Moral Consequences

For the week of April 30, 2022 / 29 Nisan 5782

Message title information over a hand ready to flick one domino of a row of dominoes

Achrei Mot
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 20:18-42

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Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. (Vayikra/Leviticus 18:24-25)

For many people, spirituality is disconnected from the physical world. It is consigned to the invisible realm of thoughts, feelings, and spiritual entities, angels, demons, and God. This is not a biblical view of life. The Bible regards all creation, things material and things immaterial, as integrated. The spiritual affects the material and vice versa. A powerful example of this way of thinking is found in this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion).

Israel here is being instructed on the types of sexual relations that are to be avoided. They are told that these behaviors resulted in negative consequences for the Land’s previous inhabitants. While the Torah’s teachings are specifically directed to the people of Israel, this is one of the few examples of their clearly applying to other nations. The nature of these behaviors is such that it didn’t matter that these nations were not so instructed.

While the negative consequences will be experienced by these nations through Israel’s conquest of the Land, the image painted for us is a graphic one of the land’s vomiting them out. Through this we see an intricate interplay between human behavior, God, and his creation. God designed the creation in such a way that it cannot tolerate immorality. We see this elsewhere in Torah, whereby the blessing of crops and family are tied to behavior.

Earlier this month, I posted a message entitled, “How Does It Work?”, where I concluded that it’s more important to accept that life works the way it does than to figure out the mechanics behind it. Governments today are keen to prevent potential climate disaster through controlling consumer behavior, while ignoring the consequences of moral behavior. Actually, they aren’t ignoring moral behavior as much as making it more and more difficult to address it.

Any suggestion today that the forbidden relations of this section of Torah may have a negative effect on society is itself now being deemed immoral. But what will be the outcome? No legislation will be able to stop the consequences that God himself instilled in his creation. Contrary to popular misconception, biblical morality is not an arbitrary code of conduct imposed upon ignorant humans to oppress them for some lofty religious goal. Rather, it is the loving directions from the One who understands the very nature of life in every way, given to us as a gift to enable us to live good, healthy, and prosperous lives.

Whether these directions are known or unknown, they demonstrate how life works. All people are accountable to the God of Israel whether they know him or not. That’s just the way it is. As the people of Israel were instructed in God’s ways, so we would do well to take heed.

Moreover, if we care about others, we need to find ways to share the truth about moral consequences before irreparable damage is done to people’s lives. We must not give into the pressure of keeping these truths to ourselves. While we need to learn to present them as humbly and lovingly as we can, may God help us not to remain silent.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


The Bread of Affliction

For the week of April 23, 2022 / 22 Nisan 5782

Message info on a matza background

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 (updated)

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You shall eat no leavened bread with it. Seven days you shall eat it with unleavened bread (matzah), 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)

Before I get into this week’s message, I want to explain why we have, both last week and this, special Torah readings for Pesach (English: Passover). In the Torah, Pesach is a seven-day festival. Both the first day and the seventh day are to be treated as especially holy, as sabbaths. Due to how the calendar was set by the religious authorities in ancient times, all such special sabbaths, except for Yom Kippur (English: the Day of Atonement), are to be observed over a two-day period outside the land of Israel. Despite modern improvements in precision, this tradition continues till now. Therefore, outside the land of Israel, Pesach lasts eight days. When certain festivals, such as Pesach, fall on a weekly Shabbat, the normal parsha (Torah reading portion), is postponed. This year, since the holiday began on Shabbat, the last day is also Shabbat. Thus, postponing the normal weekly reading two weeks. In Israel, however, the normal weekly reading resumes, since Pesach is only seven days long there. This means the weekly reading will be out of synch, and will continue to be so until the last Shabbat in July when two weeks’ worth of reading will be covered outside Israel.

Since I currently live outside of Israel, I now present to you another special Pesach message.

If you have ever attended a Seder you most likely heard the following words when the matzah (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 matzah “the bread of affliction” is taken directly from the Torah.

