The Bread of Affliction

For the week of April 7, 2018 / 22 Nisan 5778

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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No Bias

For the week of March 31, 2018 / 15 Nisan 5778

Concept art of avoiding bias

Pesach 1
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 12:21-51; B’midbar/Numbers 28:16-25
Haftarah: Joshua 5:2-6:1

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When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the LORD. Now I have come.” (Joshua 5:13-14)

The Torah and Haftarah readings for this week and next are special for Pesach (English: Passover). The festival begins this year on Friday evening, March 30. The first of the two Torah readings is from Shemot/Exodus and describes the preparations for and the events of the first Passover night, when the Angel of Death didn’t slay the firstborn of the Israelites in Egypt but passed over their homes due to the blood of the Passover lamb smeared on their doorframes. The devastating blow of this final plague released Israel from Pharaoh’s tyrannical control. The second reading from B’midbar/Numbers prescribes some of Passover’s special observances. The Haftarah from Joshua includes the first Passover celebration after entering the Promised Land. This reading also contains two other significant items, one before and one after the Passover reference that don’t seem to be directly related to the holiday. My guess is that they are included for the simple reason that the Passover reference is too short on its own. I don’t know if whoever chose this passage saw connections to Passover, but I do.

The liberation of the people of Israel at the first Passover was a defining moment for the people. Four hundred years earlier the fledgling clan of Jacob (whose name God changed to Israel), his sons and their families, numbering seventy in all, found refuge during a great famine. God used unusual and painful circumstances to bring this about. Not only did Egypt function as a means of salvation for Israel, their initial time there was good. During the next four hundred years the clan grew into a nation. However, this was a nation without a distinct identity, since at some point in the process, they became slaves under an oppressive Egyptian regime.

All those years they held onto the promise of return to the land of their forefathers – a land guaranteed to them by God himself as a permanent inheritance. When the day for their liberation arrived, it didn’t come about easily. Be that as it may, for the first time ever, the nation of Israel was free to pursue their God-given destiny.

Acquiring the Land also wasn’t easy, sometimes due to a wide variety of external challenges; other times due to their own faithlessness. Through it all God proved faithful. After forty more long years of living like nomads in the wilderness, Joshua, Moses’s successor, led them into the Land.

Before celebrating their first Passover in their new home, the males were circumcised for the first time since leaving Egypt decades before. Not only were they acting as a distinct nation in their own land for the first time, this procedure dramatically reminded them of who they were as the covenant people of God. Then they observed Passover, another reminder of their unique peoplehood under God. The strong sense of nationality emphasized by both circumcision and Passover is the backdrop for the unusual encounter Joshua was to have shortly thereafter.

As Israel was preparing to face its first great challenge in their new land – overcoming the fortified city of Jericho – their leader and chief general was confronted by a man with a drawn sword. Unsure of the stranger’s allegiances, Joshua asked him if he was friend or foe. To which the as yet unidentified warrior replied (literally in Hebrew): No. He was the “Commander of the army of the LORD.” Joshua’s response to the Commander’s directive to remove his sandals due to the place being holy (similar to Moses’s experience at the burning bush) clearly indicates this Commander’s divine nature. Joshua’s immediate submission to him speaks buckets of his humble heart toward God. Even though he was God’s appointed leader of the people, he was quick to show deference, because he knew who was ultimately in charge

This interaction addresses more than just Joshua personally. The nation of Israel had been through so much for so long, much of which reinforced their special relationship to God. So, when God shows up here, it would have been reasonable for them to expect he would again confirm that relationship. But he doesn’t. Instead he reminds them that he is very clear that he is not biased toward them. Their confidence was not to be based on perception of favoritism or partiality on God’s part. Yes, they were (and are) his chosen people, but their chosen-ness is due to God’s plans and purposes for the whole world. God’s ongoing favor toward Israel is to fulfill his promise to Abraham: “Through you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Bereshit/Genesis 12:3; Galatians 3:8). Israel certainly benefits from this arrangement, but benefits aside, they needed to understand that it wasn’t that God was on their side, but they were called to be on his.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Realizing Reality

