Don’t Misjudge

For the week of July 1, 2017 / 7 Tammuz 5777

White palm with red circle and the words Misunderstanding Stop

Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 19:1 – 22:1
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 11:1-33

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And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. (B’midbar/Numbers 20:11)

The story of the second time God provided water from the rock turned out to be a really bad experience for Moses. For what seemed like the umpteenth time Moses had to deal with an antagonistic grumbling mass of humanity. But don’t criticize them. I remember how our Israel tour group two years ago felt after spending a few minutes in the Judean wilderness, and that’s knowing there was ample, ice-cold bottled water waiting for them on our comfy airconditioned bus. Though the Israelites should have handled their struggles better than they did, I don’t blame them for their behavior. Neither do I blame Moses for how he handled it. It’s incredible that he didn’t lose it far more than he did, being under that kind of pressure. Not only that, the last time he oversaw a similar miracle, he was told by God to hit the rock. This time he somehow missed the apparently small detail, that he was only to speak to it.

I have commented on this passage before. And it seems that the issue that got Moses in trouble with God was more than his hitting the rock. It does appear that after forty years of difficult leadership, his anger finally got the better of him. His indiscretion cost him being able to enter the Promised Land.

But notice, Moses’ failure didn’t prevent the miracle. Whatever the reasons behind Moses’ misguided actions and the aggressive demands of the faithless masses, God still gave them water from a rock.

What’s with that? I thought God didn’t operate that way. Doesn’t he require faith and purity, humble hearts and righteous obedience? Yes and no. When Yeshua said his revolutionary words, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44), do you know what he based that on? How God relates to people: “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). I know there’s a lot of bad things going on in the world, but there’s a lot of good too. And whatever the reasons for the bad, the good comes from God. Not just the sun and the rain, but the crops that grow as a result, the birth of every baby (which includes you!), every healing, every act of generosity – I can go on and on. It should be obvious that God doesn’t sit up in heaven pouring out blessing on do-gooders and zapping bad people. He doesn’t work like that. So, neither should we.

That God blesses us in spite of our behavior doesn’t justify evil, however. Wrong is still wrong. Moses had to endure one of the most disappointing aspects of his life because of what he did. Thankfully, his sin or the people’s attitude didn’t get in the way of God’s desire and decision to provide water for his people. But that shouldn’t lead us to conclude that God isn’t concerned with our behavior. It only emphasizes his mercy and generosity toward his human creatures in spite of ourselves.

When God extends his favor toward an individual, a congregation, a community, an organization, or a nation, that is a reflection of his sovereign goodness. God uses whomever and whatever he wants to fulfill his purposes. To our peril, we interpret God’s approval or disapproval based on appearances, real or imagined. Just because God prospers someone materially or physically is not necessarily an indication of his approval.

God will eventually call every single person to account for their actions. In most cases, that won’t happen until after death. Until then we need to take great care not to be swayed by what may be God’s goodness at work in and through others. What we may be witnessing is God’s mercy and patience at work.

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


Blind Jealousy

For the week of June 24, 2017 / 30 Sivan 5777

Jealousy on warning road sign

Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 16:1 – 18:32; 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24 & 1 Samuel 20:18-42 

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They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” (B’midbar/Numbers 16:3)

Jealousy is blinding. I don’t mean the appropriate kind of jealousy that refuses to allow others to get in the way of your marriage, for example. That’s the jealousy God has for his people. I am talking about the all-consuming emotion that takes us over when someone else has what we think we should have.

That’s what was controlling Korah and company. They couldn’t handle seeing Moses and his brother Aaron being in leadership. And it’s not as if they were at the bottom of the ladder themselves. They were Levites, the tribe of Israel that was set aside to serve in the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle). Being special was not special enough, however, as they set their eyes on the priesthood itself.

