Groovy Misterioso

For the week of September 4, 2021 / 27 Elul 5781

Old book and magnifying glass

Nitzavim
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20 (English: 29:10 – 30:20)
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9

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The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 29:29)

Back in the 70s, I played drums in my high school jazz band. One of my favorite pieces was the “Pink Panther Theme” by Henry Mancini. As you may know many pieces of music begin with an instruction in Italian to denote the tempo and feel of the piece. The Pink Panther has the unique instruction, “groovy misterioso” to denote a mysterious, but jazzy and cool feeling. (You can watch it here with Mancini himself on piano, but don’t forget to come back!)

When something is mysterious, it is in the realm of the unknown. Mystery stories, including movies, are driven by key components being hidden from the reader or viewer. Someone dies and we are led to suspect foul play is involved. The story then anticipates the revealing of what’s hidden. If the mystery remains unsolved by the end, most people wouldn’t find the story satisfying.

Yet, many readers of the Bible seem to be fairly happy with unsolved supposed Bible mysteries. When a teacher asserts a difficult-to-understand concept, their explanation is often, “Ah, that’s a mystery,” expecting their students to respond with awe and wonder. God himself, is often described as mysterious. The problem with that is that the Bible doesn’t describe him that way. Instead, he is accessible, knowable, and personable.

The Bible, the New Testament in particular, does use the word mystery, however. It’s the Greek word “mystērion” and appears twenty-seven times, mainly in Paul’s writings; once each in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all in the context of Yeshua’s teachings on parables; and four times in the Book of Revelation. But it isn’t used to describe that which is unknown or too difficult for us to understand. Rather, it is used to describe truths that were previously hidden which have now been made known. One example is found in Ephesians, chapter three, where Paul explains that God’s intentions to include people of the nations in his messianic plan had been unknown until the good news of Yeshua was proclaimed by his followers.

This kind of mystery is very different from common mystery stories, where we are aware something is going on, but we don’t know what it is, and thus a puzzle to solve. Bible mysteries are not puzzles. Yet that doesn’t stop some people from assuming that there are codes to crack and hidden messages to decipher. Bible mysteries are also not unknowable knowables – the stuff of “you just need to accept what I am telling you even though you will never be able to understand it, because it’s a mystery!”

That doesn’t mean that everything about God and life, be it in the Bible or elsewhere is knowable. Far from it! There are things that we can’t understand. That’s what Moses says in this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion): “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 29:29). This tells us that there exist knowable and unknowable things. God has deemed some matters to be secret, known only to him. They are not mysteries to solve. Instead, they are none of our business. Then there are the revealed things. These are our business. We are to learn them, do them, and pass them on to our children.

This is not to say that there aren’t knowable, but hard-to-understand things. But they are not hidden. Sometimes we have to put in considerable effort through prayer and study to discover truth and how best to live accordingly.

The Torah tells us that God has graciously revealed in his Word all we need to know to live effective, godly lives. And that’s groovy!

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

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Arise & Shine!

For the week of August 28, 2021 / 20 Elul 5781

Person in a victorious stance facing the sun

Ki Tavo
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8 (English: 26:1 – 29:9)
Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1-22

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Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. (Isaiah 60:1-3)

This week we are looking at the Haftarah portion, the reading from the Hebrew prophets that is traditionally associated with the scheduled Torah reading. The latter part of the book of Isaiah is concerned with a time period over a hundred years after the time of the prophet. This is one of the reasons why scholars think that the Book of Isaiah is a collection of prophetic writings of not only Isaiah, but other prophets from a later time. But since no other prophets are named, and to my knowledge, archeologists have never discovered individual sections, I prefer to regard Isaiah as the sole author. It also seems that a factor that influences the multi-author view is doubt over whether Isaiah could have spoken into these later time periods. I don’t share these doubts.

The faith necessary to accept that God empowers people to speak into the future is the same faith that can accept God’s word over and against the prevailing perspective of the masses at any period of time. Pitting God’s perspective against the majority is seen right through the Book of Isaiah.

In our Haftarah, God through Isaiah speaks of a common scriptural contrast: light and darkness. He speaks of someone through whom the light of God will shine. This is reminiscent of the pillar of fire centuries earlier that guided Israel through extremely difficult terrain. Despite the nation’s continued mistrust of God in those years, later generations would remember it as a time when God was with them in a most unusual and intimate way. According to Isaiah those days were returning. The people would likely also recall Moses shining with God’s glory when he returned from God’s presence on Mt. Sinai. Perhaps this would be experienced once more. Moses’ unique encounter would be the experience of the entire nation.

This glorious expectation, however, would not happen during pleasant times. Rather, the world would be engulfed in darkness. To be in darkness is to be in the midst of confusing and highly destructive trouble. As a result, according to Isaiah, nations and world leaders would come to Israel’s light.

