Misguided Demands

For the week of June 27, 2020 / 5 Tammuz 5780

Angry boy pointing finger

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

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And all the people said to Samuel, “Pray for your servants to the LORD your God, that we may not die, for we have added to all our sins this evil, to ask for ourselves a king.” And Samuel said to the people, “Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil. Yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart. And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty. For the LORD will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the LORD to make you a people for himself. (1 Samuel 12:19-22)

This selection from the Prophets section of the Hebrew Scriptures is read each year along with this week’s Torah reading in which certain Israelites rebel against God’s choice of Moses’ brother Aaron and his descendants as priests. God’s harsh judgment upon them and their families may be the reason for the people’s fear in this incident centuries later.

The reason for their fear was that they had just come to grips with their own rebellion against God in their demanding a king (see 1 Samuel 8:4-9). They may have thought that they would be subjected to the same plight as the people judged in Moses’ day. But that was not to be. Instead, despite their misguided demand, the prophet encouraged the people to stay true to God from that moment on as he assured them of God’s ongoing faithfulness to them.

Why did the people in the earlier instance die for their sin, but not in this case? The emergence of the monarchy in ancient Israel is ambiguous. Was God in favor of establishing a kingdom or not? The Torah anticipates an eventual king (see D’varim/Deuteronomy 17:14-20). Yet when Israel desires one, God deems this as rebellious.

It doesn’t seem that it was the concept of having a king that was the issue. Centuries earlier, as recorded in the book of Shoftim (English: Judges), following the conquest of the Land of Israel led by Joshua, Moses’ successor, the people were faithful to God for a couple of generations, but then began to turn to idols. The result of their unfaithfulness was foreign oppression. Eventually out of desperation the people would call out to God, who would send a shofet (English: judge), a divinely inspired military leader who would deliver the people. Everything would be fine until the shofet died and the cycle of rebellion, oppression, and deliverance would reoccur. The prophet Samuel was also a shofet as well as a cohen (English: priest). He arose in the days of a very corrupt priesthood, when the Chief Priest, Eli, didn’t restrain his priestly sons from immorality and abuse of the sacrificial system, something that he himself may have benefitted from. The rise of Samuel was a bright light in an otherwise dark time. But his sons too didn’t walk in God’s ways.

Understandably the people had enough of systemic corruption. They thought if they could instigate an overhaul of the system, all would be well. They no longer wanted to wait on God to provide his appointed leader in his time. Instead they wanted the kind of leader that other nations had. Someone they were confident would lead them well and provide a type of governmental stability that they had never known.

Saul, the first king of Israel, was the king like the other nations they wanted, and yet he too was a disaster. Saul’s demise became God’s opportunity, so to speak, to establish the monarchy his way through David, “a man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14).

God, therefore, leveraged the people’s demands to establish the kingdom in his time and in his way. This is not the first time he utilizes evil for good. That God uses our sin to accomplish his purposes doesn’t excuse the wrong. But it might be why he isn’t as harsh with some forms of human rebellion as others. The rebellion in Moses’ day was a direct assault on God’s plans and purposes and had to be eradicated. The people’s focus on human agency to provide stability and resolve corruption in the later incident is an opportunity for God to accomplish a greater good.

Regardless, the lesson is the same. Taking matters into our own hands and insisting that the powers that be perform according to our demands will always get ourselves and others in trouble. This is not to say that our concerns are invalid nor that we must always accept the status quo. Sometimes our concerns are completely selfish and destructive as they were in Moses’ day. On the other hand, the people in Samuel’s day were right to grieve over the state of their society. God agreed with their concern and was planning to do something about it. However, so much grief could have been avoided if they would have sought to resolve their situation in God’s way in God’s time.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Why Does It Have To Be So Hard?

For the week of June 20, 2020 / 28 Sivan 5780

Stressed out man at laptop surrounded by people making demands

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

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Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (B’midbar/Numbers 14:1-4)

This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) includes one of the greatest fails in the Torah. The people of Israel are on the cusp of acquiring the land God promised to their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, hundreds of years before. No other people in history had ever experienced the favor and power of God as they did. Having been subjected to the bitter bondage of slavery their whole lives, they saw their God pummel Egypt with devastating plagues until the stubborn king finally allowed them to leave. And that was just the beginning! They were then personally led by God by way of a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night. He parted the sea, enabling them to cross to the other side on dry ground, from where they watched that same sea drown the Egyptian army, terminating that threat for good. Each day, except on Shabbat (English: the Sabbath), they woke up to a miraculous nutritious meal of manna. God also provided them with water when none was available be it by transforming poisoned water into fresh or bubbling forth from a rock. The one time they had to endure battle, their victory was in direct relationship to Moses’ prayers despite their complete lack of fighting experience, having been slaves until recently.