I don’t know if they thought they would have more perks or prestige by being priests. We aren’t told. But it doesn’t matter. That’s just how jealousy works. The thought they were missing out was enough to drive them. They had to have what was not allotted to them or least what they thought they were missing out on. Jealousy can’t see the true nature of whatever it is jealous of. It’s always the perceived privilege or status that is passionately desired. It’s so easy to look at the exterior of other people’s lives and think they have it better than we do. Status and prestige are not all they appear to be. With privilege, if privilege comes into play at all, comes responsibility.

When jealousy fills us, we can’t see that roles and responsibilities are allotted to people from God. That may sound overly spiritual and idealistic, especially in a world where injustice abounds. This is not the case in Korah’s story. Based on divine inspiration we know Korah is not ultimately challenging Moses and Aaron but God. But what about it when it is you and me? How do we know when our place and position are due to God’s direct involvement or the machinations of other forces?

It depends how much in control you think God is. On second thought, it doesn’t matter what you (or I) think, what’s the truth? Is God only involved with some people sometimes, or with everyone all the time? While not speaking directly to the issue of allotted roles, these words from the New Covenant book of Hebrews are applicable:

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:5-6)

The writer encourages his readers (and us by extension) to be materially content on the basis of the intimate presence of God. This is not a pseudo-spiritual directive to disconnect emotionally from reality. This reminds us the Messiah follower can be confident that God is personally involved in his life. We are assured therefore that whatever is happening to us is not outside of God’s direct control.

That doesn’t mean we should never pursue change. Far from it! As emissaries of the Kingdom of Heaven there are no greater change agents in the world. But when things don’t go the way we expect; when we feel passed by while others are placed in positions we think we deserve, we must avoid jealously at all costs. Instead we should continue to commit our lives to God, looking to him to work things out according to his will.

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


The Fear Is Real

For the week of June 17, 2017 / 23 Sivan 5777

Anxious man biting his fingernails

Shela Lekha
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 13:1-15:41
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24
Revised version of message originally posted the week of June 9, 2007 / 23 Sivan 5767 

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Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (B’midbar/Numbers 14:1-4)

I don’t criticize the people who make up the negative examples in the Bible (of which there are many). While I would like to think that I would be a Moses confronting Pharaoh or a David challenging Goliath, I fear that I am far more like the grumblers in this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion).

I prefer to think that after seeing God’s power expressed so dramatically through the ten plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, and in his wondrous provision of food and water, that when the time came to enter the Promised Land, I would be good to go. Walled cities? No problem! Giants armed to the teeth? No big deal. With the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob on our side, it would be a cake walk. Weren’t Joshua and Caleb like that? They were among the twelve who had spied out the land. Even though the others brought back an intimidating report, seeing everything they saw, they were confident. I would like to be like them. But I have my doubts.

It’s so easy to boast about faith in theory. It’s another thing to have confidence in the face of true danger. It’s easy to pretend; it’s another to demonstrate real courage. It’s one thing to be calm when there’s nothing to fear. It’s another thing to stand strong when facing the impossible.

The problem, however, wasn’t that the people were scared. It’s that they didn’t submit their fear to God. When Joshua and Caleb urged them to not give into their fears, but to trust God instead, the people actually wanted to kill them.

We won’t learn lessons from other people’s failures until we can see them as a reflection of ourselves. How many challenges has God presented to us that we have rejected due to fear? How many times has fear dictated our decisions? It doesn’t have to be that way, however. It’s one thing to accept our frailty as human beings; it’s another thing to let it control our lives. It’s one thing to deny the reality of the fear we feel; it’s another to give in to it.

Caleb’s and Joshua’s confidence in God didn’t necessarily mean they had no fear. While there is no statement that I know of regarding their emotions in this instance, years later, as Joshua was preparing to lead the nation into the Promised Land, God tells him to “be strong and courageous” three times in the first nine verses of the book that bears his name.

I would like to think that the presence of courage automatically dispels the presence of fear, but between my understanding of the Bible and personal experience, it doesn’t seem to be the case. Fear is real, but it doesn’t have to have the final word.

