Say it and say it and say it some more!

For the week of September 5, 2015 / 21 Elul 5775

Modern Nablus (ancient Shechem)

Ki Tavo
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8
Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1-22

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And Moses commanded the people on the same day, saying, “These shall stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the people, when you have crossed over the Jordan: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin; and these shall stand on Mount Ebal to curse: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali.” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 27:11-13)

In this week’s Torah portion we read how Moses instructed the people regarding what might seem to us to be an unusual ceremony. The whole nation was to gather on the two mountains of Gerizim and Ebal near Shechem (modern Nablus), a more or less central location in ancient Israel. Half the nation was to stand on one mountain, the other half on the other. Those on Gerizim were to call out blessings, those on Ebal, curses. That this was indeed done later on is recorded in Joshua 8:33.

An unusual ceremony, but perhaps how it functioned in the life of the culture at that time is not as unusual as we might think. But before we look at that, let’s see what blessings and curses are about. “To bless” is to fill something with the potential of life. When someone is blessed, they thrive and become a channel of life to others. “To curse” is to remove life. When someone is cursed, they begin to die, often causing destruction along the way. Pronouncing blessings and curses bring to the consciousness of people an awareness of the reality of that which is blessed or cursed.

Many ancient peoples believed that their lives were subject to the influences, even whims, of spiritual forces. Myths and legends arose that were these cultures’ best guesses at trying to explain how it all worked. This resulted in various customs that governed life as people sought to identify which activities were beneficial, leading to blessing, and those which were not, leading to curses.

But due to the gift of the Torah, we don’t need to guess. For it, along with the rest of the Bible, is God’s revealed truth. As the designer of life, the Master of the Universe not only knows what is beneficial for his creation, he has shared that information with us through the Scriptures.

Still, the truth regarding blessings and curses sitting on the pages of the Bible won’t do any good unless it is effectively communicated to others. This is what was going on at the mountains of Gerizim and Ebal. The community of Israel needed to hear these important life truths in this dramatic way. Dramatic, but as I mentioned at the start, not necessarily unusual, because this kind of communication is exactly what most of us are exposed to each and every day of our lives. All around us, over and over again, the culture shouts out blessings and curses. Through all sorts of ways, whether it be TV, the Internet, school, friends, family, and teachers we are being bombarded by someone’s take on what constitutes what is it that effects our lives for good and ill. “This will make you happy; that will cause you harm; this will give you success; that route is a dead end;” and on and on it goes. The format used may not seem like Gerizim and Ebal, and the words are definitely different. But how it works is the same. The more we are bombarded by society’s definitions of blessing and curses, the more people tend to embrace them.

That’s why those who have been entrusted with God’s Truth as revealed in Scripture need to boldly shout out God’s truth for everyone to hear. If you truly believe what God says in the Bible, you need to share it with everyone everywhere. Don’t be intimidated by the opinions of others. God’s Word is true, not because you believe it is, but because it is God’s Word. Don’t allow your friends, neighbors, and co-workers to be victims of the best guesses of social commentators, misinformed philosophers, and market manipulators. Find a mountain, figuratively of course, and unapologetically proclaim God’s blessings and curses.


Help Yourself!

The Torah calls for a whole new level of sharing.

For the week of August 29, 2015 / 14 Elul 5775


Ki Teze
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10

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If you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in your bag. If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 23:25-26; English: 23:24-25)

There are many special things about being part of God’s family. It’s actually similar to being part of a natural family. In the same way you don’t get to pick your relatives, so when you are part of the community of Yeshua followers, you don’t have a say with regard to who your spiritual brothers and sisters are. This experience has been full of delightful surprises as well as some interesting challenges. Through the years we have had a great many people in our home. This includes those times when we hosted regular meetings. We felt that being genuinely hospitable meant telling people, “Make yourself at home!” At first, we didn’t realize that being at home meant different things to different people. I think what we meant to say was, “Make yourself at home according to our understanding of home.”

An incident stays with me, not because it was a big deal, it wasn’t; but because it was different from anything I was used to. The people involved were not fellow believers, but the point is the same, as you will see. I guess in my first twenty years of life I had little contact with other cultures. It was the summer of 1977. I was working at a camp, and I became friends with one of the few people working there who was from another country. After camp was over, his girlfriend had come to town and they were both over at my mother’s place where I was still living at the time. We were in our kitchen talking, and then all of a sudden the girlfriend, whom my mother and I had just met, without asking, took a glass, poured herself some water from the tap, and started drinking. Did I mention she didn’t ask first? You probably don’t believe me, but it’s true. This person, almost a total stranger, was making herself at home. And in this case, I don’t think we had told her to “make herself at home.” But she did anyway! I couldn’t believe it.

