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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Rule of Law

For the week of March 16, 2019 / 9 Adar II 5779

Collection of justice symbols: balance, books, gavel

Vayikra & Zakhor
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26 (English 1:1 – 6:7) & D’varim/Deuteronomy 25:17-19
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 15:2-34

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When a leader sins, doing unintentionally any one of all the things that by the commandments of the LORD his God ought not to be done, and realizes his guilt, or the sin which he has committed is made known to him, he shall bring as his offering a goat, a male without blemish and shall lay his hand on the head of the goat and kill it in the place where they kill the burnt offering before the LORD; it is a sin offering. (Vayikra/Leviticus 4:22-24)

It is difficult to overstate the remarkable nature of the Torah. I am not referring to the more sensational parts such as miracles. I am aware that miracles and other references to God, angels, etc. seem farfetched to many, but in its day, to include supernatural stories, whether portrayed as fact or fiction, would have been expected. There are actually other aspects that are far more remarkable given the Torah’s time period’s psychological, religious, relational, economic, and political perspectives within or outside Israelite society. Living in the 21st century and influenced as many of us are by a western way of thinking, we easily miss Scripture’s overwhelmingly astounding insight.

One truly remarkable example of an approach to life and society unheard of then, and increasingly forgotten today, is what is called “the rule of law.” When God gave the Torah to Israel through Moses at Mt. Sinai, he established a new kind of society. The Torah was not to be a mysterious, impossible-to-understand, spiritual text under the control of a religious elite, who exclusively held the interpretive key. While teachers would have their role to play, it was to be accessible to everyone. Not only that, its directives were to be adhered to by all regardless of role or status. Peasants, priests, and royalty were all governed equally by this law. As we see in the quoted passage from this week’s parsha (English: weekly Torah reading portion), leaders, like everyone else, were expected to publicly own up when they did wrong.

Typically, the elite in ancient societies were regarded as having a special in with God or the gods. These societies claimed to be theocratic (i.e. ruled by God), when they were, in fact, aristocratic (meaning, “rule of the best” or so-called best). On the other hand, God established through Torah a system whereby the elites of Israel (the priestly and royal classes) weren’t allotted special privileges. Instead Torah provided objective standards for everyone to live under and to be judged by equally. No exceptions.

The contemporary secular society, which minimizes, if not dismisses altogether, references to religion and divine power, still tends toward aristocracy, as we are ruled by some sort of elite. We may claim to adhere to the rule of law, but whenever politicians and other power brokers conduct themselves by a different standard for whatever reason, be it society’s betterment for the sake of political, economic, or social stability, we are no longer a true democracy under the rule of law.

God’s Torah isn’t an arbitrary set of values and principles imposed on ancient Israel for some highfalutin religious reasons. Apart from certain elements designed for Israel in particular at that time, Torah is the revelation of how life really works. That includes how people and our leaders are to live in relation to the law. Double standards which allow the rich and the powerful to avoid justice will eventually destroy them and the society that bestows on them special status.

A dismal end is not inevitable, however. This same parsha reminds us that when leaders, like anyone else, honestly and publicly confess their wrongs along with the appropriate sacrifice, they will be forgiven. God didn’t expect moral perfection. Instead he made a way to maintain a stable and prosperous society through the possibility of forgiveness. As then, so today, forgiveness is available. If our leaders would come clean about their wrongdoings rather than living by a different standard from everyone else, and accept the Messiah’s sacrifice on their behalf, our cities, regions, and countries would be blessed.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

Following up this week’s message, Alan Gilman discusses the place of God’s law (Torah) in our lives today. This edition of TorahBytes Live will be live streamed Thursday, March 14 at 2 p.m. Eastern Time. Recorded version will be available immediately following.

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Let Him In

For the week of March 9, 2019 / 2 Adar II 5779

Rays of light through the open white door on orange wall

Pekudei
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 38:21 – 40:38
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 7:40-50

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Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. (Shemot/Exodus 40:34)

After many chapters containing intricate details of every aspect of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle), it was finally finished. It must have been really something for a nation of former slaves to have completed their first building project that was for themselves. It was for God, of course. But it was also, in a very real sense, their own. Located in the center of their community, Israel now had a tangible expression of their unique peoplehood and faith.

However satisfying the Mishkan was or impressive it was to see, nothing can compare to what happened next. The pillar of cloud and fire, which was a physical manifestation of God himself, filled it. In some real way God himself took up residence in his house. The “everywhere” God localized his presence in the midst of the people of Israel.

What would the Mishkan be without God inside it? Since it was built under his direction and according to his instructions, it was a legitimate place of true worship. The cohanim (English: priests), who were responsible for the sacrifices and the maintenance of the inner buildings, and Levi’im (English: Levites), who assisted them, were sanctioned by God through Moses. As long as they were faithful to the Mishkan’s Torah regulations, their activities would be pleasing to God and of benefit to the people. The understanding of God reflected by the Mishkan and its proceedings would proclaim the truth of God, his word, and his people.

So, what difference did his localized presence make?  It might surprise you if I don’t say “everything.” It’s not “everything” due to its legitimacy and the benefits I briefly tried to describe. But it is still a really big difference. The presence of God within the Mishkan allowed the people to go beyond good and true concepts of God to encountering him personally.

This personal dynamic is key to genuinely experiencing God. I wonder how much well-intentioned believers are content with a life that is more akin to the Mishkan without God’s presence. Most things in our lives appear to be in order. We believe the right things. We go through all the right motions. We avoid bad stuff (at least most of the time). But, if we are honest, God remains a concept; there’s no personal dynamic. God is around certainly, but he isn’t right here, not to mention inside us.

