part of the story of God, essential as it is, is not the whole story. In fact, we cannot fully appreciate Yeshua and what he has done unless we see him in the context of the whole Bible.

To understand Yeshua in the context of the Bible is to come to grips with the centrality of Israel in the plan of God. To start with, Yeshua isn’t portrayed in Scripture simply as the savior from heaven. He is that, but he is first and foremost the promised Messiah of Israel. He couldn’t be the savior of all if he wasn’t the Jewish Messiah. That’s just the beginning. There’s far more to Israel’s role in God’s rescue plan than Yeshua’s Jewish messianic pedigree.

Tragically, Israel’s role has been obscured by deep-seated prejudice towards the Jewish people through the centuries. Ignoring Paul’s warning to the non-Jewish believers in Rome to not be arrogant towards the Jewish people (see Romans 11:17-24), the church did just that. Paul must have sensed that there was a growing “new kid on the block” mentality emerging from the increasing number of Gentile believers in his day. He knew that the outworking of God’s promise to bless the nations that they were experiencing could easily be misinterpreted as a shift of God’s heart – that Israel was “out” and the Church, its non-Jewish component in particular, was “in.” His olive-tree metaphor in Romans chapter eleven is a masterful three-dimensional picture of the complexity of the multi-ethnic makeup of the New Covenant community of faith. The inclusion of non-Jews into God’s family was not to be regarded as a replacement of his earlier commitment to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And yet, that’s exactly what happened.

This anti-Jewish lens filters out the fulness of Scripture. Take this week’s Haftarah portion, for example. When you read Ezekiel’s words, do you hear God’s faithfulness to Israel or his disgust? Israel failed to live up to the standard of being God’s holy people as established at Mt. Sinai through Moses (see Shemot/Exodus 19:5-6). But many have failed to understand that Israel was made an example to demonstrate to the world everyone’s need of God. That should evoke awe and gratefulness, not disdain.

Why then does God himself seem to be so negative on Israel? Isn’t that what’s going on in this week’s Haftarah? He says through the prophet Ezekiel: “It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord GOD; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel” (Ezekiel 36:32). Words like these may appear to reflect God’s supposed rejection of his ancient covenant people. But keep on reading:

Thus says the Lord GOD: On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt. And the land that was desolate shall be tilled, instead of being the desolation that it was in the sight of all who passed by. And they will say, “This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden, and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited.” Then the nations that are left all around you shall know that I am the LORD; I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which was desolate. I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it. (Ezekiel 36:33-36)

God’s response to Israel’s failure is not rejection but restoration – a restoration that’s not only spiritual but physical as it includes a glorious transformation in their ancient homeland. Any version of God’s rescue operation that fails to include God’s ongoing plans and purposes for the Jewish people misrepresents his mission, his word, and himself.

What God began through the faithful remnant of Jewish followers of Yeshua sent out two thousand years ago will culminate in the renewal of the entire creation. When Israel is finally and fully restored, both the people and the land, the curse over the earth will be completely broken and God’s rule and reign will be established forever. God is not finished with Israel; the best is yet to come.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

The centrality of Israel in the plan of God is so important. On the next edition of TorahBytes Live, Alan Gilman will delve deeper into this too-often-ignored subject. Day & time: Thursday, March 28, 2019 at 2 p.m. Eastern (11 a.m. Pacific). Recorded version will be available immediately following.

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The Motions

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

Blurred people moving in different directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live (Special Purim Edition)

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

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