For the week of March 24, 2018 / 8 Nisan 5778

Five illustrations of a man in different states of realization

Tzav
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36 (English 6:8 – 8:36)
Haftarah: Malachi 3:4-24 (English 3:4 – 4:6)

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The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “If anyone sins and commits a breach of faith against the LORD by deceiving his neighbor in a matter of deposit or security, or through robbery, or if he has oppressed his neighbor or has found something lost and lied about it, swearing falsely—in any of all the things that people do and sin thereby – if he has sinned and has realized his guilt and will restore what he took by robbery or what he got by oppression or the deposit that was committed to him or the lost thing that he found or anything about which he has sworn falsely, he shall restore it in full and shall add a fifth to it, and give it to him to whom it belongs on the day he realizes his guilt. And he shall bring to the priest as his compensation to the LORD a ram without blemish out of the flock, or its equivalent, for a guilt offering. And the priest shall make atonement for him before the LORD, and he shall be forgiven for any of the things that one may do and thereby become guilty.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 6:1-7 [English: 6:8-14])

As you may be aware, I don’t normally begin with such a lengthy quote, but I couldn’t think of a more succinct way to provide the scriptural basis for what I want to address this week. It’s more important than usual due to the need to adjust some of what I said in last week’s message, The Ultimate Sacrifice. I had stated unequivocally that under the Old Covenant, there was no sacrifice for intentional sin. I referenced the book of B’midbar/Numbers 15:30, which uses the term “high hand” which apparently is a way to speak of intentionality: “But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people.” “Cut off” could mean either execution or banishment. At the same time, we saw that King David’s sincere and humble prayer of confession in Psalm 51 for his intentional sins was accepted by God in spite of there being no appropriate sacrifice for what he did.

Now to this week’s portion, especially its opening verses that I read. Here it appears there is sacrifice for intentional sin after all. How did I miss that? The intentional/unintentional distinction vis-à-vis sacrifice and forgiveness appears to be common among interpreters. But after taking a closer look at these verses, I am not sure that such a distinction is so cut and dried. Certainly, when someone realizes guilt it may imply that they were not previously aware of it. But is being unaware necessarily a sign of unintentionality? It could be. For example, if you fail to stop at a stop sign, the authorities are not to accept your claim of not seeing the sign as the basis of innocence. While it could happen that a stop sign may have been significantly obstructed, unawareness on its own doesn’t preclude guilt. Still, unawareness is a factor in determining unintentionality.

But is that what is going on here? Does realizing guilt necessarily imply lack of awareness and unintentionality? Let’s look closer at the passage. It begins with “If anyone sins and commits a breach of faith against the LORD by deceiving his neighbor in a matter of deposit or security, or through robbery, or if he has oppressed his neighbor or has found something lost and lied about it, swearing falsely…” Does this sound unintentional to you? Deceiving a neighbor regarding money or goods? Theft? Oppression? Lying? Swearing falsely? Do people not realize what they are doing when they do such things? Might they not be aware of how serious such things are? It’s possible, I guess. Certainly, they may not feel guilty about doing whatever they did. Those of you who suffer from constant guilt, this might be hard to believe. But it’s amazing how psychologically disconnected some people can be.

Guilt is an objective reality. Our wrongs place us automatically out of sorts with God and the world. Our realization of guilt is not what makes it real, however. The effects of guilt create havoc whether or not we are aware of it. Realization brings us to the place where we can finally deal with it. And that’s what the guilt offering provided to the people.

Sinning with a high hand, therefore, may be more along the lines of a certain kind of purposeful intentionality beyond what’s described here, including overt rebellion against God. This passage, on the other hand, refers to “in any of all the things that people do and sin thereby.” Not to belittle any of these things, but we are encouraged to admit the commonality of such behavior. But unintentional? I don’t think so.