While I expect this to one day come into its fulness in and through the people of Israel, it began with the coming of Israel’s Messiah. It was a dark time for Israel under Rome’s oppressive rule and the religious corruption that led to the Temple’s destruction. At the same time, the light of God had come. Thousands of Jewish people plus countless others from among the nations came to Israel’s light as emanating from the Messiah and his followers—a light that has continued to shine until today.

Dark days are returning. For many in various parts of the world they have already returned. In the Western World governments have been taking more and more control in the name of health and safety. Good is being called evil and evil, good. Freedom of speech is eroding while powerful surveillance systems are being more and more entrenched. Many think it’s no big deal. What makes it most dark is that most people are just going along, happily allowing societal power systems to determine the course of our lives.

The people of the light needn’t be overwhelmed. Some may think that the darkness needs to be beaten back, but that’s not how light works. When light shines, the darkness recedes. Those who long for light are attracted to it; those who love darkness hide away.

Followers of the Messiah shouldn’t be discouraged. Since we know the source of light, let us turn to him and allow him to shine through us again. As we put God and his word first in our lives, trusting him and following his directives, he will overcome the darkness.

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

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False Accusations

For the week of August 21, 2021 / 13 Elul 5781
Husband accusing wife

Ki Teze
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10
Originally posted the week of September 2, 2017 / 11 Elul 5777

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If a man marries a woman, has sexual relations with her and then, having come to dislike her, brings false charges against her… (D’varim/Deuteronomy 22:13-14)

Many people assume that the Bible is an archaic, backward book, written when people were superstitious, given over to mythical stories, and all round ignorant – nothing like we are today: enlightened, progressive, and intelligent. This might be hard to accept, but very little about humans has changed since the beginning, except for technological advances. We continue to do what we have always done, just faster and more efficiently. And that goes for things both good and bad.

This is not to say that the ancients weren’t superstitious. Many were. But many still are today. We continue to believe in all sorts of fanciful ideas, and ignorance over life essentials is rampant. Yes, much has been learned through the millennia, while some basic lessons of life continue to be ignored. The idea that people started off ignorant and foolish and have been progressing mentally and morally since then has no basis in fact.

One of the areas where the progress assumption is strongest is with regards to the Bible’s view of women. Some will even use the Bible itself to back up this claim by comparing the Old and New Testaments’ depictions and treatment of women. It is typical to assert that Yeshua was the great liberator of women, since he freely engaged females and considered some as associates in his work. That he did that is indeed the case, but making it sound as if he was being so-called progressive isn’t valid. Even a casual reading of his interactions with women demonstrates there was no scandal or even concern over them. There is his disciples’ questioning over the Samaritan Woman in John chapter four, but it isn’t clear from the text exactly what their issue was.

This is not to say that the world of that day, Jewish or otherwise, was necessarily altogether correct, vis a vis women’s rights. Certainly, all sorts of injustices were done unto women, but injustices of all kinds occurred to both men and women and have continued to this day. Whether or not we have significantly progressed to a higher moral plain is difficult to determine.

What we can determine, however, is that the whole Bible, Old and New Testaments, has a high regard for women. The divinely inspired wisdom of Scripture is displayed within a realistic view of life. Simply stating that all people should be treated equally does nothing to alleviate harmful behavior. But God knew that if left unchecked men and women would abuse each other.

In this week’s parsha, we have a situation where a man accuses his wife of deceitful impropriety prior to their marriage (see D’varim/Deuteronomy 22:13-21). The penalties for slander on the part of the man or impropriety on the part of his wife are harsh by today’s standards, but note the equality shown towards each party. If the man’s accusation is correct, then the woman was to be executed, the normal penalty for such things. But if the accusation is false, he was to be whipped, fined, and not allowed to ever divorce her. I know some will find these consequences backward in the way I referred to at the beginning, but don’t miss the sentiment here. Contrary to popular misconception, wives weren’t property to do with whatever their husbands pleased. Men were not allowed to say whatever they wanted about their wives and get away with it. There were repercussions for false accusations against women. These directives were designed to keep male selfishness in check. Yet, there is no preferential treatment here. Justice was to be done regardless of which partner was at fault.

There’s more. If I read this correctly, the result of God’s word here goes beyond this specific scenario. Because God provided a disincentive regarding false accusations, one would hope that men should think twice before acting on their suspicions toward their wives. In that day as well as our own, accusations in and of themselves destroy people’s reputations whether or not the accusation is valid. Yet, unlike in Moses’ time, there are no penalties for falsely accusing someone. Unlike the Torah, many justice systems tolerate false accusations to encourage victims to come forward. But that’s not just. True justice shows no bias toward supposed victims nor alleged perpetrators. Everyone should be treated fairly before the law. To allow otherwise is not progress.