Many of these acts of God’s power occurred in the context of a great need or a dangerous situation. Yet, each and every time, God surprisingly and wonderfully came through for them. Now, they face their greatest challenge thus far, the conquest of the Promised Land. While the twelve scouts who were sent in ahead to check out the situation all affirmed God’s claim of the quality of the land, ten of them were overwhelmed by the land’s inhabitants and succeeded in intimidated the people to the point that they weren’t willing to face this challenge at all.

I have no personal quibble with the people. I cannot judge their fear as if I would have done anything different. Their assessment of the situation was reasonable based on the facts on the ground. Yes, God helped them in the other difficult situations, but nothing of this magnitude. They obviously lacked the manpower, the equipment, and the knowhow to face such a challenge.

But those are the facts on the ground. That’s not taking into consideration the facts in heaven. Had not God proved to them that he, the greatest power in the entire universe, was with them? If God had indeed directed them to take the Land, they couldn’t lose. Yet, it would take a level of trust in God that few people, if any, had ever exercised. They decided they wouldn’t either. The result was thirty-eight more years of wilderness wanderings until all the adults among them died out. This extremely difficult faith challenge would wait for the next generation. It would be no less difficult, but unlike their fathers and mothers, they would trust God and succeed.

But why would God subject his people to such a difficult task? While most of us will never face something as daunting as this, we all have to deal with various kinds of difficulties, many of which are extremely overwhelming. Why does life have to be so hard?

There’s no way that I can answer such a question adequately for everyone and every situation. There are all sorts of reasons why we face difficulties in life. Still, there is a universal principle that to ignore or to deny undermines our ability to effectively face such challenges. That universal principle is God is training all of us to be more than we are currently.

Human beings were originally designed by God to represent him and his interests on Planet Earth. When our first parents rebelled against him, the human family broke down. We became twisted, so to speak, and became subject to the very creation we were to rule over. Since then, God has sought to restore us to our assigned role of reflecting him. We haven’t been good at cooperating with his program. Regardless, he continues to work at reconstructing us.

What is true generally for all human beings is far more intense for those who are in close relationship with him. In the current age, that’s especially those who have been reconciled with him by faith in the Messiah. Believers at times tragically assume that “being saved,” puts us in a comfort bubble rather than a war zone. Yeshua followers shouldn’t be surprised or intimidated at finding ourselves on the cusp of battle, not necessarily a literal military one like ancient Israel in this week’s portion, but no less intense. God calls us daily to face down death and so become more and more the kind of people he wants us to be.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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What’s Driving You?

For the week of June 13, 2020 / 21 Sivan 5780

Large crowd of people facing a pillar of cloud

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

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At the command of the LORD the people of Israel set out, and at the command of the LORD they camped. As long as the cloud rested over the tabernacle, they remained in camp. (B’midbar/Numbers 9:18)

I am a big picture guy. That’s true in nature as well as stories and ideas. I love grand views and vistas, be it wide mountain ranges or hills and valleys from above or looking back at the skyline of a great city. I love big pictures because I also love the details they encompass. The better I can see the big picture, the more I understand its details. In stories, the Bible included, between its big picture and details are themes and motifs. Themes are ribbons of ideas, common subplots woven through events and descriptions. Motifs are recurring story elements. God’s love, mercy, and justice are biblical themes. The dynamics of how humans interact with God’s will is a common motif.

We first encounter this motif in the Garden of Eden (see Bereshit/Genesis 3). God gives clear directives to Adam and Eve, which are soon challenged by the serpent. The reader can sense the peril that awaits our first parents should they give into the temptation to doubt the goodwill of their creator, which tragically they do. This motif is played out over and over again throughout Scripture, including this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion).

Israel’s journey through the wilderness is a time of training between their slavery in Egypt and their conquest of the Promised Land. Having been given the gift of God’s word through Moses, the difficult challenges of wilderness living provides opportunity after opportunity to discover the nature and character of their God.

Like Adam and Eve before them they are instructed that obedience to God results in life and blessing, while rebellion results in death and destruction. One of the many ways this was to be lived out was in their travel directions. God reserved the right to tell them when they were to break camp and where they were to go next. The indication of when to go and where was provided by a pillar of cloud. If it stayed, they were to stay. When it moved, they were to move until it stopped.

Our translation expresses God’s communication via the cloud as being at “his command.” While capturing the intent of the Hebrew metaphor here, it misses its vividness. The Hebrew reads more along the line of “At the mouth of the LORD the people of Israel set out, and at the mouth of the Lord they camped. The picture painted by the metaphor is one of God’s speaking, key to the motif we are looking at. What’s not clear is whether it’s the cloud’s movement that’s in response to God’s speaking or that the movement of the cloud was the indication of God’s speaking. Either way, the people were to learn to embark or settle exclusively in response to God’s word.

Note the implications of this. If God’s word was to be their only guide, then that means they were not to listen to anything or anyone else. Enemies attacking? No cloud movement. Stay put. Water supplies exhausted? No cloud movement. Stay put. Living in a lush oasis? Cloud is moving. Time to go. Circumstances, preferences, and opinions don’t count. Only God’s word.