We need to take responsibility for the ungodly aspects of our lives no matter what our awareness-level is. Not feeling guilty is no excuse. People will use having peace about something as license to get away with sinning. That they are unaware of the seriousness of their wrong is one thing. That they and everyone around is suffering due to their resistance to the truth is another.

I can’t speak to individual situations, but perhaps some subconsciously remain unaware of their guilt because they are afraid of the consequences. When that’s the case, we would do better to be more afraid of not realizing our guilt. Once we allow guilt to rise in our consciousness, we can finally do something about it. First, we restore the intimacy of relationship with those affected by making amends as able. Second, we restore intimacy with God though sacrifice. Under the Old Covenant that was done by the method described in our Torah portion. Under the New, we receive the benefits of Yeshua’s ultimate sacrifice through faith.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Ultimate Sacrifice

For the week of March 17, 2018 / 1 Nisan 5778

Vayikra
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26 (English: 1:1 – 6:7); Shemot/Exodus 12:1-20
Haftarah: Ezekiel 45:16-46; Isaiah 66:1-24

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

For the New Covenant believer, the concept of sin and forgiveness is central. We understand that whatever the Old Covenant sacrificial system meant, it in some way points to the Messiah’s ultimate sacrifice. For that reason, it is understandable that we would search for parallels between the multi-purpose sacrifice of animals and Yeshua’s unjust death. The problem is it is difficult to draw exact parallels. First, not all sacrifice was for sin. At times people would offer something to express gratitude for example. In contrast, the Messiah’s death was altogether tragic. Even though Yeshua freely accepted his mission, however, there was nothing good nor celebratory about his having to die. While the results of his death were good, and the resurrection should be celebrated, the process of death itself was not good. Therefore, Yeshua’s sacrifice only parallels those sacrifices that were for sin of some kind.

Another dissimilarity is the animals didn’t unduly suffer when killed. They weren’t beaten beforehand as Yeshua was, and they were killed quickly unlike Yeshua’s slow, excruciating, humiliating death on a Roman cross.

There’s at least one more difference. We see it in the verses I quoted at the beginning. You might be surprised to learn that Old Covenant sacrifice for sin was only for unintentional sin. There were no sacrifices for intentional sin at all. The consequence for intentional sin, the Hebrew phrase for that being sinning with a “high hand” (B’midbar/Numbers 15:30), was either banishment or death. This could be why King David in his well-known penitential psalm says:

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise

(Psalm 51:18-19; English: 51:16-17)

This is not a New Testament-esque post-sacrificial system advanced theology of anti-animal sacrifice. It’s that there were no sacrifices to cover David’s intentional sins of adultery and murder. The only acceptable action on David’s part is what he did – honestly and humbly admit his guilt.

What was the point of sacrifice for sin if it was not to cover serious, intentional wrongdoing? It appears the loss of animal life was designed to make the people aware of their sinful condition. Most of us are conscious of our big sins, while tending to go through life blind to how much we really fall short. The sacrifices helped the people in ancient times to take even their unintentional shortcomings seriously. Sin is costly to ourselves and to those around us; it is also an affront to God who created us to serve him and his purposes. Instead of glibly saying, “nobody’s perfect,” we need to be made aware of the great chasm caused by our ever-present failings and the world as it was supposed to be.

It should be obvious that if unintentional sin was serious enough to require the killing of innocent animals, how much more serious is intentional sin? No wonder Yeshua’s offering was so different from animal sacrifice. It was the only sacrifice designed to truly take away sin. Old Covenant ritual wasn’t simply symbolically foreshadowing a similar, but greater, sacrifice, rather it prepared Israel and the world for a much different, far more effective sacrifice – one that would deal with sin once and for all.

