Let’s Eat

For the week of May 1, 2021 / 19 Iyar 5781

A group of people enjoying a meal together

Emor
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 21:1-24:23
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-31
Originally posted the week of May 13, 2017 / 17 Iyar 5777

Note: I was a little hesitant to share this message due to the current health crisis. It refers to eating together and celebrating, which has been difficult, if not impossible, for some for more than a year. While the pain of separation we feel is real, I hope you will read through to the end to discover that there’s someone who longs to be with you, whom no government restriction can keep out. – Alan Gilman

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And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons so that they abstain from the holy things of the people of Israel, which they dedicate to me, so that they do not profane my holy name: I am the Lord.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 22:1-2)

A good portion of this week’s parsha (weekly Torah selection) cautions the cohanim (English: priests) from participating in their assigned duties when deemed to be ritually unclean. There were particular prohibitions regarding their being in the presence of the dead as well as certain mourning practices. They were more limited than the general population as far as whom they could marry and the conditions under which consecrated foods were to be eaten.

It is striking how much eating played a part in the priestly service. Very few of the edible items that were offered by the people were completely consumed on the altar. Most of the offered meat, grain, and drink were either eaten by the cohanim only or by both the person making the offering and the cohanim. The dominant smell in the area of the altar must have been like a barbecue. Eating wasn’t the only thing happening, but there must have been quite a bit going on at any given time. I don’t think I am off course to say that eating was therefore a central aspect of Old Covenant worship.

Even before sin and evil had the creation in its clutches due to our first parents’ rebellion in the Garden of Eden, eating was a part of God’s good design. Just because death was not a factor until after Adam and Eve’s first sin, that doesn’t mean they didn’t need to eat. The harmony within the creation they briefly enjoyed prior to the curse included regular access to an abundance of food. Sin and the curse didn’t create the need to eat, but rather make accessing food difficult (see Bereshit/Genesis 3:17-19).

The need for food established an essential dependency of humans upon the rest of creation. It’s no wonder then that much of ancient religion is focused on relating to a god or gods in order to ensure there be sufficient food to eat. That in itself isn’t misguided, but by design. Yet there is more to food than how it drives people to seek spiritual assistance.

The personal intimacy of eating food appears also to be by design. The conditions placed upon the cohanim’s eating of the offerings were primarily due to whether or not they were fit to be in God’s presence. To eat of the offerings, they had to be ritually clean. To eat or not to eat, therefore, represented one’s ability to be in fellowship with God. While this may sound strange, it was not only in the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and the Temple where people ate with God. Abraham did so when three mysterious persons came to announce in advance the birth of Isaac (Bereshit/Genesis 18:1-8), and Moses and the Elders of Israel ate with him at Mt. Sinai (Shemot/Exodus 24:9-11).

It is not a random social accident that eating food is one of our primary contexts in which fellowship between people occurs. It is clear to me, if not to most, that eating alone or on the go is not best for us. Sharing the eating experience has been the basis of so much meaningful human interaction for family and friends throughout time.

In addition, it’s a meal that is the primary context of remembering God’s establishing of relationship with his people. Through the Passover, God directed Israel to year after year celebrate his victory over the tyrant, Pharaoh. It’s not just through the symbolic elements alone that the power of remembrance is conveyed, but the festive meal itself speaks of relationship with God and one another. The New Covenant version of this same meal as established by the Messiah is all this and more as Jew and Gentile together celebrate God’s victory over the greater tyrant, death. I wish more communities of believers did so as part of a large meal.

When we lose the joy of celebration, it’s easy to simply go through the motions of religious observance. Perhaps that’s what happened to the Laodiceans, a community of believers in ancient Turkey who had lost their zeal for God. Yeshua invited them to intimately engage him again: “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20).

Unlike the ancient priests, burdened by all sorts of requirements preventing them from eating with God, Yeshua wants to walk right in and sit right down with us. He has made us fit to eat with God personally and intimately forever. Let’s eat!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Naked Truth

For the week of April 24, 2021 / 12 Iyar 5781

Title text: The Naked Truth

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

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None of you shall approach any one of his close relatives to uncover nakedness. I am the LORD. (Vayikra/Leviticus 18:6)

This week’s parsha includes a detailed list of illicit sexual relationships. The Hebrew uses a special phrase to describe this, which is “don’t uncover nakedness.” Many translations treat this phrase as a euphemism. A euphemism is a figure of speech that is “the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/euphemism). In English, instead of saying someone has died, we say they passed away. It means the same thing but passed away comes across as less jarring. So, instead of God’s saying through Moses, “Don’t have sex with a close relative,” it’s “don’t uncover their nakedness.” The image of removing one’s covering is apparently not as jarring as “don’t have sex.” That said, a great number of English translations of the Bible prefer to translate the euphemism into plain speech (you can view a list here).

