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


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


God Is in the House

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

Illustration of temple curtain tearing in two

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


Fake News

For the week of February 10, 2018 / 25 Shevat 5778

Reporters with various forms of "fake news" from an 1894 illustration by Frederick Burr Opper

Excerpted from “The fin de siècle newspaper proprietor” 1894 illustration by Frederick Burr Opper

Torah: Shemot/Exodus 21:1-24:18 & 30:11-16
Haftarah: 2 Melachim/2 Kings 12:1-17 (English: 11:21 – 12:16)

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You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit. (Shemot/Exodus 23:1-3)

During the most recent presidential election in the United States, one of the biggest news stories was “fake news.” I don’t mean that “fake news” was fake news. It is that “fake news” had become big news! The phenomenon of fake news is nothing new. It has existed since the Garden of Eden. And I am not talking about the serpent’s deception of Eve. Even before that something went awry in the communication world of that supposedly perfect environment. When the serpent asked Eve, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Bereshit/Genesis 3:1), her reply was technically incorrect, when she said: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die’” (Bereshit/Genesis 3:2-3). According to the record, God didn’t say that they couldn’t touch the fruit; only that they should not eat it. I don’t know how much of a difference Eve’s inaccurate report made; I only wanted to point out that fake news goes back a long time.

It’s not really fair to refer to all inaccurate reports as fake news, however. Satires and parodies, for example, are forms of fake news for fun. Yet even then, there have been incidences of fabricated news items that have caused large scale panic, because the public didn’t get the joke. The most famous one occurred on October 30, 1938, when the radio drama “War of the Worlds” was in the form of a simulated news broadcast. Apparently, people really thought America was under Martian attack, resulting in mass panic. I write “apparently,” because it appears that the level of reaction regularly referred to might itself be exaggerated. Whatever really happened that night is the stuff of myths and legends. Something happens. It’s conveyed a certain way, and then grows in the consciousness of people, taking a life of its own.

Myths and legends aren’t fake news. Neither is a whole spectrum of inaccurate reporting. Real fake news (did I just write that?) is intentional misrepresentation of the truth in order to deceive. What makes the current hoopla over fake news ironic is that popular culture fueled by academia has for a long time set its sights against truth. “All truth is relative,” they say. “You have your truth; I have mine,” they say. So now, new media is fertile breeding ground for all sorts of fake news from the personal to the political, and people cry foul? As the Bible says: “You reap what you sow” (Galatians 6:7).

People’s reaction to fake news exposes an innate sense of the existence of truth, regardless of whatever misguided philosophy they buy into. Truth is an accurate reflection of reality. Everyone knows deep inside that reality isn’t different for every person. We may have different opinions about all sorts of things. But the way things are is the way things are. Yet we so readily create worlds of fantasy. It’s to God’s credit that he made creatures who can conceive of nonsense. It’s all part and parcel of being given the gift of imagination, I suppose. Yet it is tragic that our alienation from God leads us to use this precious gift for nefarious purposes.

It doesn’t have to be that way, you know. But to be free of the deceptive lure of fake news, you need to be friends with the truth. Truth is a stubborn companion. The fake news of the serpent’s deception in the garden led Adam and Eve to hide from God and the truth. We have been hiding ever since. It’s scary to come out into the light of reality. But God has made a way. Because of what Yeshua the Messiah has done for us, the truth that condemns us becomes the truth that sets us free. Once we accept the truth about ourselves and the truth of what God has done on our behalf through Yeshua, then we are no longer under the oppressive control of deception and become bearers of truth to others. That’s good news!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version