Don’t Go Overboard

For the week of September 3, 2016 / 30 Av 5776

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Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17; Bemidbar/Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5; 66:1-24; 1 Samuel 20:18-42 

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However, you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your towns, as much as you desire, according to the blessing of the LORD your God that he has given you. The unclean and the clean may eat of it, as of the gazelle and as of the deer. Only you shall not eat the blood; you shall pour it out on the earth like water. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 12:15-16)

God is very particular about how we are to approach him. This is true throughout the entire Bible. In the days of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and the Temple, there were very specific rules and regulations governing who was to do what where. This week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion) includes a relatively brief, but important, section that acts as a safeguard to prevent the people from taking God’s particulars too far.

Once Israel was sufficiently settled in the Promised Land, they were to seek out the location to which God would direct them to be the place of sacrifice. Until then, God tolerated a more laissez-faire approach to the people’s offerings. But once the location was clarified, they were forbidden from making sacrifices anywhere they wished. At first, it was the town of Shiloh and later Jerusalem. Following the explanation of the limits placed on where to sacrifice, God, in his wisdom, clarifies that his strict approach to the location of the slaughter, offering, and consumption of sacrificial animals was not to apply to the normal, day-to-day, eating of meat. It may seem obvious to some of you that the regulations controlling sacrifices wouldn’t also apply to general meat consumption, but other people seem to require this kind of further explicit information.

This second group of people includes the keener ones among us. You know who you are! You’re the kind of person who always insists we play by the book. If it’s in the rules, we have to do it. You’re the one always asking whether or not something is the “right thing to do.” Not much wiggle room when it comes to right and wrong. You’re probably married to someone who thinks you are a nitpicker, making mountains out of every molehill. But you know the truth, don’t you? Let other people waffle in their imaginary land of gray, as they float through life, but not you! God has drawn the lines and you are going to abide by them. Disclaimer: that’s my tendency. While I know I fall short just like everyone else, I think we should take God’s Word seriously and avoid any attempt to water it down in the name of grace or any other misguided theological notion. Note: I do believe in God’s grace, though I reject the idea that it nullifies God’s stated directions for our lives. In fact, grace is the power given to us freely by God through faith in the Messiah enabling us to be what God wants us to be and to do what he wants us to do, but I am getting off topic.

One of the tendencies that besets people like me, we who tend to be sticklers about doing the right thing, is that we can undermine the very obedience and faithfulness we claim to uphold. We do so by going overboard. If God says to eat the sacrificial meat in only the specified location, then perhaps it’s advisable to eat all our meat there. If God requires something, then doing more of it more often must be better. But that is not necessarily the case. This is the kind of thinking that leads some communities to create extreme food regulations, to enforce certain kinds of strict child-rearing customs, to forbid marriage, or impose other standards of behavior that God never intended for us. Often this begins out of a heart for godliness but eventually, results in oppressive customs and destructive traditions.

I am aware that the more common problem in our day is the neglect of God’s standards, a wrong understanding of grace and forgiveness that leads to licentiousness and other forms of ungodliness. It is this growing neglect of God’s Word that often fuels a sometimes extreme overcompensation that ends up justifying going overboard in the other direction.

But going beyond what God says is no better than neglecting it. People with this tendency have a hard time agreeing to such a statement. But think about it. If you are so keen to obey God, do you really think going beyond what he says is the same as truly doing what he says? Before you react, with “Yes, but…” as you point your finger at others, stop and consider what faithfulness to God really is. Going overboard in your attempt to follow the Messiah is the same as not following him. What we really need is the kind of balanced approach to the obedience exemplified by our parsha.

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


Don’t Worry About It!

For the week of August 27, 2016 / 23 Av 5776

Don't Worry blue street sign

Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25
Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14 – 51:3 

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If you say in your heart, “These nations are greater than I. How can I dispossess them?” you shall not be afraid of them but you shall remember what the LORD your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 7:17-18)

My family knows that whenever I bring up a concern about something, I don’t want to be told, “Don’t worry about it.” First, just because I am concerned about how a thing is to be done by whomever, however, and whenever; it doesn’t necessarily mean I am worried. And If I am worried, simply saying, “Don’t worry!” is not going to make it better for me. I take my role in my family seriously, and while I do admit that I can get worked up over nothing at times (or often?), I don’t believe in simply going with the flow, throwing caution to the wind, the que-sera-sera sort of thing. If something is really not important, that’s one thing. But if it is important, then it should be done well and in a timely fashion. So don’t tell me, “Don’t worry about it.” I want details.

