Live Long and Prosper

For the week of October 1, 2016 / 28 Elul 5776

Torah: Devarim/ Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9
Originally posted the week of September 12, 2015 / 28 Elul 5775

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The LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground. For the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers, when you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law, when you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Devarim/ Deuteronomy 30:9-10)

You may recognize the title of this week’s message as the familiar salute of Mr. Spock, the half human/half alien from the widely popular TV and movie series, “Star Trek.” The hand gesture used by the actor, the late Leonard Nimoy was derived from his own Jewish background as used by the cohanim (English: priests) as a blessing in the synagogue. While “live long and prosper” are not exactly the words spoken, they certainly sum up God’s own desire to make his people “abundantly prosperous.”

But what constitutes being abundantly prosperous? What may come to your mind is likely very different from the intention of the Torah here. Perhaps to you prosperity is an economic state whereby no matter how much you need or want, you always have extra. It’s a sense that whatever happens, there is always more financial resources to draw on. The biblical understanding of prosperity is very different. It’s having enough for yourself and those dependent on you, plus a little more to share with those in need (see Proverbs 30:7-9; 1 Timothy 5:8, 6:6-10; Hebrew 13:16).

Biblical prosperity is not about how much stuff you have or the size of your bank balance. You could have an enormous amount of goods and money, but still not really be living well. The prosperity here refers specifically to “the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground.” You could have all the money in the world, but unless living things thrive, both human and animal, and there is sufficient nutritious food to eat, we are not really living. Societies that only focus on self and do not adequately work towards the emergence and thriving of future generations will die. So ultimately prosperity is not about me and what I have, but the blessing of provision for the furthering of God’s creation long-term.

What will it take, then, to “live long and prosper”? Our passage tells us, “When you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law (Torah), when you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” It’s tragic that there is so much misunderstanding regarding a command such as this. For some it is clouded by humanly derived traditions that add or replace God’s expressed intentions. Others confuse godly directives with a misguided system that bases God’s acceptance on performance. The whole Bible understands true godliness as an outcome of sincere trust in God. Those who are truly faithful to him have a heart to obey him in every way. To disregard God’s ways leads to anything but prosperity.

God wants us to live a full and abundant life (see John 10:10). But in order to have the quality of life he desires, we need to embrace his version of what life is really all about. Redefining biblical prosperity along the lines of greed and covetousness undermines the abundance that God has for us. Similarly claiming fairy-dust notions of grace that disregards God’s directives in Scripture may numb the effects of deception for a time, but in the end profits absolutely nothing.

However, if we embrace God’s version of what prosperity actually is and diligently follow his ways as outlined in Scripture, then we will indeed thrive both in this life and in the age to come forever.

Live long and prosper!

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


Do You Rejoice?

For the week of September 24, 2016 / 21 Elul 5776

A family rejoicing

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

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And you shall rejoice in all the good that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 26:11)

In this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion), God through Moses instructs the people with regard to a ritual they were to do after their first harvest following their entering the Promised Land. It involved presenting a portion of their produce to the cohen (English: priest) and recounting some basic history: beginning as a small clan with Jacob migrating to Egypt, they grew into a numerous nation there, eventually becoming enslaved by the Egyptians, but God delivered them, and enabled them to acquire the Land. The bringing of a portion of their produce was to be a “simcha” – a joyful celebration: “And you shall rejoice in all the good that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you” (Deuteronomy/Devarim 26:11).

Everyone was to celebrate “in all the good” God provided them. But in order to do that, they had to take notice of it and to do so within the context of their history. They were to remember where they came from, how they got to where they were, acknowledge what God has provided for them, and that what he had provided was good.

When was the last time you did that? I am asking myself the same question. It doesn’t help that the prevailing culture works against rejoicing in all the good God has given to us. How can we celebrate his provision when we are constantly told we don’t have enough? Many, if not most, of us are heavily in debt. So we don’t even have a sense that what we have is truly ours. And of what we do have, it is deemed obsolete almost before we get it out of the box as the next new thing is being paraded before our eyes.

Note that the instruction to rejoice is community oriented. Each person was to celebrate the good God provided to “to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you.” But how many of us feel any connection to community these days? Each individual is viewed as an isolated consumer, not a member of a community. The reference to “house” here means “household,” which is much more than a collection of persons living under the same roof. God intended that the prosperity of the community was to be the prosperity of the individual and vice versa. But today, even members of the same family lack connection with each other as they pursue not much more than their own personal interests. The profound selfishness that marks the current age cannot provide an environment of rejoicing. Fun, excitement, and pleasure at times perhaps – but not gratitude. We have forgotten where we came from. We have lost a sense that life is bigger than just me. And the only thing that matters is what I am getting for myself in the moment and it’s never enough.

Learning to rejoice for some of us is going to take some hard work. It requires stopping to think about where we have come from, what God has done for us, and what good things he has provided. It means forcing ourselves to stop yearning after the futile pursuit of the so-called latest and greatest. Then, we need to learn how to reconnect with others. Maybe gather some like-minded people and share your stories of gratitude with each other. It’s better if these stories would be shared experiences, but you might have trouble finding such people. So start with this; hopefully it’ll be the first of many to come. Then rejoice in whatever way you can: sing, shout, dance, applaud – but don’t keep it in. It’s not rejoicing until you let it out.