The Hebrew word for “affliction” is “a-nee’,” and refers to being in an oppressive state, such as hardship or poverty. Matzah 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 matzah is not a reminder of the slavery experience but of freedom: “eat it with matzah, 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 matzah 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, we read:

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 B’midbar/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 matzah 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


No Bias

For the week of April 16, 2022 / 15 Nisan 5782

Message title information along with the word bias crossed out

Pesach 1
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 12:21-51; B’midbar/Numbers 28:16-25
Haftarah: Joshua 5:2-6:1
Originally posted the week of March 31, 2018 / 15 Nisan 5778 (updated)

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When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the LORD. Now I have come.” (Joshua 5:13-14)

The Torah and Haftarah readings for this week and next are special for Pesach (English: Passover). The festival begins this year on Friday evening, April 15. The first of the two Torah readings is from Shemot/Exodus and describes the preparations for and the events of the first Passover night, when the Angel of Death didn’t slay the firstborn of the Israelites in Egypt but passed over their homes due to the blood of the Passover lamb smeared on their doorframes. The devastating blow of this final plague released Israel from Pharaoh’s tyrannical control. The second reading from B’midbar/Numbers prescribes some of Passover’s special observances. The Haftarah from Joshua includes the first Passover celebration after entering the Promised Land. This reading also contains two other significant items, one before and one after the Passover reference that don’t seem to be directly related to the holiday. My guess is that they are included for the simple reason that the Passover reference is too short on its own. I don’t know if whoever chose this passage saw connections to Passover, but I do.

The liberation of the people of Israel at the first Passover was a defining moment for the people. Four hundred years earlier the fledgling clan of Jacob (whose name God changed to Israel), his sons and their families, numbering seventy in all, found refuge during a great famine. God used unusual and painful circumstances to bring this about. Not only did Egypt function as a means of salvation for Israel, their initial time there was good. During the next four hundred years the clan grew into a nation. However, this was a nation without a distinct identity, since at some point in the process, they became slaves under an oppressive Egyptian regime.

All those years they held onto the promise of return to the land of their forefathers – a land guaranteed to them by God himself as a permanent inheritance. When the day for their liberation arrived, it didn’t come about easily. Be that as it may, for the first time ever, the nation of Israel was free to pursue their God-given destiny.

Acquiring the Land also wasn’t easy, sometimes due to a wide variety of external challenges; other times due to their own faithlessness. Through it all God proved faithful. After forty more long years of living like nomads in the wilderness, Joshua, Moses’s successor, led them into the Land.

Before celebrating their first Passover in their new home, the males were circumcised for the first time since leaving Egypt decades before. Not only were they acting as a distinct nation in their own land for the first time, this procedure dramatically reminded them of who they were as the covenant people of God. Then they observed Passover, another reminder of their unique peoplehood under God. The strong sense of nationality emphasized by both circumcision and Passover is the backdrop for the unusual encounter Joshua was to have shortly thereafter.

As Israel was preparing to face its first great challenge in their new land – overcoming the fortified city of Jericho – their leader and chief general was confronted by a man with a drawn sword. Unsure of the stranger’s allegiances, Joshua asked him if he was friend or foe. To which the as yet unidentified warrior replied (literally in Hebrew): No. He was the “Commander of the army of the LORD.” Joshua’s response to the Commander’s directive to remove his sandals due to the place being holy (similar to Moses’s experience at the burning bush) clearly indicates this Commander’s divine nature. Joshua’s immediate submission to him speaks buckets of his humble heart toward God. Even though he was God’s appointed leader of the people, he was quick to show deference, because he knew who was ultimately in charge

This interaction addresses more than just Joshua personally. The nation of Israel had been through so much for so long, much of which reinforced their special relationship to God. So, when God shows up here, it would have been reasonable for them to expect he would again confirm that relationship. But he doesn’t. Instead he reminds them that he is very clear that he is not biased toward them. Their confidence was not to be based on perception of favoritism or partiality on God’s part. Yes, they were (and are) his chosen people, but their chosen-ness is due to God’s plans and purposes for the whole world. God’s ongoing favor toward Israel is to fulfill his promise to Abraham: “Through you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Bereshit/Genesis 12:3; Galatians 3:8). Israel certainly benefits from this arrangement, but benefits aside, they needed to understand that it wasn’t that God was on their side, but they were called to be on his.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


How Does It Work?