In spite of the supreme effectiveness of Yeshua’s death for sin, its effects are not applied to us automatically. In order to experience the benefits of what Yeshua has done, we need to echo David’s words. On our own we have nothing to offer that could satisfy the great losses we have caused the world or the affront our lives have been to our Creator. Nothing apart God’s full giving of himself in the person of the Messiah is sufficient to resolve our alienation from him. Making it our own requires a turning of our lives in faith to Yeshua and personally accepting the precious gift of his ultimate sacrifice.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Anti-Narcissist

For the week of March 10, 2018 / 23 Adar 5778Screen capture of Google search definition of narcissistVayakhel & Pekudei
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 35:1 – 40:38 & B’midbar/Numbers 19:1-22
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16-38

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Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. (Ezekiel 36:22)

A key theme in the book of the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel (Hebrew: Y’chezkel) is the glory of God. Early in the book which takes place during the early stages of the Babylonian conquest, Ezekiel has a vision of God’s glory in terms of a heavenly chariot. Eventually the prophet sees God’s glory leave the Jerusalem temple, thus illustrating that Israel’s exile is his exile too. On one hand, it is comforting to be reminded that God is with his people even in times like these, but we shouldn’t miss the indictment against them: their misdeeds resulted in the loss of God’s glory.

There are two aspects to what constitutes the glory of God. First, it refers to the outward manifestation of his being. Since God is a spirit, he cannot be detected by our physical senses. But from time to time he displays the essence of who he is within the material sphere –  blinding light and consuming fire being two most common. Sometimes his glory is expressed through actions, often referred to as signs, since there is significance or meaning behind them. The ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the provision of manna, and so on are expressions of his glory.

The second aspect of glory has to do with honor, the appropriate response to these manifestations. When we sufficiently acknowledge a display of God’s glory, we give credit to whom credit is due. So when God does something amazing and we respond with amazement, remarking that only God could have done such a thing, we are giving God glory or honoring him.

God cares very much about his honor to the extent that it is perhaps his prime internal motivating force. The verse I read at the start is one of many examples in the Bible, several of which are in Ezekiel, that convey this idea. In much of the Hebrew prophetic literature, God’s judgement of the Jewish people is not his final word concerning them, but a temporary measure in the process of their eventual physical and spiritual restoration. But, to make sure that the people don’t get the wrong impression, God deems it necessary to remind them that he is not doing this for their sakes but for the sake of his holy name, which is another way to say, for his honor.

One might react to this, wondering why the Supreme Being would appear to be so self-centered as if he wants to remind us: “Don’t forget everybody; this is all about Me!” Perhaps this is exactly what God is saying. Some may even want us to believe that not only is this correct, but that our whole approach to God and life needs to revolve around such a notion.

Is God the ultimate narcissist, ever consumed with himself? No wonder we talk about God using people. Perhaps that’s exactly what he is doing. Are we nothing more than his minions created to do his bidding? Could it be that any perceived kindness toward us is illusionary, since we are nothing but expendable pawns in some divine plan? To hear how some people theologize the Bible, you’d think so.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Everything about God is lavishly generous. He, the only self-sufficient one, far from being narcissistic, freely chose to bring into existence a wonderful creation, designing humans in particular to uniquely share aspects of himself by making us in his image.

God doesn’t need anything. He doesn’t need our honor. But he knows that we need to honor him. Our misunderstanding of this greatly stems from our skewed view of honor. Honor isn’t about its apparent perks or position. Honor is an acknowledgement of truth. Failure to give credit where credit is due detaches us from reality and sends us down the rabbit hole of delusion and destruction. Neglecting to give glory to God for who he is and what he has done shifts our allegiance from the true Master of the Universe to ourselves, thus fashioning human beings into puny false gods. But when we honor him, we place ourselves in our rightful place in the universe, thus allowing us to function according to design.

