Willing Hearts

For the week of March 2, 2019 / 25 Adar 5779

Female team leader, teacher or coach feeling satisfied looking at business audience team people or students raising hands up voting as volunteers at group meeting

Va-Yakhel & Shekalim
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 35:1 – 38:20 & 30:11-16
Haftarah: 2 Melachim/2 Kings 12:1-17 (English: 11:21 – 12:16)

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And Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whose mind the Lord had put skill, everyone whose heart stirred him up to come to do the work. (Shemot/Exodus 36:2)

What do you want to do? Have you ever thought about it? Maybe it’s all you ever think about. You may be driven by desire. Others find themselves caught in a web of obligations and responsibilities; perhaps self-imposed or imposed by others. Many of us try to balance the demands on our lives with “me time” when we get to do what we like to do. But how about for Yeshua followers? Do we ever get to do what we want? Are we not supposed to be servants of the Most High God? As servants, is considering our wants ever appropriate?

For the keeners among us, the answer is likely, “No.” But tragically, this kind of passion is often more self-driven than God-led, blinded by workaholism, not service. Try to speak to such folks about biblical principles of rest and we may be dismissed as lazy as they continue in their misguided zeal towards burn out.

Certainly as God’s servants we have obligations of all kinds. As stewards of the creation, we are responsible for all sorts of things, both general as human beings and specific to whatever roles we are called to play. Genuine love for God includes a duty component, whereby it is necessary to do all sorts of things that we may not feel like doing in the moment. But is a life of service to God completely defined by duty?

Not according to this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion). We are at the beginning of the building of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle), the semi-mobile, tent-like structure that was the precursor to the Temple. God had given the instructions and now it was necessary for it to be built. But who was going to build it? While there were certain people appointed to leadership, the workers were volunteers: (“everyone whose heart stirred him up to come to do the work”).

The great and awesome God, who spoke the universe into being didn’t twist arms. He could have, but he didn’t. The people who did the work, essential that it was, did so because they wanted to. And they wanted to without being coerced or compelled by God or anyone else.

No one was guilted into participating. This is similar to the earlier fundraising campaign to underwrite this same project. People gave or didn’t give as they wanted to (see Shemot/Exodus 35:4-9). Think of the confidence God had in the people. He knew that a sufficient number of people had generous and willing hearts, plus the practical skill to build.

This level of freedom established in the early days of the community of Israel is wonderful on its own. How many volunteer organizations have as much faith in their people as God had in his? But think how remarkable this is given the fact that they were former slaves. They had spent their whole lives forced to do what their masters dictated. They had no choice but to build cities for the king of Egypt. Yet the King of Kings offers his people a choice to build or not to build. It’s up to them. How freeing that must have been. A freedom they must have enjoyed because they responded by getting involved.

People are made by God to use the gifts and talents they have been given. People are made to respond to requests like these. They don’t need to be manipulated into doing what they don’t want to do. I can hear panic arising in the hearts of some leaders and organizers. They believe without their tactics, nothing will get done. Perhaps those things shouldn’t be done. They are likely distractions from the things God is actually calling people to do, the things they really want to do.

The Spirit of God works in the hearts of people to direct them in godly directions. This is especially the case among Yeshua followers. We don’t need human manipulation to fulfill God’s will. What we need is opportunity. Not just any opportunity but opportunities inspired by God. When God’s people are presented with God’s projects, we might find people whose hearts are stirred up, coming to do the work.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

Watch this week’s edition of TorahBytes Live (broadcasted Thursday February 28, 2019 at 2 p.m. Eastern Time). Alan will follow up this week’s message with a more in-depth discussion on tp balance responsibility and personal willingness. Recorded version will be available immediately following.



For the week of February 23, 2019 / 18 Adar 5779

Open hand with a sample of frankincense

A sample of frankincense I was given recently.

Ki Tissa
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 30:11 – 34:35
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 18:1-39

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The LORD said to Moses, “Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part), and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy.”  (Shemot/Exodus 30:34-35)

The other day someone gave me a piece of frankincense. I’d never seen one before. I had no clue what it looked like, felt like, or smelled like. You might be an expert in aromatic resins, but I didn’t know frankincense was an aromatic resin let alone know what an aromatic resin is. But like most, if not all, of you, I have heard of frankincense. It was one of the three gifts the Magi brought to Yeshua shortly after his birth. It’s found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s first occurrence is in the passage I just quoted from the Torah. The Hebrew is l’vonah, derived from the word for white, which is apparently its color in its purest form.

When the frankincense was put in my hand, something special happened to me. As I looked at it, felt it, and smelled it, the vague and uninformed concept of frankincense became real to me. It was no longer an element in a story, albeit a true story, but a story nevertheless. It was now an object that existed in the real world – not just in my mind. In that moment, that which the Magi offered to the Lord was in my hand. A connection immediately formed between me and a two-thousand-year-old event. Even though I already believed the event, the actuality of it came rushing at me, all because I encountered a small sample.

