Intentional Design

For the week of April 28, 2018 / 13 Iyar 5778

General Instruction Manual

Achrei Mot & Kedoshim
Torah:  Vayikra/Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27
Haftarah: Amos 9:7-15

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And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the LORD your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the LORD your God. You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 18:1-5) 

This week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion), specifically chapter eighteen, contains a list of forbidden sexual behaviors. The word to describe God’s take on these things is “tō-ei-vah’,” most often translated into English as “abomination.” It is a very strong word, describing God’s abhorrence of such things, including bestiality, homosexuality, incest, and intercourse during menstruation. That these prohibitions are to be taken as universal principles for all people for all time is clarified by what God says at the end of the chapter. It was because of such behaviors that the previous inhabitants of the Promised Land were judged.

I have the impression that many people regard such directives as arbitrary, as if there is no reason for them apart from God’s authority – something like the kid who owns the soccer ball saying, “My ball, my rules. Do it my way or you don’t play.” It doesn’t matter that his rules are solely based on his personal preferences or that they undermine the true nature of the game. His position of power allows him to dominate others just because he can. For many people that’s exactly how God operates. Some try to put a positive spin on it by clinging to God’s goodness and love: “I have no idea why we have to do this, but I know he has our best interests in mind.” Others accept God’s rules begrudgingly: “I don’t know why I have to do this silly rule, but I guess I have to anyway.” Still others, just reject them as archaic: “I guess they may have had some sort of purpose in times past, but in our modern world they clearly don’t apply anymore.”

If anyone in the universe has the right to arbitrarily set the rules of the game, it’s God. But I don’t have any reason to assume that any directive he has ever given to anyone at any time has been arbitrary. While we may not understand the reasons for God’s directives, whether more general universal ones such as those in our passage, or the more specific ones given to individuals in particular situations, it is far more reasonable to conclude that it’s only our inability to fully understand God’s ways that makes them appear arbitrary.

Why am I so sure? The Bible expresses itself within its own context. It is not a collection of disconnected abstractions: good ideas of life spouted by enlightened ones. Rather, it is an epic story of God’s workings within real history in order to rescue human beings from the oppression of evil. Foundational to this epic is that God designed and implemented the universe.

Connected to the idea that God’s directives are arbitrary, is regarding the creation in the same way. It feels like a necessary tenet of biblical faith to assert that God could have made the world any way he liked; that the way things are is only one of infinite possibilities. But even if that is true, if God would have done it differently, matter and existence would be of a completely other kind than what we currently know. I can say this, because even miniscule adjustments to things like the earth’s spin, orbit, and distance to the sun would mean we couldn’t exist. And that’s only three finely tuned factors of the universe we inhabit. The actual list upon which the universe depends is beyond comprehension and is evidence of anything but the creation being arbitrary.

The Book of Proverbs reminds us “The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens” (Mishlei/Proverbs 3:19). He didn’t make things just ‘cause. He made it according to his infinite understanding, knowledge, and ability. That he spoke everything into existence reflects that it is an outcome of supreme intelligence. We marvel at the creation, not just because of its intricate beauty and divine origins, but as a display of what happens when the only God makes a universe.

Therefore, when the Creator reveals to us how life is to be lived, he is not simply asserting control to show us who’s boss. He is generously and lovingly providing us with aspects of his design specifications in order that we might live good, healthy, and productive lives. To ignore his instructions is to unnecessarily put ourselves and others in great danger.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Follow the Evidence

For the week of April 21, 2018 / 6 Iyar 5778

Neil deGrasse Tysons' "Cosmos" show

Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Tazria & Metzora
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33
Haftarah: 2 Melachim/2 Kings 7:3-20

So they took two horsemen, and the king sent them after the army of the Syrians, saying, “Go and see.” (2 Melachim/2 Kings 7:14) 

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Disclaimer: Bible is my specialty, not science. Not that I don’t appreciate science. First, like most people, I am the happy benefactor of all sorts of scientific advancements from medicine (thank God for anesthetics!) to the technology enabling me to both write and distribute this message. The list is virtually endless. Second, I love hearing explanations of the intricate and complex wonders of the physical world. From the smallest of the small to the biggest of the big, and everything in between, the universe is mindboggling.

A few months ago, I took up the challenge given me by an atheist friend to watch the 2014 science documentary series “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” with Neil deGrasse Tyson, the follow-up to the 1980’s “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” with Carl Sagan. I am glad I did. The way it takes the viewer into the wonder of God’s creation is most impressive – not that Tyson acknowledges the universe’s divine origins. Far from it! The purpose of the challenge after all was to convince me of his naturalistic evolutionary perspective.

I was struck by some of Tyson’s closing comments when he stated science’s commitment to going wherever the evidence leads. He may believe in what he is saying, and I understand that science-minded people see themselves as bastions of reason. I don’t have an issue with the importance of reason as a key ingredient in our journey towards truth. But the tendency among people like Tyson to give the impression that they live in a realm defined by strict observable and provable analysis is hypocritical. Forgive me for making such a negative statement, but when our postulations are self-contradictory, what are we left to conclude? Perhaps Tyson and others are sincere in their convictions. If so, then they are self-deceived.