God’s passion for his honor stems from a deeper motivating force of selfless love. His concern for his glory is his plea for us to live in reality. To know him truly is to honor him. To perceive him accurately is to give him glory. To live otherwise is to dwell in the darkness. Let us honor God and really live!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Truth You Know

14 Adar 5778 / March 1, 2018
Special for Purim 5778

Painting of Haman honoring Mordecai

by Ari Gradus. For Gradus’ work, see <http://rogallery.com/gradus_ari/gradus_hm.htm

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If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of the Jewish people, you will not overcome him but will surely fall before him. (Esther 6:13)

One of my favorite moments in the Purim story is when the wicked Haman returns home after his humiliating task of parading Mordecai through the streets of the Persian capital. Seeing his thoroughly despondent state, his wife says to him these insightful words: “If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of the Jewish people, you will not overcome him but will surely fall before him” (Esther 6:13). But it’s not how prophetically accurate this was that is so striking. What gets me is why didn’t she say this earlier. “If Mordecai is of the Jewish people…” Not long before, right after another one of Haman’s “I can’t stand Mordecai” pity parties, she came up with the brilliant idea of having a 75-foot-high gallows made to hang Mordecai on. In fact, it was Haman’s being in the royal court waiting to ask the king’s permission for this murderous deed that ended up with him publicly honoring Mordecai for rescuing the king some time earlier.

Obviously, it was this unusual turn of events that tweaked Haman’s wife’s thinking, resulting in her somber prediction. But again, if she already had enough of a grasp of the grand narrative of the Jewish people enabling her to predict her husband’s imminent demise, then why did she think they could get away with her spectacular hang-Mordecai-plan?

It’s because she thought, despite the truth, that they could get away with it. She wasn’t stupid. She and her husband knew how to play the political game to suit their selfish purposes, not caring one bit about who got hurt along the way. She was even able to risk fighting the forces of the universe to succeed. She knew God’s favor was on the Jews. Yet, perhaps she deceived herself long enough to think they could succeed. Weren’t things going their way until now?

Do we always have to wait until heaven pushes back against the forces of evil before we come to our senses? Can we not learn from history that the forces of good will always eventually prevail? Can we not learn from the story of Purim that standing against God, his people, and his plans will inevitably come to naught?

Like Haman’s wife, it’s not as if we don’t know better.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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A Small Price To Pay

For the week of March 3, 2018 / 16 Adar 5778

Gold coin-like illustration with a male head silhouette with a dollar sign superimposed.

Ki Tissa
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 30:11 – 34:35
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 18:1-39

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When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his life to the LORD when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them. (Shemot/Exodus 30:12)

At first glance this directive by God to Israel seems odd. If and when a census (or more literally “head count”) is conducted, each and every person was to pay some sort of fee to avoid catastrophe. This is extreme stuff; very serious. In fact, it appears this is exactly what happened centuries later under the reign of King David (see 1 Samuel 24:1ff & 1 Chronicles 21:1ff). While there is nothing inherently wrong with taking a census, David’s Chief of Defense, General Joab, urged him not to do it. The resulting plague that killed seventy thousand people tells us that the issue was most likely the failure to institute the required payment.

Is it necessary to know why God required such a thing? Shouldn’t it be enough to know God means what he says and he knows what he’s doing? If payment is required, payment is required. The warning of negative consequences resulting from disobedience is a bonus. God doesn’t always add an “or else” to what he says. It’s generally implied. Not that we should take his “or elses” as cold threats. Rather his warnings to us are more along the lines of a caring father’s wise insights: “Don’t play with fire, son; you’ll get burned.” So here it’s: “Pay the fee kids and live to see another day!” Therefore, I am good with no further explanation beyond the clear instruction.

Even though we shouldn’t need to be told the reasons behind what God says, giving some thought to what’s going on here might help us gain some helpful understanding about life. So let’s give this a go, and see what happens.

What strikes me as curious is why does the individual pay to be counted? It would be one thing if the purpose of the counting was taxation, but it isn’t. The counting was an act to determine particular population details. Why would the individual have to pay for that? Note that regarding the payment, scholars agree the best English word for the Hebrew word ‘kopher” here is “ransom.” It’s a word that can mean redemption money and in other contexts is translated as “bribe.” There was something about the act of numbering the people that placed the individual in a precarious situation from which they needed to ransom themselves.

Is it just me, or does this sound a bit strange? Here we are, minding our own business, and the government institutes a census (again, nothing wrong with that!). They knock on our door and count the members of our household, thus placing the whole nation in danger of plague unless we pay ransom money. Yikes!