This is similar to what I went through repeatedly when visiting Israel. I’ve read the stories over and over again. I’ve seen countless photos, but being there was something else. Standing on the shores of Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), overlooking the mountains and the valleys, being in the Judean wilderness, seeing the caves in which David hid from King Saul, beholding the Temple Mount, everything I had read and heard came into full texture and contour.

I don’t doubt the Bible stories. After all my years of grappling with Scripture, I have learned to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt. I have wondered at times why some people are so excited about discovering the remains of Noah’s Ark, for example. I know it happened. I have no need for it to be discovered. That said, archeological digs are fascinating. I loved seeing the excavation at Shiloh, where they are hoping to find some tangible evidences of the Mishkan (English: the Tabernacle). I think that would be amazing, but not because I need its existence proven to me. And yet, being there and meeting the people involved in the project was a similar experience to the frankincense.

I think I know what is so impactful about the frankincense. It’s real. I knew it was real before it was in my hand. Yet it’s existence in the real world was never truly established in my life personally. Now it is. No longer will frankincense be simply a concept. From now on, whenever I read about it, I will experience the actual object all over again. Its significance in Scripture will be enhanced by the actual object and the object will be understood through the lens of Scripture.

Experience is the connector that takes a concept and allows us to encounter it as a real thing in the real world. It exists in reality apart from our experiencing it, but its reality means little to us until we genuinely experience it for ourselves. People of faith can easily miss this. They may even resist it. For many, the primacy of faith suggests that the most important things of life are intangible items that exist in the unseen spiritual world only. Since our senses easily misguide us, faith is often leveraged to deny the real world of things. It is true that our senses can misguide us, that God’s truth through his Word is the only reliable interpretive key for life. But that doesn’t mean we live disconnected from the world around us. On the contrary. Biblical faith enables us to experience the reality of life God’s way.

If the Bible is true, then we should see evidence of that on an ongoing basis. There are real things that cannot be seen or perceived by our physical senses, such as God himself or essential events of the past (the giving of Torah, the resurrection of Yeshua, etc.). At the same time, since God is real and these events really happened, then they should affect our lives and the world in which we live in tangible ways. Whether it’s an answer to prayer, personal transformation or a piece of frankincense in my hand, we should expect to experience those things to which the Bible attests. Really.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

TorahBytes returns on Friday, February 22, 2019 at 12:15 p.m. Eastern Time. Alan will follow up this week’s message with a more in-depth discussion on how experience is the bridge between concept and reality. Recorded version will be available immediately following.


Be the Light

For the week of February 16, 2019 / 11 Adar 5779

The siege of Jerusalem as depicted on the Arch of Titus in Rome.

The siege of Jerusalem as depicted on the Arch of Titus in Rome.

Torah: Shemot/Exodus 27:20 – 30:10
Haftarah: Ezekiel 43:10-27

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You shall command the people of Israel that they bring to you pure beaten olive oil for the light, that a lamp may regularly be set up to burn. In the tent of meeting, outside the veil that is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the LORD. It shall be a statute forever to be observed throughout their generations by the people of Israel. (Shemot/Exodus 27:20-21)

One of the most recognizable symbols of the Jewish people is the menorah, the seven-branched candelabra, intended for exclusive use within the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and later the Temple. It’s ironic that it became so recognizable, given its location, a hidden room into which only the cohanim (English: priests) were allowed to enter. The reason why we know what it looked like is because it is included in the depiction of the siege of Jerusalem on the first century Arch of Titus in Rome. Where the menorah ended up, we may never know. In spite of theories claiming items such as the Ark of the Covenant (or Testimony [see last week’s TorahBytes message]) being in safekeeping somewhere, as far as we know all the Mishkan/Temple’s furnishings, including the  menorah, are lost for good.

The menorah had a most practical purpose. It was the only light available within the ha-kodesh (English: the Holy Place). Without it, it was pitch black in there. Without it, the cohanim couldn’t fulfill their duties. The carrying away of the menorah by the Romans, like the destruction of the Temple, seemed to indicate the extinguishing of Israel’s light.

The centuries that followed were dark ones for the Jewish people. Yet, even without the menorah and the priestly service, the scattered nation never lost hope of the return of the divine light. Some may claim that the light never went out because the fire of hope in the hearts of the people never stopped burning.

The eternal light of God can’t be snuffed out. The menorah had more than a practical function. It was a symbol of the illuminating presence of God. Israel was chosen by God to be people of light, the bearers of truth for the world. God’s revelation of himself and his ways allowed Israel to clearly see the world as it is in contrast to the other nations having to grope about, trying to figure life out in the darkness of alienation from God. The time would come when the light would not shine upon Israel alone, but would flood the world with its brilliance.