How dare I be so sure of my assessment? Watch Cosmos; listen to Tyson. Listen to him say that we don’t know what initiated the big bang or how life began. Those are really big foundational unknowns. Yet that doesn’t stop him from making all sorts of confident claims about how the universe and life developed over vast periods of time. Where does the evidence lead when some of the things they are most sure of are unknowns?

The atheist’s naturalistic approach to origins and life’s development shuns any hypothesis that might include God. They must, therefore, compel themselves to fill in great gaps with naturalistic explanations. They can’t seem to admit that physical evidence only takes a person so far. Science is limited to tools of observation. But not everything that is real is observable, including the past. Even our modern advances in recording events are incapable of actually taking us back in time or – even if they could – give us the eyes and ears of the past’s contemporaries to sufficiently understand what happened then. How much more are we unable to make scientific determinations about the ancient past? Rock layers and fossils are evidence, for sure. They love to tell us the rocks speak, but they don’t. There may be much we can learn from careful, intelligent analysis, but we cannot formulate an accurate picture of the processes through which their current state came to be. Make guesses? Yes. Be certain about our resulting answers? I don’t think so.

I was intrigued by the Cosmos segment where the apparent evolutionary development of the human eye was presented (You can watch it here, but don’t forget to come back!). The eye was chosen, because they are aware how intelligent design proponents use it as an example of a complex system that could not evolve over time, no matter how long. Tyson dismissed that by explaining that original simple cell organisms were blind, but eventually certain bacteria developed indentations sensitive to light, giving them an advantage over other bacteria. As time went on, this most basic eye, became more complex until eyes like our own came into being.

You can watch the “Eye” segment here:

Where does the evidence lead? For Tyson and others, such an explanation dismisses the concept of creation. But does it? He offers nothing to demonstrate that any of this actually happened or how. Just because there indeed exists in the world of today a great variety of eye complexity doesn’t necessarily mean that one type of eye naturally evolved into another. What’s really going on is the atheistic worldview prejudices the conclusion.

If only Tyson and company would actually follow the evidence where it leads. I shook my head almost every time he drew me into creation’s wonders. Both he and I were equally awestruck, yet he couldn’t admit how science reveals how unknowable the universe is even though he was making a case for it.

What does any of this have to do with our weekly portion? The Haftarah occurs during a time of great famine due to being under siege by the Syrians. Four outcasts, lepers, decide to surrender to the enemy. Arriving at the Syrian camp they find it deserted with all their bountiful provisions left behind. When showing the evidence of this to the city officials, the leaders tentatively conclude it’s a trap. But thankfully they decided to investigate further and adjusted their thinking accordingly.

Science’s inability to determine life’s origins is not because they don’t analyze evidence, it’s that they don’t analyze it enough. If they would be more honest about the unknowns and their implications as well as work harder to not be controlled by their prejudices, they might be surprised to discover where the evidence will lead them.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Understanding Tragedy

Special note from TorahBytes’ director & writer: On Friday, April 6, 2018, the day after I wrote the first draft of this message, tragedy struck the small Canadian town of Humboldt, Saskatchewan, when their hockey team’s bus collided with a tractor trailer, killing fifteen and injuring the remaining fourteen others, some critically. The meaninglessness of a such a great tragedy is one aspect of this very difficult subject that follows. May the God of all comfort comfort the families and friends of the deceased and bring healing to the injured. – Alan Gilman

For the week of April 14, 2018 / 29 Nisan 5778

"Why Me?" handwritten on a plastered brick wall

Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 20:18-42

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Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. (Vayikra/Leviticus 10:1-2)

There are two insights into human tragedy that I would like to share from this grim incident. The first is straightforward; the second not so much. The first is that God isn’t someone to be handled lightly. Dealing with him is serious business and fooling around with his way of doing things can cost you your life.

Many people avoid this aspect of God’s character, preferring a one-sided version of him that is nothing but nice. He not only loves us unconditionally; he accepts us unconditionally as well. That is nice, perhaps, but definitely not good, not to mention unjust. Making the Supreme Being supremely agreeable actually turns him into a monstrosity of infinite proportions. That God would put up with anything human beings conceive of is tantamount to abuse by passivity.

What happened to Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu is a tragic story like so many tragic stories of abuse of place and position for selfish purposes. The consequences here reveal to us what God thinks about misuse of his directives. This is a dramatic picture of how serious religious and spiritual misdeeds really are. Instead of being offended at what happened to Aaron’s sons, we should wonder why God doesn’t bump off more of their kind.

I think one of the reasons why God is often taken to be a softy towards sinful behavior is that the plight of Nadab and Abihu is an exception rather than the rule. It’s not that their wrong was greater than everyone else’s; it’s that most of the time, God doesn’t zap us when we do wrong, even great wrong. Otherwise, we’d all be dead by now.