I know there’s lots of controversy about what the New Covenant Writings refer to as being filled with the Holy Spirit. Much of that controversy is wrapped up in people’s attempt to explain and formulize the personal dynamic of God’s presence in the life of the believer. Forget the controversy for a second. Is our experience of God supposed to be like the Mishkan without God? The New Covenant refers to us as the Temple of the Holy Spirit both corporately (1 Corinthians 3:16) and individually (1 Corinthians 6:19), because we are to be like the Mishkan with God inside.

If God isn’t in you the way he wants to be, let me offer some suggestions as to why. First, you may not truly believe in Yeshua. You may know that already, you may be lying to yourself, or others have deceived you into thinking that you are a true believer when you are not. If that’s the case, that can easily change right now. Turn from your sin and call out to God in Yeshua’s name. Second, the Bible speaks about grieving (Ephesian 4:30) the Holy Spirit. You may have come to believe in Yeshua, but your lifestyle is creating all sorts of barriers to truly experiencing him the way you should. The solution to that is the same as the first. Stop the bad behavior and turn to Yeshua. Let him direct you from there. Finally, you may have been conditioned against the work of God in your life. The Bible also speaks about quenching the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19). You have been taught to be suspicious of emotions, impressions, inklings, voices, and visions – these and other ways that God makes himself known to us personally. This one is more difficult that the other two, since it so insidious. Some people have been taught that many of the things that God is doing in your life is of the devil. Can’t do much about that until you have a major paradigm shift (completely new way of looking at life). Good news though – nothing is impossible for God. He can show you what’s right. But for that to happen, you’re going to have to let him in.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

Watch this week’s edition of TorahBytes Live (broadcast Thursday March 7, 2019 at 2 p.m. Eastern Time). In a follow up to this week’s message, Alan will discuss the importance of the personal dynamic of knowing God.

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Willing Hearts

For the week of March 2, 2019 / 25 Adar 5779

Female team leader, teacher or coach feeling satisfied looking at business audience team people or students raising hands up voting as volunteers at group meeting

Va-Yakhel & Shekalim
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 35:1 – 38:20 & 30:11-16
Haftarah: 2 Melachim/2 Kings 12:1-17 (English: 11:21 – 12:16)

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And Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whose mind the Lord had put skill, everyone whose heart stirred him up to come to do the work. (Shemot/Exodus 36:2)

What do you want to do? Have you ever thought about it? Maybe it’s all you ever think about. You may be driven by desire. Others find themselves caught in a web of obligations and responsibilities; perhaps self-imposed or imposed by others. Many of us try to balance the demands on our lives with “me time” when we get to do what we like to do. But how about for Yeshua followers? Do we ever get to do what we want? Are we not supposed to be servants of the Most High God? As servants, is considering our wants ever appropriate?

For the keeners among us, the answer is likely, “No.” But tragically, this kind of passion is often more self-driven than God-led, blinded by workaholism, not service. Try to speak to such folks about biblical principles of rest and we may be dismissed as lazy as they continue in their misguided zeal towards burn out.

Certainly as God’s servants we have obligations of all kinds. As stewards of the creation, we are responsible for all sorts of things, both general as human beings and specific to whatever roles we are called to play. Genuine love for God includes a duty component, whereby it is necessary to do all sorts of things that we may not feel like doing in the moment. But is a life of service to God completely defined by duty?

Not according to this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion). We are at the beginning of the building of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle), the semi-mobile, tent-like structure that was the precursor to the Temple. God had given the instructions and now it was necessary for it to be built. But who was going to build it? While there were certain people appointed to leadership, the workers were volunteers: (“everyone whose heart stirred him up to come to do the work”).

The great and awesome God, who spoke the universe into being didn’t twist arms. He could have, but he didn’t. The people who did the work, essential that it was, did so because they wanted to. And they wanted to without being coerced or compelled by God or anyone else.

No one was guilted into participating. This is similar to the earlier fundraising campaign to underwrite this same project. People gave or didn’t give as they wanted to (see Shemot/Exodus 35:4-9). Think of the confidence God had in the people. He knew that a sufficient number of people had generous and willing hearts, plus the practical skill to build.

This level of freedom established in the early days of the community of Israel is wonderful on its own. How many volunteer organizations have as much faith in their people as God had in his? But think how remarkable this is given the fact that they were former slaves. They had spent their whole lives forced to do what their masters dictated. They had no choice but to build cities for the king of Egypt. Yet the King of Kings offers his people a choice to build or not to build. It’s up to them. How freeing that must have been. A freedom they must have enjoyed because they responded by getting involved.

People are made by God to use the gifts and talents they have been given. People are made to respond to requests like these. They don’t need to be manipulated into doing what they don’t want to do. I can hear panic arising in the hearts of some leaders and organizers. They believe without their tactics, nothing will get done. Perhaps those things shouldn’t be done. They are likely distractions from the things God is actually calling people to do, the things they really want to do.

The Spirit of God works in the hearts of people to direct them in godly directions. This is especially the case among Yeshua followers. We don’t need human manipulation to fulfill God’s will. What we need is opportunity. Not just any opportunity but opportunities inspired by God. When God’s people are presented with God’s projects, we might find people whose hearts are stirred up, coming to do the work.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

Watch this week’s edition of TorahBytes Live (broadcasted Thursday February 28, 2019 at 2 p.m. Eastern Time). Alan will follow up this week’s message with a more in-depth discussion on tp balance responsibility and personal willingness. Recorded version will be available immediately following.

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