And that time came.

It’s no coincidence that within a generation of the Messiah’s coming, the menorah would be carried off into the center of one of the greatest empires of all time. This was not to show that the light of God shifted from Jerusalem to Rome, but that the light of God would no longer be hidden away in the Temple.

Israel’s light was never extinguished, for eleven Jewish men were commissioned by the Messiah to bring that light to the nations. Since then each follower of Yeshua is called to bear that same light, wherever we may go.

For that to happen, each of us needs to be a menorah so to speak. In the same way that the menorah needed to be continually tended, so we need to tend to the Messiah’s light in us. Tragically, too many take his light for granted, thinking he will do what he will do in and through us, with or without our attention. But it doesn’t work that way. Like the priests of old, we need to make sure his light keeps burning bright. Yeshua’s warning not to hide our light under a basket (see Matthew 5:15) is an intentionally ridiculous image to emphasize how ludicrous it is when we do just that.

Have you ever thought of how we hide our light away? Perhaps others have reacted to you, because of your faith in Yeshua? Hopefully it was for a good reason – the Lord’s light was exposing evil in their lives. What did you when that happened? Did you apologize and dim it down? Or did you let the light do its job? Perhaps you don’t even bother shining in certain situations. You leave it at home, only turning it up during a personal prayer time or when you are with other believers. It can get tiring shining your light in one place and not another. It’s on when you’re in your car listening to music, off at the coffee shop or at work, and back on again at gatherings. I don’t think that’s how to tend the light. No wonder it’s getting so dark in some places.

It’s time to tend the light. We need to give attention to Yeshua’s presence in our lives so that he shines brightly through us. We can’t fabricate it. We can only tend it. We can only tend what we have. If you don’t have it, ask God for it. And once he sets you ablaze, keep it burning.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


The Lost Meaning of the Ark

For the week of February 9, 2019 /4 Adar 5779

Stylized title: The Lost Meaning of the Ark

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 in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. (Shemot/Exodus 25:16)

You probably have heard of the Ark of the Covenant, if not from the Torah, then in the series of movies, starring Harrison Ford. You may know that it was a gold-gilded chest that God commanded the Israelites to build in the wilderness. Eventually it was kept inside the inner sanctum of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and later the Temple. Inside it were special items: the tablets of the Ten Commandments; a sample of the manna, the special bread-like substance God provided during the years of wilderness wanderings; and Moses’ brother Aaron’s rod that budded, the miraculous symbol of God’s confirmation that his descendants were to be the cohanim (English: priests). But of these three, the primary meaning of the ark had to do with the Ten Commandments.

What do you think of when you think of the Ten Commandments? God’s ancient rules? While they certainly contain God’s directives for ancient Israel at least, if not beyond, understanding them as simply commands, directives, or principles misses the point. While in no way diminishing their life-benefitting power, they had a much greater function within the community of Israel.

The Ten Commandments, especially in tablet form, stood for the whole of the covenant that God established with Israel at Mt. Sinai following their rescue from bondage in Egypt. This is why a common descriptor for the ark was “aron ha-brit” (the Ark of the Covenant). The tablets were a tangible sign of the relationship God established with Israel as their Rescuer. The presence of the ark, containing the tablets, was an ongoing reminder of God’s commitment to his people and their obligations unto him in response.

Here’s something I didn’t realize until recently even though I have read the relevant passages so many times in the past. While “Ark of the Covenant” is the most common name for the ark, it is not the most common in the Books of Moses, especially in Shemot (Exodus) where it is first introduced. The earliest references to the ark are as “aron et ha-edut” (the “Ark of the Testimony”). While some may regard “testimony” here as another way to express “covenant,” which is perhaps why we refer to the Old and New Covenants as Old and New Testaments, that misses the point.

A testimony is a witness unto something. Witnesses in court give testimony. They say what they saw; they tell us what happened. Advertisements often provide testimonies as in “I used this product and it works exactly as claimed.” The tablets of the Ten Commandments were designed by God first and foremost as a testimony. What they state is essential, but that God stated them, that they are his testimony of his existence and his committed relationship to Israel, is what they are really all about.

The Ark of the Testimony was evidence of the reality of God and that he spoke to the people of Israel through Moses. The Ten Commandments were never to be reduced to a system of principals or to be regarded as a set of wise sayings. They are that, but they are so much more: they are the very communication of the one true God.

As the Ten Commandments testified to God’s reality, so should we. Our lives should be a testimony to who he is, what he has done, what he is doing, what he has said, and what he is saying. As God’s foundational demonstration of himself is a communication of himself and his will, so we too should reflect who he is and share his word with anyone and everyone. As far as we know the ark is lost, but we are not. Let us be the People of the Testimony.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version