Should it be any different for us today? There’s no cloud to follow that I know of. Yet we have something more, not less, than the ancient Israelites. We have far more of God’s written word than they had. In the books of the Hebrew and New Covenant Scriptures we have more direct words from God; more examples, good and bad; more truth sorted out than they did. Plus, under the New Covenant, we have a far greater intimacy with God through the Messiah and the gift of the Ruach HaKodesh (English: the Holy Spirit) empowering us. It’s as if the wilderness cloud has now taken up residence within us.

Are we being driven by voices shouting at us or are we listening to God? That in no way diminishes the issues of our day, but it should determine what we do about them. The listening to God motif of Scripture clearly directs us to avoid being reactive. Circumstances and opinion are blind guides. Only God’s direction leads to life.

It feels good to connect to popular causes, but at what cost? What would happen if you stopped, took a deep breathe, and asked God what to do? His direction may not take you where you think you should go, but it’s the only way to ensure you get to where God wants you to go.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Bearing God’s Name

For the week of June 6, 2020 / 14 Sivan 5780

Aaronic blessing in Hebrew, English, and English transliteration

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

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

I recently posted my reflections on the global song phenomenon, “The Blessing” (http://alangilman.ca/2020/05/20/the-blessing/). What struck me was hearing (and seeing) people of every tribe, nation, and language singing back to me the ancient words God gave our priests to speak over us, the people of Israel. What was first intended exclusively for my people has been extended to the entire world.

The likely reason for the song’s popularity is its extreme positive message amidst the uncertainty of the current pandemic. And as I write this, we are seeing an eruption of violence and fear stemming from anger over injustice and racism. People long to be assured that they and their loved ones can find security in a troubled and dangerous world. The song’s repetition of “He is for you” is in contrast with the pervasive and growing threat of danger all around us.

In my earlier reflections, I pointed out how unique such a positive expression would have been in the ancient world, where by and large the gods could not be trusted. Much of pagan ritual calls for the appeasement of the gods in the hope to avert disaster. That the Master of the Universe cared for and wanted to bless human beings was a novel idea. But there is more to this blessing than good thoughts and warm wishes. The priestly blessing was not a heavenly greeting card designed to warm our hearts. In fact, the purpose of the blessing is clearly stated as: “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them” (B’midbar/Numbers 6:27).

Blessing is obviously the prime objective. The details express God’s desire that his people experience security, peace, and goodness and all that these entail, including health, safety, and prosperity. However, there is a dynamic here that is easily missed. It’s what the priests are actually doing by pronouncing this blessing over the people: they were putting God’s name upon them.

One of the reasons why this is easily missed is that in most translations God’s name is not evident. We read or hear “the Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you. “The Lord” is not a name, but a title. But as many of you probably know many of the occurrences of “the Lord” represent what is actually God’s name – a name spelled with the Hebrew letters yod, hey, vav, hey, which mean something like “The Being,” as it is derived from the verb “hayah,” meaning “to be.” By the time of Yeshua, two thousand years ago, the Jewish people had already deemed pronouncing God’s name as too sacred, thus substituting it with either Ha-shem, “the Name,” or Adonai, “Lord.” As time went by the pronunciation of God’s name was forgotten.

There are many people who get really passionate about this. Since God has a name, they say, we should use it despite our not know exactly how to say it. But with all due respect I believe that misses the point. While I agree that using a name instead of a title like “Lord” would more quickly clue us in that God’s name is an intricate part of the blessing, that wouldn’t necessarily accomplish its intent. What it would do is lesson the possibility of turning this into a generic blessing from a nondescript God. That issue is easily resolved by my pointing this out, as I have just done, without engaging the controversy over the pronouncing of God’s name.

The purpose of the blessing was that the Israelite priests were to put God’s name on the people. Blessing from God would be the outgrowth of their connection to him. The word for “put” in Hebrew simply means “put,” as when a cloak is put on someone’s shoulders. The blessing was to call the people of Israel to be bearers of God’s name. God’s name is primarily his character and his reputation. To bear the name of the God of Israel is to be clearly demarked as his particular people to accomplish his plans and purposes. Blessing in all its abundance from this God was assured as they welcomed and participated in their intimate association with him.

It does people no good to speak about God in nondescript ways. To seek to bless without reference to who is actually the source of the blessing is no different than wishing upon a star. In these days of crisis people need to connect with genuine hope in an otherwise hopeless world. Let’s unapologetically call people to bear the name of the God of Israel before it’s too late.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Guard the Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Give It a Rest!

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

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

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

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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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No Leftovers

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

Slices of left-over meat within a prohibited symbol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Reasonable Restrictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Isolation

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

Younger woman visiting older woman who is behind a window

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Understanding Tragedy

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

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

Sun poking through the cloudy horizon over a turbulent ocean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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