For the week of April 09, 2022 / 8 Nisan 5782

Message title information over an elderly woman wondering how to do something

Torah reading: Vayikra/Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33
Haftarah: Malachi 3:4-24 (English: 3:4 – 4:6)
Originally posted the week of April 5, 2014 / 5 Nisan 5774 (revised)

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Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst. (Vayikra/Leviticus 15:31)

Reading this verse makes me think, “How does this work?” God gave the people of Israel particular directions to follow with regard to how they were to deal with ritual uncleanness. Certain diseases, bodily emissions, and childbirth required people to perform set procedures in order to restore themselves to a state of ritual purity.

I don’t tend to concern myself about how things work with regard to God and his directives. If God says these things result in defilement and tells his people to follow his purification instructions, then that should be good enough. After all, as God’s servants, our job is to obey him. Whether or not we understand how this sort of thing works is beside the point.

That said, I still wonder why the possibility of defilement was so dangerous. Some may suggest that what is going on here is God’s providing effective health principles cloaked in spiritual terms. God’s directions had the people distancing themselves from others as well as washing themselves and any affected objects. Sounds like medically informed precautions and procedures to me. But is that what this is all about? Is the mention of God and things like sacrifice nothing more than coating around otherwise practical procedures to enable a superstitious ancient culture to swallow them?

This kind of perspective is a typical, but cynical, lens through which much of the Bible has been viewed by many modern thinkers. The same collection of writings that has blessed the world with its wisdom on health, as well as justice, government, and morality, also reveals truths about God and spiritual things. To dissect the Bible in order to separate its supposed unreasonable, illogical, superstitious, backward spiritual components from its progressive, wise, and effective practical ones fails to recognize how the practical aspects (that many like) arise from its spiritual foundation (that they don’t like). This approach also provides no control over which practical aspects are to be accepted as valid and which are not. It all comes down to personal preferences.

The warning given by God regarding “uncleanness” is very serious. Failure to carefully follow God’s instructions results in death. While history has shown that ignoring sound principles of hygiene and the like has devastated whole communities, that is not what is going on here. Death was the consequence of defiling the Mishkan (English: tabernacle), the precursor to the temple, where the sacrifices were offered. But how does the defiling of the Mishkan result in death?

I am not going to try to come up with a scientific answer, looking for technical physical connections of cause and effect. For the issue here is not found in the realms of physics, chemistry, or biology. It’s relational. God had determined to dwell among the people of Israel. Think about that for a second. The Master of the Universe took up residency on earth and gave regulations to his Chosen People on how to deal with ritual uncleanness. It was essential to follow these rules. To ignore them led to death.

If they followed God’s instructions, nothing to worry about. However, there’s more to ritual uncleanness than what is addressed in this passage. God’s dwelling with the people placed them in a most precarious situation, since no nation, Israel included, could stay ritually clean. Death is not simply the result of acute ritual uncleanness as described in this week’s Torah reading portion. It is the result of the chronic uncleanness we all have been defiled with since the Garden of Eden. These rituals were designed to help us to see that. The greatest problems of the world are not the result of random, meaningless cause and effect. They are due to the ritual uncleanness of the human family who has defiled what was meant to be a holy and pure world where God lives.

This is why the Messiah came. He is the only one who, through his death and resurrection, provides us with the essential and lasting purity we need in order for God to fellowship with us. To neglect his offer of cleansing is to invite death. How does this work exactly? I still don’t know; but it does.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version