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


Differences Count

For the week of September 17, 2016 / 14 Elul 5776

Multicultural characters on planet earth

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

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You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest. You may charge a foreigner interest, but you may not charge your brother interest, that the LORD your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 23:19-20)

The verses I just read contain a biblical understanding of life that is being overrun today by misguided notions of tolerance, brotherhood, and unity. That’s not to say that tolerance, brotherhood, and unity are not biblical notions. Indeed, they are, but it’s the versions of these and many other noble principles that are misguided. Obviously the main issue addressed by God through Moses here is the charging of interest, which certainly deserves our attention, but there is an underlying concept of human relations that is foundational for what is being said about loans. And it is this concept that I want to focus on this week.

Whatever else is implied by the charging and not charging of interest, the people of Israel were directed by God to treat citizens differently from non-citizens. This seems to contradict what God says elsewhere: “You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the LORD your God” (Vayikra/Leviticus 24:22). But these are two different contexts. One has to do with life and limb; the other is about loans and interest. One is clearly a justice issue in which natives and foreigners were to be judged equally, while the other is financial. Note it doesn’t say not to loan money to foreigners, just that charging interest in their case was permitted.

So on one hand the Torah is very clear about social equality between peoples. When Yeshua centuries later used the Samaritans, a despised people group of his day, to illustrate to his fellow Jews what loving one’s neighbor really means (see Luke 10:25-37), he was not being a modern radical, but he was rather affirming Torah principles that were being denied by his fellow countrymen. Contrary to popular misconception the Scriptures are not the basis of bigoted racial theory, but actually clearly espouse the unity of the human family via Noah and Adam. According to the Bible there is only one race, the human race.

At the same time, God’s inspired written word recognizes – more than that! – it celebrates national distinctions. Even though the emergence of diverse languages and the resultant cultural and ethnic groupings were due to an ungodly attempt of self-preservation as recorded in the account of the city and tower of Babel (see Bereshit/Genesis 11:1-9), the hand of God is seen in the development of nationalities. The Book of Revelation’s depiction of the renewal of all things in keeping with the Hebrew prophetic writings in no way anticipates the homogenization of ethnicities but their continued national distinctions (see Revelation, chapters 21 & 22). The trans-national unity experienced by believers (see Galatians 3:28) was never intended to undermine the practicalities of ethnic diversity (see Acts 15 & 21:17-26; Romans 14:1 – 15:13).

And yet among Bible believers and the society at large there is a growing sense of embarrassment with anything that affirms nationalistic differences (except at times for certain cultural expressions like food and music). Both believers and non-believers alike have bought into a version of human unity that makes them uncomfortable with the idea we should treat foreigners differently from natives. But that stems from a denial of distinctions that God himself recognizes. Paul, for example, who was so passionate about the intimate unity we have in Yeshua, could still write that we need to prioritize providing for our families over others (1 Timothy 5:8), and that believers need to care for the believing community before expressing concern for outsiders (Galatians 6:10).

Recognizing lines of demarcation between communities is a good thing and is necessary for the healthy administration of societies. Full participation within any community, whether it be a small religious group, or a large country should be the result of a clear naturalization process. Differing requirements for members and non-members/citizens and non-citizens are not necessarily expressions of bigotry and prejudice, but the essential elements of belonging that are necessary for the effective thriving of any community. Claiming that all people everywhere have the automatic right to belong to whatever group they like regardless of who they are may sound nice, but in the end creates nothing but chaos and meaninglessness. We shouldn’t be surprised when those who impose their sense of so-called brotherhood upon us end up taking away every last vestige of true diversity with which God has graced us.

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


Righteous Judgment – Part 2

For the week of September 10, 2016 / 7 Elul 5776

Men and women in intense discussion

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

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You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 16:18)

Two years ago, I did a TorahBytes message on this passage, where I discussed the need for righteous judgment. This time, I want to delve into some aspects of the process necessary to establish justice.

First, while we hear a lot about justice issues, especially with regard to the systemic abuse of certain groups of people, there is a prevailing mood among us that undermines justice in our personal and societal relationships. Justice is establishing what is right. To bring about justice requires making judgments. Making judgments is difficult when we embrace the contemporary view of tolerance. Classical tolerance is showing respect for differences. Contemporary tolerance dictates that we treat all differences as equal. If our differences are equal, then it becomes wrong to compare them or prefer one over the other. While some things are indeed based on personal preferences (such as a favorite color), not everything is. People can pretend that all human activity is based on nothing more than taste, but we will never escape the fact that we live in a moral universe. If you and I don’t acknowledge the validity of right and wrong, the universe (God actually) will make it clear to us eventually, and likely sooner than we think.

It’s most tragic when people who should know better buy into a misguided version of Yeshua’s words “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1), thinking he is supporting the idea that we should never make value judgments regarding human behavior. What he is really speaking against is having a condescending, arrogant attitude toward others. One cannot take Yeshua’s teaching seriously and take on the moral relativism so prevalent today. Check out the rest of the Matthew passage to see that. Far from accepting everything everybody does, he calls us to carefully point out issues in one another’s lives (see Matthew 7:2-5).

Once we accept the need to make righteous judgments, we then need to learn to make decisions. That may seem obvious, but partly due to the effects of extreme tolerance, we sometimes confuse discussions with decisions. I am aware that for many people even broaching a difficult subject, especially an item of disagreement, can be a very big deal. But just because a matter is finally brought into the open doesn’t mean it is necessarily effectively resolved. It is resolved when a decision is made, but not any decision; one based on righteous judgment.

While some are satisfied simply to talk about a subject without ever resolving anything, others are happy making a decision for its own sake. But the appearance of a resolution is not the same as a just one. In order to make the kind of decisions God is calling for we need to be better informed as to what is right and what is wrong from his perspective. In other words, we need to know the whole Bible better. Then we also need God-given wisdom to understand how to apply his written Word to the personal and societal issues of our day. It won’t be easy, but our lives depend on it.

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