It’s possible that the original hearers would have heard “don’t have sex” when Moses said, “don’t uncover nakedness,” just like we hear “died” for “passed away.” However, while this may not apply to all figures of speech, there may be something more going on than a simple code term, where the one expression represents the other. I wonder if our culture would use passed away if it didn’t hold to the idea of an afterlife at least historically. This is not the place for a full analysis of figures of speech, but the image created by a word picture has to somehow work within the psyche of the culture.

The scripture, especially when we are reading the very words of God as we are doing here, reflects a God inspired culture. On one hand, God through Moses is using language that the people would understand. On the other, he is instructing them on how to see the world. God didn’t have to use this phrase here. The Bible uses other terms for the sexual act. But here we read of the uncovering of nakedness. Why?

I am intrigued by the initial experience of Adam and Eve: “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Bereshit/Genesis 2:25), especially in relation to their reaction upon eating the forbidden fruit: “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths” (Bereshit/Genesis 3:7). The text continues to tell us that Adam hid from God due to fear, because he was naked (see Bereshit/Genesis 3:10), which was evidence that he had eaten the fruit (see Bereshit/Genesis 3:11).

While some may be quick to connect nakedness with sex as if sex was the forbidden fruit, there is nothing in the text to suggest that. Sexuality within marriage was already blessed by God (see Bereshit/Genesis 1:28) and would continue to be so. Instead, there is something else going on here. And it’s something very difficult for most people to comprehend today.

For most people the body is nothing more than an accident of nature. The real person is entrapped in a material cage that encumbers a full and free expression of who we really are. This way of thinking is extremely common among adherents of the Bible. But according to Scripture our bodies are God-given vehicles through which to honor God and bless others. The challenges we face are not due to our physicality but due to sin. Our bodies will be fully redeemed upon Messiah’s return.

The uncovering of nakedness, then, is not simply about “having sex” with someone. That’s because sexual intimacy is not simply a physical transaction between humans. The exposing of our bodies to others is an exposing of self in our most vulnerable state. You and I were not made to expose our deepest selves to just anyone. God designed physical intimacy of this sort to be reserved within a protected exclusive relationship. To share ourselves outside of God-sanctioned marriage tears at the very fabric of what it is to be human. The results are disastrous for both individuals and society.

Beyond the prohibitions listed, we would do well to regard our bodies as God does, as vessels set apart for his service in every area of life.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version 

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Deal with It

For the week of April 17, 2021 / 5 Iyar 5781

Spray bottle and sponge on floor in front of moldy wall

Tazria & Metzora
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33
Haftarah: 2 M’lachim/2 Kings 7:3-20
Originally posted the week of April 6, 2019 / 1 Nisan 5779

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Then he shall examine the disease on the seventh day. If the disease has spread in the garment, in the warp or the woof, or in the skin, whatever be the use of the skin, the disease is a persistent leprous disease; it is unclean. And he shall burn the garment, or the warp or the woof, the wool or the linen, or any article made of skin that is diseased, for it is a persistent leprous disease. It shall be burned in the fire. (Vayikra/Leviticus 13:51-52)

As I have studied Torah for most of my life, I have come to see that there is far more to its teachings than the particular details it describes. Don’t get me wrong! The details are extremely important, but the details point beyond themselves to something much greater. I don’t mean that in some esoteric way as if the Bible is a code book of mysteries to be solved (in spite of what some may think!). It’s more straightforward than that. As we absorb its content over time, we are drawn into God’s understanding of the world in which we live. This worldview is not simply one possible way to look at life, but the only truly effective way. The God of Israel – the one who both designed and implemented the creation – is the only one who truly understands how best to negotiate the complexities of living. Through the Scriptures he has revealed that understanding.

Take for example the section of Torah we are in currently. God through Moses establishes strict guidelines with regard to certain infections. Note what’s missing. There is a great lack of spiritualization here. There’s nothing to suggest that people whose bodies or houses were afflicted were to blame in any way. While there was what to do in response, there was no reason to be ashamed of such things. Lack of shame encourages people to not hide their problems but bring them out into the open where they can be dealt with.