Why is being counted putting people in jeopardy? Are we to be penalized for simply existing? We didn’t ask to be born. At some point at a very young age, we become conscious of being alive, and find ourselves having to survive within a whole set of circumstances that we originally had nothing to do with. We then spend the rest of our lives either justifying or denying our existence. Victims are we all! Then to rub it in, we have to pay ransom for being noticed.

But, wait a second! It’s failure to pay the ransom that makes us victims. It’s neglecting God’s directive to give up something of what is rightfully ours that disturbs the equilibrium of the society. It’s being publicly noticed with no cost to ourselves that’s the problem. And why is that? Something happens to us when we are called out of the nameless crowd and individualized. Most of us like being noticed. Many of us want to go much further and be famous. But there is danger when we are noticed. If we don’t stop and express gratitude to God for our existence, we are in danger of turning our attention away from the One who made us to be ourselves.

Far from being victims of a cosmic accident, we owe God for the gift of life. Whenever we are called out from among the crowd, we need to take time to remember we are here to serve him and his purposes and not ourselves. To exist is a heavenly privilege graciously bestowed upon us, a privilege which we would do well to gratefully acknowledge. To fail to do so is to invite destruction upon ourselves and everyone around us.

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

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Imagine That!

For the week of February 24, 2018 / 9 Adar 5778

Young girl expressing her imagination

T’tzaveh & Zakhor
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 27:20 – 30:10; Devarim/Deuteronomy 25:17-19
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 15:2-34

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And Saul said to Samuel, “I have obeyed the voice of the Lord. I have gone on the mission on which the LORD sent me.” (1 Samuel 15:23)

One of the most wonderful of all human abilities is imagination. We have been gifted by God to be able to conceive of almost endless possibilities. Imagination is more than childlike dreams of fantasy and momentary inspirations of creativity. It is actually an essential aspect of our being, enabling us to effectively engage the world in which we live.

Strange as this sounds, I don’t think we can imagine life without it! We imagine almost as much as we breathe. In almost every situation we find ourselves in, we weigh possibilities. It may happen in an instant but deciding whether to turn left or right at an intersection requires a level of outcome assessment. Unlike animals, whose activities are the result of sensory reaction, we use our minds. We may not necessarily use our minds as much as we should. A case can be made that it is possible to devolve into animal-like sensual behavior, as we choose to shut down imagination. But in that case, I wonder how much imagination shouts to be heard. The image of God in human beings is not easily snuffed out.

There is a downside to imagination, however. The ability that we have to picture victory in battle, light amidst darkness, reconciliation following rejection, healing when harmed, also enables us to imagine nonsense. At a young age we learn that creating fantasy worlds can be fun. Countless children have been entertained by the outlandish creatures produced by Dr. Seuss, for example. But such creatures don’t exist. Neither do the worlds of most science fiction. This is not to say such fanciful tales don’t have elements of truth or that the wildest technical conceptions cannot lead to real inventions. It’s just that imagination has the ability to deny reality itself.

One of the most common, but serious, applications of imaginative reality denial is that we live in a world that is fundamentally good. There is much good in the world, God made sure of that in spite of our first parents’ insubordination. However, be it disease and death, abuse and oppression, resentment and jealousy – the list goes on – evil confronts us at every turn. Yet every time many are jarred from a drugged-like stupor, where even the strongest denial can’t be sustained, and are shocked as if the most bizarre thing just happened: “What’s with those people!” “What kind of monster could do such a thing!” – pretending that evil is an alien object living beyond earth’s atmosphere that once in while accidently breaks through, randomly plummeting to earth. But what fantasy film are you watching? Not only is evil a normal and regular occurrence, it resides in you and me. To think otherwise is to let your imagination run amok.