The New Covenant writings sum this up as “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4). This echoes Israel’s entire biblical narrative. It’s libelous how some misrepresent the Hebrew Bible by claiming it reveals an angry, wrathful God, who punishes people left, right, and center. An accurate depiction of the Master of the Universe is that, if anything, he is too patient. The vast majority of judgement upon his people is after centuries of waiting for change. Only after a very long time of continued obstinacy, does he finally punish.

While what happened to Nadab and Abihu was the exception, not the rule, it is not unique. From time to time, God responds to wrongs quickly and suddenly. Why he deems it necessary to do so, we don’t know. So, let’s not be fooled into thinking that God’s hesitancy to act in the majority of cases implies they are not as serious.

What makes what happened to Aaron’s sons unique is the second, not-too-straightforward, insight. Tragedy is common in the human experience. People die unexpectedly. Most people don’t. Even though most people in the world will return safely to their beds tonight, tragedy will strike in innumerable ways within the next twenty-four hours. What then makes Nadab and Abihu’s tragedy unique? It’s that we know why it happened. We know in their case, because we are told that they made an illegitimate offering. Yet most of the time when tragedy strikes, we have no idea why. And most of the time, we would be absolute fools to think we can figure it out.

Not everyone who is killed due to a mysterious outbreak of fire is being judged by God. Much of human suffering is simply due to the sin-cursed nature of the creation. Bad things just happen sometimes. Other times, there is cause and effect at work. Impaired or distracted driving is mortally dangerous for example. Still, even when every precaution is taken, things can go wrong.

In many tragedies, our natural cry to know why is a question that may never be answered. But in tragedy, we need more than answers. It’s no wonder that God’s peace is described in Philippians 4:7 as something that surpasses understanding with the effect of guarding our hearts and minds. More than anything, this is what we need when everything else falls apart.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


The Bread of Affliction

For the week of April 7, 2018 / 22 Nisan 5778

A stack of matza (Jewish unleavened bread)

Pesach 8
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 14:22 – 16:17; B’midbar/Numbers 28:19-25
Haftarah: Isaiah 10:32-12:6
Originally posted the week of April 11, 2015 / 22 Nisan 5775

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You shall eat no leavened bread with it. Seven days you shall eat it with unleavened bread (matza), the bread of affliction – for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste – that all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt. (D’varim / Deuteronomy 16:3)

If you attended a Pesach (English: Passover) Seder the other day, or any other time for that matter, you most likely heard the following words when the matza (English: unleavened bread) was uncovered near the beginning of the evening: “This is the bread of affliction that our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt.” But perhaps you didn’t know that calling the matza “the bread of affliction” is taken directly from the Torah.

The word for “affliction” in Hebrew is “a’-nee,” and refers to being in an oppressive state, such as hardship or poverty. Matza as a key symbol of Pesach would always serve as a reminder of the great suffering in Egypt with or without referring to it as the bread of affliction. But the verse I quoted at the beginning makes it sound as if the matza is not a reminder of the slavery experience but of freedom: “eat it with matza, the bread of affliction – for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste – that all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt.”

Indeed it was the rush to leave Egypt following the tenth and final plague that is the reason for the eating of matzah. We read:

The Egyptians were urgent with the people to send them out of the land in haste. For they said, “We shall all be dead.” So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls being bound up in their cloaks on their shoulders (Shemot/Exodus 12:33-34).

So if the matza is connected with leaving Egypt, why is it not called “the bread of deliverance?” The answer is found a few verses later. Regarding the preparation of the unleavened dough they took with them,

And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, because they were thrust out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves (Shemot/Exodus 12:39).

Even though the exodus from Egypt was a momentous liberating event, in its own way it too was a hardship. Anyone who has been released from long-term personal or corporate abuse knows how difficult such transitions can be. Free from slavery, yes, but Israel had to endure a harsh, unknown wilderness with little to no prepared provision. This resulted in all sorts of next-to-impossible challenges to the point that some would eventually pine after their former slavery. Unless they learned to depend on God, they wouldn’t make it. And many didn’t. Almost the entire adult generation that left Egypt were kept from entering the Promised Land due to their unfaithfulness to God (see Bemidbar/Numbers 13 – 14).

After the initial euphoria of newfound freedom subsides, the harsh realities of strange and perhaps hostile environments, a lack of familiar social structures and personal and communal resources must be faced with tenacity and hope for a better future. Whether it be an immigrant from a worn-torn land or someone newly distanced from an abusive situation, denying the reality of the new challenges faced by freedom can create unnecessary obstacles to the benefits of freedom.

The matza does more than simply remind us of the hardship of liberation, however. It is assures us that the God who frees us will give us all we need to face the challenges of newfound freedom. It’s not always easy to walk in freedom, but he who rescues us from bondage, will also equip us to live free.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version