I wouldn’t tell you this story if I didn’t think that the only person looking bad was me. It’s not as if she did anything truly wrong. It’s that it was different. And if by any chance my telling this story helps me find these people again, that would be a real bonus.

I had been pondering the passage I read at the beginning when I remembered of that story. Helping herself to water after just a few minutes of being in our home reflects an understanding of personal property that this passage may be seeking to communicate.

I don’t know about you, but the taking of grain or fruit from my field (if I owned one) without asking sounds to me like stealing. The Torah is clear about land ownership and property boundaries. It’s not as if everybody owns everybody else’s land. On the contrary, this passage is clear that while people could help themselves to a limited amount of produce, they were not to harvest another person’s crops. That would indeed be stealing. But if that is stealing, why isn’t taking small amounts stealing?

I can’t say for sure, because neither the passage nor its immediate context tell us. Be that as it may, we might be able to deduce an answer from how God through the Torah developed the community of ancient Israel. First, God always retained ownership of the land. We read: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Vayikra/Leviticus 25:23). So while the people possessed land on the basis of tribal inheritance, they were not owners in an absolute sense. Therefore the blessings derived from cultivating the land were not so much theirs as their responsibility, in other words they were stewards of it. How to distribute produce, therefore, was not ultimately theirs to decide, but God’s. The feeding of their own families and the trading out of their bounty for other goods and services were certainly included in God’s economy, but so was the obligation not to completely exploit their land for themselves, but rather to leave for the poor the corners of their fields and the gleanings of their harvest (see Vayikra/Leviticus 23:22). Also included was the right of others to help themselves.

Perhaps the girlfriend consciously or unconsciously understood that she didn’t need permission to help herself that day. She did nothing to undermine our household water supply. We had water onsite, she was thirsty, and you know the rest of the story. And she didn’t keep the glass, by the way.

In the moment I felt violated, but knowing what I know now, I shouldn’t have. While not in any way condoning the type of forced sharing that is a part of some political ideologies, maybe we don’t own what we have in exactly the way we have tended to think. Once we understand property ownership from God’s perspective, perhaps we should be much less controlling and tight fisted as some of us have been, and allow others to be free to help themselves.


Fruit Trees

You may be cutting down your trees to spite your life.

For the week of August 22, 2015 / 7 Elul 5775

Fruit Trees

Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12

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When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you? Only the trees that you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, that you may build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 20:19-20)

This week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion) is full of wisdom regarding justice, appropriate forms of worship; laws specific to kings; and the great passage anticipating prophets in general, the Messiah in particular. Among all these God-inspired rules and regulations is a prohibition against cutting down fruit trees in time of war. The reason is pretty straightforward: fruit trees provide food. If you cut them down, you forgo a necessary food source. Without food, people die. Can’t win wars that way. And even if you do, it might be a very long time, if ever, before new fruit trees can be planted and bear fruit again. You can cut down non-fruit-bearing trees, but not the fruit trees.

That makes sense doesn’t it? Makes sense, but it may not be that obvious at the time. Human nature, being what it is, when we are in the situation, it is so easy to get completely focused on the goal at hand – which in this case is the need to win a battle through the technology of siegeworks -that the obvious may not be so obvious after all. In the moment, I suspect no one would seriously consider cutting down all the fruit trees at once. But what’s wrong with one or two? We can eat the fruit off of them, their wood is good, and they’ll be more than enough fruit trees left over. But once we justify the cutting down of a few, the next thing we know it’s a few more, and a few more until they are all gone. God understands us better than we do ourselves.

But what is it that drives this kind of near-sighted compulsion? Note it’s not that it is a sin to ever cut down a fruit tree as if they themselves are sacred. A healthy orchard demands good husbandry techniques, necessitating keeping it from becoming too dense, thus creating the need to cut down a tree here or there. The commandment is specific to the using of their wood for military advantage. God deemed such a directive essential, because he knows what happens to us when we are focused on a goal, especially in dire situations such as a war. In fact, there’s no telling what we might do when facing any kind of dire situation – or situations not that dire, just dire to us. We might even undermine our own survival in the pursuit of our goals.