Scriptures, Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)

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Just Justice

For the week of August 14, 2021 / 6 Elul 5781

The title, Just Justice, on a protest sign

Shoftim
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12

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Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 16:20)

The subject of justice is popular today. Before I continue, let’s get our bearings. The Hebrew Bible has two key words that have to do with justice. Tz’dakah generally refers to that which is right. Mishpat refers to the bringing about of what is right. To bring about what is right is what we call in English, “justice.” The verse I quoted from the Torah uses a word very similar to tz’dakah, tzedek. A more literal reading of the Hebrew would be more along the lines of “The right, and only the right, you shall follow.” That sounds strange, yet the point is clear. The people of Israel were directed by God to always follow what is right. That includes personally doing the right thing as well as seeking to bring about what is right within the society, seek justice in other words.

There is a particular promise to the people of Israel here that makes continued connection to the land of Israel contingent upon the pursuit of justice. While we may not be able to directly apply this to other nations, the Bible demonstrates that right living results in blessing which includes national and personal security and prosperity. Therefore, any and all people anywhere at any time can look to this verse as an encouragement to pursue justice.

This then begs the question, who is to determine what justice is? What is right for one may not be right for another. In the context of Torah, what is right is carefully and clearly defined at least as far as the people of Israel in ancient times were concerned. As for our day, even passionate adherents of the Bible may dismiss certain Torah principles as obsolete be it for the people of Israel or anyone else. I am going to leave the question of what constitutes justice for another time as there is something else in this statement that we all, regardless of who we are and where or when we live, can learn from especially in our day.

What is translated here as “justice, and only justice,” in Hebrew is simply “tzedek tzedek.” The above attempt at a literal rendering could be improved. The Hebrew is closer to “right, right, you shall follow.” Repeating the word in this way is a device to strongly emphasize it. It strengthens the focus on how justice was to be pursued. Remember writing surfaces were not cheap in ancient times, which is one of the reasons why the biblical text is so thick with meaning. Words weren’t wasted. When God states “right, right.” It is purposeful.

The pursuit of what is right must be done in the right way. We mustn’t allow other interests to get in the way when dealing with an injustice. It’s too easy to allow our feelings to determine our actions for example. Our passions prefer to do away with the care necessary to determine the full scope of a situation and the people involved. In the moment justice may looks so clear and shortcuts to justice the most just, but are they?

I wonder if what is conducted under the banner of justice today is true justice. It seems to me that it is more along the lines of revenge. There is an expectation that the society is responsible to satisfy people’s personal grievances. Yet, biblically speaking societal wrongs were primarily against God not others. I can appreciate that agnostics and atheists can’t accept that. However, without God in view, all we are left with is an expectation of others to make the world feel right for us. That will never happen.

The anger that is so prevalent among us today fails to accept that injustice is primarily an internal reality within all of us. First and foremost, we are not right with God. All we human beings are flawed. Systemic and specific injustice is part of the fabric of the whole human experience. To demand personal satisfaction for injustice is a bottomless pit into which we will all fall into unless we have the humility to see that each and every one of us is the problem. This is not to say that there aren’t wrongs that shouldn’t be righted, but unless we go about making things right in the right way, we will only continue the cycle of injustice.

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

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Consumerism

For the week of August 7, 2021 / 29 Av 5781

Room packed with stored boxes, electronics, files, business equipment and household items

Re’eh
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5 &
1 Shmuel/Samuel 20:18-42
Originally posted the week of August 3, 2002 / 25 Av 5762

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Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. (Isaiah 55:2)

Many of us live in what is called a consumer society. Whole nations are built on the need of its people to buy things. The accumulation of things is perceived as a mark of personal success. If the people in these societies ever stopped spending, whole economies would collapse.

If we ever took the time to ask ourselves if we really needed all the things we buy, I wonder what we would say. The fact is that we don’t stop to ask the question; we just continue doing what we have been doing – buying things, believing that the more things we have the better our lives will be.

But God does ask us the question. We hear him through Isaiah in this passage. We would hear him asking us this very same question regularly if we would take the time to listen.

The question is actually a rhetorical one – one that assumes the hearer already knows the answer. Rhetorical questions are necessary, because, while we know the answers, we usually don’t want to face up to them.

Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?

God wants us to take a good hard look at what we are giving ourselves and our resources to. This is not to say that none of us are doing good things. But we need to take inventory of our spending. Not just the spending of our money, but also of our time and energy. Are the things we are giving ourselves to really of benefit?

We purchase goods and services believing that they benefit us. But how many of us know in our hearts that all our consumerism is a big waste? Yet instead of changing our lifestyles, we just buy more.

Consumerism is another way we hide from God. It is so easy to fill our lives with things, even though they don’t provide us with what we claim they do.

The alternative? Listen to God:

Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.

It is in God and in his Word that we will find true satisfaction in life – that is if we stop and allow ourselves to hear the question.

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