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


Fake Prayers

For the June 10, 2017 / 16 Sivan 5777

The word "fake" superimposed over a man praying by himself in a church building.

Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English 2:10 – 4:7)

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I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness.” (B’midbar/Numbers 11:14-15)

I think Moses is amazing. I know he didn’t get off to the greatest start, murdering the Egyptian and running for his life as he feared the wrath of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. Note that he knew he was someone special, having miraculously survived the murder-all-the-baby-boys decree, rescued by Pharaoh’s own daughter no less. Killing the Egyptian was wrong, but it was the result of a good motive, as he reacted to his people’s ongoing oppression. The Torah doesn’t tell us how he learned he was a Hebrew or knew that he had a key role to fulfill, but like many people of destiny, he walked a twisted road to get there.

I don’t blame him for his resistance to God, when at age eighty he finally received his commission. Even though he was still afraid for his life, and in spite of his attempt to skirt his call, he went back to Egypt anyway. From that point on, with the exception of a couple of misguided actions due to frustration with the people (again no criticism from me about that), he performed magnificently in the face of Pharaoh’s stubborn short-sightedness and a fairly uncooperative, critical people to lead.

What made Moses such an effective leader was how he dealt with the problems he faced. Every time another issue arose, he would go to God for what he should do. Perhaps this is where Paul in the New Covenant Writings derives his encouragement to “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). While some may think Paul intended the believers in Thessalonica to utter barely audible prayers under their breath every waking second – nothing wrong with that if you can sustain such a thing – but more likely he was calling them (and by extension us), to regularly defer to God just as Moses did.

But there is more for us to learn from Moses’s prayers than the frequency thereof. He also “told it like it is,” so to speak. Moses’s prayer I quoted at the start, was in response to one of the many occasions of the people’s complaining. This time a bunch of discontents got everyone riled up about the boring nature of their menu. The supernatural provision of the bread-like substance called manna wasn’t good enough for them. They demanded that Moses produce meat. This pushed him to the limit and he told God so, and that he couldn’t take it anymore, saying: “If you will treat me like this, kill me at once(B’midbar/Numbers 11:15).

That’s not one of the nicest prayers I’ve ever read. It’s pretty confrontational and demanding, don’t you think? Note how he puts the blame squarely on God even though it was the people who were making life so difficult for him. Moses prayed that way because he knew something that we often fail to grasp: while people are responsible for their actions, our lives are ultimately in God’s hands.

His prayer is also pretty drastic: “resolve the problem or kill me!” If God is so in control, why not leave the resolution of the situation with him. But this is how Moses was feeling at the time. So that’s what he prayed. How did God respond? Did Moses get a lecture about appropriate piety and respectability? No; God heeded Moses’s desperate plea.

Why would God do that? Why didn’t he instead put Moses in his place for addressing him that way? Or at least ignore him (which, if we are honest, is probably the way we think God deals with us a good deal of the time)? God answered Moses because this is the kind of prayer God answers: direct and honest. Moses prayed a prayer of desperation because he was desperate. God knew that. Why pretend otherwise? Anything else would have been fake. God sees through fake. He isn’t offended by honesty. Unlike the complainers who put the onus on Moses, who had no ability to grant their request, Moses went to the only one who could do something about his difficult situation. And by baring his heart, he not only got an audience with the Sovereign of the Universe, he got the help he (and the whole community) needed.

The Messiah addresses this in his introduction to his model prayer:

And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:7-8)

He is not only addressing meaningless repetition here, but the emptiness of fake prayers as well. We need to tell it like it is when we pray. Anything else is just a show. That doesn’t mean there is no room for formal prayer, especially in public. But it better be sincere or else you’ll find yourself filling up space with “empty phrases” than truly conversing with your Heavenly Father. Perhaps it’s time to tell God how you really feel.

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