This week’s readings include a special portion from the life of Israel’s first king, Saul. It is read each year on the Sabbath prior to Purim (the Festival of Esther). The association with Purim has to do with its mention of Israel’s enemy Amalek, whom Saul was supposed to destroy. The setup of the Purim story which occurred centuries later in Persia is that Mordecai wouldn’t show deference to the high official Haman, because he descended from the Amalekites. Saul’s demise was partly due to his unwillingness to sufficiently confront evil by destroying the Amalekites as instructed by God. He imagined that denying the seriousness of evil and pleasing his people was a better option than fulfilling God’s directive.

Today we imagine that denying evil is better than confronting it for what it is. Perhaps pretending everyone else is basically good allows us to trick ourselves into imagining we are too. But as Purim will soon be here again (begins the evening of February 28, 2018), we would be better to acknowledge, resist, and confront evil wherever it lurks. And we can with God’s help. Imagine that!

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

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God Is in the House

For the week of February 17, 2018 / 2 Adar 5778

Illustration of temple curtain tearing in two

Terumah
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 25:1 – 27:19
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 5:26 – 6:13 (English: 5:12 – 6:13)

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And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel. (Shemot/Exodus 25:21-22)

It’s fairly common to hear the God of the Old Testament contrasted with the God of the New. Even among those who would never dare to say that these constitute two very different beings, they may as well, given how they mischaracterize what they view as irreconcilable depictions of the one God. There are indeed key contrasts between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Covenant writings vis-à-vis the divine. The differences are not in God himself, however. But, rather, in his relationship to human beings.

To the casual reader, the Old Testament seems to reflect a God who is distant, while in the New he is approachable. That is somewhat true, because on our own we are not fit to approach him, not because he is aloof, sitting far away in heaven, disinterested in human affairs. Far from it! As he revealed himself to the people of Israel within the covenant given at Mt. Sinai, we see him anxious to live among his precious human creatures.

The entire Sinai covenant system was built upon the centrality of God’s dwelling place. God directed Moses to construct a mobile structure called the “mishkan” (English: tabernacle). It was here that the sacrifices and other worship rites were to be exclusively performed. Mishkan means “dwelling.” It was the precursor of the temple, which in Hebrew is “bayit,” the word for “house.” It is difficult to say whether or not God’s taking up residence in the mishkan was metaphorical or actual. Probably it is both in some ways and not in others. Regardless, the people of Israel were to understand that the Master of the Universe was among them.

Inside the mishkan, in its innermost sanctum, called the “kodesh ha-k’dashim” (English: Holy of Holies), was a special golden chest, called the “aron ha-b’rit” (English: the Ark of the Covenant). On top of the aron ha-b’rit was the “kapporet” (English: “cover,” traditionally referred to as “the mercy seat”). As we read at the beginning, it was here that God would meet and speak with Moses. It would be here that the Cohen HaGadol (English: the Chief Priest) would appear before God once a year on Yom Kippur (English: the Day of Atonement).

That God was in the house was an essential element of ancient Israeli society. God is not a concept, but an actual personal being (the Being of all Beings, we can say). Obedience to his Word, even then, was not cold adherence to abstract principles, but the reasonable response to the reality of his presence. Everything that the people did or didn’t say or do was in response to him being in the house.

One of the dramatic developments within the New Covenant is that God’s presence is no longer isolated within the ancient house, be it the tabernacle or the temple. This is illustrated by the miraculous tearing of the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the house. This occurred immediately following Yeshua’s death to demonstrate that his sacrifice not only provided access to God for people of all nations, but that God’s presence was being unleashed throughout the entire world.

Through the New Covenant the God of Israel is no longer exclusive to the people of Israel. In a sense he never was. Not only did the calling of Israel through Abraham always have the nations in mind, but the Hebrew Scriptures are clear that God was neither nationalistic nor regional. It’s that due to the human condition, the globe was not ready for his presence.

Since Yeshua’s death and resurrection, throughout the earth, God’s presence has manifested in a most personal way. While most people seem to be blind to his taking up residence within his creation, he is no less present. God is in the house – the world he has made – yet we too often ignore him. We think we can get away with doing our own thing our own way as if he will not call each and every one of us to account. He is doing far more, speaking far more, and responding far more than we care to admit. We are not alone. God is in the house.

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

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