For those of you of the more laid back variety, you might be fine with “Don’t worry about it.” In fact, you might interpret faith through your laissez-faire lens. The less detail the better as far as you are concerned as you let go, and let God carry you along through the twists and turns of life. I admit there are times when I should do just that, but is that really what faith is all the time?

Not according to this week’s Torah reading. God through Moses is preparing the people of Israel to face their greatest challenge to date: the conquest of the Promised Land. This is actually the second time they are dealing with this as a nation. It didn’t go well the last time almost forty years before, when they freaked out hearing about the land’s inhabitants. Their lack of faith resulted in thirty-eight additional years of wilderness wanderings until almost all the adults of that generation died out. Interestingly, while many of the current generation would not have been born yet, there would have been a good number who would have remembered the last time decades earlier. But was the lesson they were to learn? Don’t worry about it”? Let go and let God? It wasn’t the lesson then, and it wasn’t the lesson now.

The last time, only two of the leaders who had scouted out the Land, Joshua and Caleb, truly trusted in God. But it wasn’t as if faith blinded them to the challenges they faced. Faith in God enabled them to see those challenges clearly and understand that God would give them what they needed to overcome them.

As Moses anticipated fear in the hearts of the people, he didn’t put them down for it. Rather he took their concern seriously and encouraged them by providing details as to why God could be trusted. First, “you shall remember what the LORD your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt” (7:18). Remember what God did in the past. Many of these people saw the manifestation of God’s power in Egypt. While he may not do the exact same things in the future, he who enabled Israel to overcome the world power of its day is more than able to equip them to conquer the peoples of Canaan. Second, “the LORD your God will send hornets among them, until those who are left and hide themselves from you are destroyed” (7:20). While I am not sure what those “hornets” refer to exactly, God will not leave them to their own devices, but will “bug” their enemies (pun intended) until they are defeated. Third, “the LORD your God is in your midst, a great and awesome God” (7:21). The people of Israel will not be alone. God’s presence with them is assured. Fourth, “he will give their kings into your hand, and you shall make their name perish from under heaven” (7:24). God’s presence is more than sweet sentimentality, he himself through them will bring about victory over their enemies.

This is a lot more here than “Don’t worry about it.” Israel had nothing to worry about for good reason. Faith is not a disconnected otherly consciousness, but an informed, intelligent, detailed understanding of the way things really are when God is positively involved in our lives.

If you have a concern today. Don’t just not worry; listen to what God has to say about it. You might be surprised how detailed his answer to you might be.

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


The Ugly Truth

For the week of August 20, 2016 / 16 Av 5776

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Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26

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Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 7:9-10)

I recently had a transformative experience. Regular readers of TorahBytes are aware that I was in Haiti visiting my daughter who has been working there for the past seven years. It was my second visit; the first being in 2012. Haiti has the reputation of being one of the poorest and most dangerous countries in the world. Being very aware of that, I was content on my previous visit to stay within the confines of the mission base with its high concrete walls, barbed wire, and armed guards. This time was different as I began to see Haiti from God’s perspective as a beautiful land with amazing people. You can read about my Haiti adventures on my blog.

Something my wife has been trying to tell me for years is that I tend to look at life through a negative lens. While there are negative aspects to the world in which we live, the goodness and love of God permeates the universe. Not only was everything created very good, even when reckoning with the pervading effects of evil, we need to remember that there is no limit to the reach of God’s powerful love.

With that said, we are going to look at what some may find to be a difficult and disturbing concept in our reading for this week. On one hand, those who love God can be confident in his enduring faithfulness, while on the other hand, he will destroy those who hate him. The language for the latter is so severe: “He will repay him to his face.” While I want to be more positively oriented about life, we ignore true negatives to our peril.

This is not the nice language that so many prefer to hear about God. But it is the truth! God doesn’t take our total disregard for him lightly. He actually loves us too much to do otherwise. I know that this is not how contemporary society regards love. But it is contemporary society that has redefined love to mean allowing everyone around us to do whatever they want, however they want, and whenever they want. But as any loving parent knows (if they care to admit it), permissiveness undermines maturity. If we care enough about our children, we will instill in them a sense of responsibility that can only come about through their understanding that actions have consequences. To let them get away with anything and everything will result in much harm to them and to others.