Not everything that looks problematic is serious. It was necessary for the general population and the leadership to learn the difference between those things that needed to be cut out and destroyed and others that could be left alone. A culture trained by God in this way would learn to approach all of life in a similar fashion. One doesn’t have to be a psychologist to know that negative human behavior can be as infectious as the examples given us in Torah.

In the New Covenant Writings, Paul provides an illustration of this (see 1 Corinthians 5:6-8). The faith community of the city of Corinth had allowed arrogance and malice to fester. He likened these negative influences to the way leaven pervades dough. Once the fermentation process gets in, it can’t be removed. It affects the entire batch. He therefore calls for a whole new lump of dough.

The problem with Paul’s illustration is when it comes to fermented dough, it’s permanent. If this was really about dough, then “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened” (1 Corinthians 5:7), would require throwing out the infected batch and starting with a new one. There’s no way he intends an exact parallel for the Corinthians. He isn’t saying that their community was beyond the point of no return; that they would need to start with a whole new group of people. What he is saying is that the transformative process required to resolve their metaphorical infection was drastic and would, therefore, require a resolve on the part of this community to take their situation seriously. They would have to do whatever was necessary to experience renewal. Thankfully, Paul’s extreme language emphasizes the potential of God’s transformative power available to them (and to us!) through Yeshua the Messiah.

Unless we are willing to identify and deal with potentially destructive issues, they will pervade our lives and spread to our loved ones and communities. God, through Yeshua, offers us complete cleansing. But we need to have the courage to take these things seriously and the wisdom to fully deal with them. While some issues are no big deal, some are. Let’s deal with them before it’s too late.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version 

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Serious Consequences

For the week of April 10, 2021 / 28 Nisan 5781

Business man looking at his phone while stepping off a cliff

Shemini
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47
Haftarah: 2 Samuel 6:1 – 7:17

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And David and all the house of Israel were celebrating before the LORD, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God. (2 Samuel 6:5-7)

The connection between this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion) and its associated haftarah (excerpt from the Prophets) is very clear. The parsha includes the death of two of Aaron’s sons for their inappropriate offering. The haftarah also includes a death due to a mishandling of one of God’s most specially set-aside objects. It was during David’s first attempt to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. When the cart upon which it was being transported tipped, a man by the name of Uzzah attempted to stabilize it, and God struck him dead as a result.

The Torah incident doesn’t provide us with the specifics as to what Aaron’s sons did wrong. All we know is that it was, in Hebrew “zur” (“strange” or “unauthorized”); in other words, outside of that which was prescribed. The context suggests they may have been drunk. We don’t know if that in itself was what was deemed unacceptable and deserving of death, or if drinking led them to make a bad decision.

In the case of the Haftarah, however, the reason for the extreme result is much clearer. David had directed his people to transport the Ark in an unauthorized way. Instead of following the Torah protocol of it being carried with poles by Levites, they had it carried on an ox cart. We see the acknowledgement of this error sometime later when they resumed the plan; this time in keeping with Torah. The reason for the change of transport method is more explicit in the parallel passage found in 1 Divrei Ha-Yamim/1 Chronicles 15:1-2.

These are two examples of Bible stories that fall into my “don’t like it” category. I am not alone. Aaron who lost his two sons was understandably grieved, while David was upset and wouldn’t continue the journey with the Ark until sometime later. Yet, as I struggle with these and other unpleasant incidents in Scripture, I realize that life is full of things that I don’t like.

I have heard statements such as “I could never believe in a god who…”, referencing stories like these. It seems to me that such sentiments are loaded with all sorts of additional assumptions. There is likely little to no understanding as to the reasons behind such extreme consequences. Plus, little to no acknowledgement or understanding of God’s complex nature, purposes, and plans that could provide necessary context for such serious consequences.

Whatever one’s relationship is to the God of the Bible, life is full of serious consequences. I am aware that much of such harshness is inexplicable. But, at the same time, how much trouble have we gotten ourselves into because we haven’t taken life as seriously as we should? At times this ignorance is at an individual level as was in the case of Aaron’s sons. It appears they themselves should have known better. In Uzzah’s case, he suffered due to the leadership’s irresponsible handling of the situation.

We could learn to accept the way the world he made works or choose to reject the God who created such an environment for human beings. More and more people insist that we need a type of freedom that ignores the consequences of our actions. Our government may protect and/or mandate all sorts of preferences and/or lifestyles. But that will never change the way things actually work. Not doing things God’s way has serious consequences.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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