How many “fruit trees” are we cutting down in the pursuit of the things we want? We are willing to abuse the sources of life that God has provided in an attempt to resolve our problems and pursue our desires. We abuse loved ones to satisfy ourselves in the moment. We poison the environment because we give preference to our current generation over future ones. We kill off our offspring in the womb because they may cramp our lifestyle. Fruit trees all of them! Cut them down! Use them up now! Do what it takes to please ourselves even if it is at our own expense! And that’s what we fail to understand about this. Sure, we should be concerned about our loved ones, the environment, and the preborn for their own sake. Absolutely! But can’t we see what we are doing? As we cut our fruit trees down, all the while thinking we are contributing to our own welfare and success, we are actually undermining our own survival! Whatever might be gained in the moment is nothing compared to what we lose in the long run.

This may be more difficult to realize in our day compared to that of Moses. For compared to ancient Israel, we have so much more stuff, so many more distractions. The result is that we fail to recognize how poor we really are. We don’t even know that we suffer from a lack of nourishing life fruit as we become more and more self-focused in the midst of a cynical meaningless world.

It doesn’t need to be like this though. God is a God of restoration. More than that! He is a God of resurrection. The Scriptures teach that the power that raised Yeshua from death is at work in his followers (see Ephesians 1:15-23). Whatever fruit trees we have cut down can be brought back to life by trusting in the Messiah. The life of God is so powerful, you would be amazed at what he can do once we stop destroying the fruit trees he has provided and look to him to resurrect the dead.




For the week of August 15, 2015 / 30 Av 5775Exclusivity

Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17;
Bemidbar/Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11-55:5; Isaiah 66:1-24

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You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. (Devarim/ Deuteronomy 12:31)

Many people seem to be uncomfortable with idea that God places limitations on how he is to be worshiped. Actually the only kind of spirituality that the power brokers of Western societies approve of today is one that views God as anything you want him to be, and you also have to regard everyone else’s view of God as equally valid to yours. Don’t confuse this way of thinking with tolerance. For if your view is that there is only one God, and that God is particular about how humans are to relate to him, your view is anything but tolerated.

Please don’t be offended, but I find the rejection of this kind of God, which happens to be what constitutes the biblical one, bizarre. That people reject the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not in itself strange. That’s been going on since the Garden of Eden. It’s that the reason for rejecting him is his claim to exclusivity. That exclusivity is a problem makes no sense. If God was nothing more than an extension of human imagination, expressed historically through traditions, I could understand why some people would find exclusivity distasteful. To insist that one’s view of God is not only preferable but the only view, would be the worst kind of arrogant presumption. But if there really are powerful spiritual forces beyond what’s going on in our heads, why wouldn’t or couldn’t those forces be defined based on who or what they really are, rather than our perceptions of them? If they really exist, then they are not whatever we perceive them to be; they are what they are. The next step would be to determine their true identity and nature. This then takes us back to the kind of discussion about God and spiritual things that most people for most of history have had: Is there really a God? If so, can he be known? And so on. That approach is intellectually honest, but rejecting the exclusivity of the biblical God on the basis of his exclusivity alone is confused, misguided, or outright dishonest.

How can I say that? Look around. We live in an exclusively oriented universe. Things are the way they are. Yes, it is true that people have different and conflicting perspectives, but they are not all equally valid. Some opinions are correct, some are partly so, and some are absolutely wrong. Sometimes someone thinks they have a complete insight on something, when they just have a piece of the puzzle, but that people may have an overblown opinion doesn’t make all other opinions equally correct. We do need to learn from each other, but pretending that truth is what you make it to be is nonsense.

For example, there may be more than one way to make an airplane, but there are many more wrong ways. And of the right ways, they must be built based on sound aeronautical principles or else they won’t fly, at least not for long. I wouldn’t want to get in an airplane built by a manufacturer who applies the same kind of “to-each-his-own” principles to airplane design as some people apply to spirituality. Contrary to popular thought the universe is not the product of meaningless, randomization, but purposeful design. Everywhere you look we find complex systems that work the way they do, because they are designed to work that way. Why would spiritual forces be any different?

You know the saying “all roads lead to Rome.” You know that’s not true, don’t you? Only the roads that lead to Rome do. The other roads take you somewhere else. Yeshua said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). You can try getting to the real and true God any other way besides the Messiah, but you won’t get there.

This is why the people of Israel were told by God through Moses not to attempt to worship him on their own terms. God is who God is. He instructs us as to how we are to relate to him. To reject that notion may actually lead to a society that sacrifices its children on the altar of personal preference.