Contrary to popular thinking, this is not hard to understand. If you mishandle fire, you get burned. Ignoring God’s ways, you will unnecessarily get sick and injured. You can count on it. This is the negative side of Haiti. Health and safety are for the most part not valued there. Because people ignore some of the most basic of God’s principles, they prematurely die. And that’s what God through Moses is emphasizing here. To hate God is to disregard him. We cannot flagrantly turn our backs on how he designed creation and expect good results. It does not work that way!

But, as I learned in Haiti, the horrible consequences of disregarding God need not have the final say. No matter what we have done, no matter what the consequences have been, Yeshua the Messiah has made full provision to restore us to right relationship with God. Are you suffering because you’ve turned your back on your Creator? He is ready to reveal his faithfulness to you, if you are willing to receive it.

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


God’s Leading

For the week of August 13, 2016 / 9 Av 5776

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Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1-27

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The LORD our God said to us in Horeb, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Turn and take your journey, and go to the hill country of the Amorites and to all their neighbors in the Arabah, in the hill country and in the lowland and in the Negeb and by the seacoast, the land of the Canaanites, and Lebanon, as far as the great river, the river Euphrates.” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:6-7)

This week we begin the fifth book of Moses, entitled “Devarim” in Hebrew, meaning “words”, taken from the beginning of the very first phrase, “These are the words.” The common English name, Deuteronomy, is derived from the Greek and means, “second law,” because a good portion of it is a recounting of much that had been previously recorded. But don’t be fooled! This recounting is full of reflection and explanation. Plus there is much material unique to this book.

The section we are specifically looking at is a recounting of some of Israel’s journey in the wilderness, in particular when God told Moses it was time to leave Mt. Sinai and head to the Promised Land. I am not sure how many times I have heard people recount their own story and how this passage provided them with supposed divine guidance. In each case, they had been living in a region for a considerable amount of time and then, either in their daily Bible reading, or a spontaneous glance at the page, they encountered the words, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Turn and take your journey…”. In at least one case, the person had been living in a mountainous area. So the words had additional meaning to them. According to these accounts, God spoke to them through these words, which they took to mean it was time to move to a new location.

The problem with this approach to Scripture is that God wasn’t speaking to these people here. He was giving guidance to the people of Israel many centuries before. On what basis can the directions given to Israel be applied to give people similar directions now? On one hand, there is no such basis. I cannot recall a Scripture that encourages us to derive special guidance by taking passages out of context. On the other hand, after years of reading the Bible, I am aware that God can choose to use just about anything to speak to us. But that doesn’t justify people’s claim that God’s words to Israel at Sinai are also his words to them. This is not something I or anyone else can necessarily judge on behalf of others. These people need to answer to God. Bible verses like this or not, we all should be careful to make sure we are discerning God’s leading accurately.

Which brings us to what I think is the real lesson to be derived from a passage like this. The Bible is not designed to function like fortune-cookie sayings or horoscope readings, where we peruse its pages to find statements that jump out at us to provide magic for our lives. Again, God could use Scripture to bring something to mind that is outside of its context, but that’s not the actual function of Scripture.

What we learn from this passage is not that you or I should prepare to move to a new location, but that God leads his people. We haven’t been left to ourselves to figure out life on our own. God wants us to have wisdom and learn to interact with life effectively according to the principles of his Word. At the same time, we are not alone in this process. God wants to speak to us as he spoke to the people of Israel.

The promise of the outpouring of the Ruach HaKodesh (English: the Holy Spirit) in Joel’s prophecy (3:1-4; English: 2:28-32) is mainly about divine communication, including prophecy, dreams, and visions. This is the experience given to followers of Yeshua the Messiah under the New Covenant (See Acts 2) and is in keeping with the internalization of the Torah and the knowledge of God anticipated by the prophet Jeremiah (31:31-33).

Yeshua said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). This is not simply metaphor referring to nothing more than a life inspired by him, but rather that his followers would be intimately led by his communicating with us through his Spirit.

So while the Ruach HaKodesh may choose to highlight a Bible verse to get our attention, he is likely trying to get our attention in many other ways as well. Perhaps it’s time we started listening more carefully.

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