Environmental Disaster

For the week of July 30, 2022 / 2 Av 5782

Message info over a black and white image of a devastated forest

Matot & Masei
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 30:2 – 36:13 (English: 30:1 – 36:13)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 2:4-28, 3:4
Updated version of message posted the week of July 6, 2013 / 28 Tammuz 5773

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You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it. You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the LORD dwell in the midst of the people of Israel. (B’midbar/Numbers 35:33-34)

Pollution. It’s a bad thing. Poisoning the air, water, and soil destroys our beautiful planet. Irresponsible disposal of waste ruins the environment. When God mandated our first parents in the Garden of Eden to be stewards of the creation, he put the care of the planet squarely on our shoulders.

Proper management of the environment is not about the absolute avoidance of waste. God made the world in such a way so as to tolerate certain levels of waste products. Pollution occurs when we overload the earth’s natural filtration systems. In fact, most often when waste overload does occur, cleanup is still possible. It takes a more extreme level of waste mismanagement to reach the point of no return. But, of course, this should in no way encourage laziness on our part, especially since environmental disaster can be avoided.

With all the current interest in the environment, it is regrettable that most governments, NGOs, and people in general neglect what is perhaps the greatest pollutant of all: blood. The unjust shedding of blood pollutes the environment in ways beyond our comprehension. That’s what the Torah says. But this is metaphorical, right? Yes and no. It is metaphorical in the sense that the Torah is not addressing how the presence of blood in land or soil may be a contaminate. At the same time, it is not metaphorical in that murder has a practical, physical effect on the land. Just because the relationship between injustice and the environment cannot be measured scientifically, that doesn’t make it any less real.

The Torah teaches that the remedy for first-degree murder is the execution of the perpetrator. This principle is rooted in God’s words to Noah after he and his family emerged from the Ark (see Bereshit/Genesis 9:5-6). The Torah is careful to prevent revenge and establish fair trials. But it’s only the reciprocal shedding of blood of the murderer that can cleanse the pollution cause by his or her crime. That capital punishment has become so distasteful in much of the world today reveals a great misunderstanding about the sacredness of life.

The prevalence of the unjust shedding of blood in the world today is staggering, especially when we take into account the slaughter of the preborn through abortion and the growing popularity of euthanasia and assisted suicide. There is no way our environment can tolerate the disaster caused by so much killing. It’s no wonder that our social and economic systems are breaking down. Every indication is that we are heading for what might be the worst social and economic disaster in centuries.

We are fooling ourselves to think that the current situation requires an economic or political solution. Our passage tells us that it’s the shedding of blood that has brought this on. As I mentioned, only additional shedding of blood can bring the cleansing and restoration we need. I assume most of us find this bizarre. But perhaps once we realize how much blood we have on our hands and the nature of the disaster we have brought upon ourselves as a result, then maybe we will be open to God’s solution: his taking on human form as the Messiah in order to shed his own blood on our behalf.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


It’s Our Turn

For the week of July 23, 2022 / 24 Tammuz 5782

Message info with a starting gun and the beginnings of a foot race in the background

Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 25:10-30:1 (English: 25:10 – 29:40)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3
Updated version of message from the week of June 29, 2013 / 21 Tammuz 5773

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These were those listed by Moses and Eleazar the priest, who listed the people of Israel in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho. But among these there was not one of those listed by Moses and Aaron the priest, who had listed the people of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai. For the LORD had said of them, “They shall die in the wilderness.” Not one of them was left, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun. (B’midbar/Numbers 26:63-65)

This week’s Torah portion includes the second census of the people of Israel taken almost forty years after the previous one. The adults listed in this latter census included no one from the first, except Caleb and Joshua. All the other adults, except for Moses who was nearing the end of his life, died out as the consequence of their failure to trust God regarding taking the Promised Land.

The earlier generation blew it. After seeing all that God had done in powerfully delivering them from slavery in Egypt, caring for and protecting them afterward, and giving them the Torah at Mount Sinai, they couldn’t handle the challenge of facing the powerful nations who inhabited the Land of Canaan despite God’s promise to give them overwhelming victory. They couldn’t connect God’s work on their behalf in the past with what God called them to face in the future. Their lack of faith disqualified them from receiving the land promised to their forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Now a new generation would face the same challenge. The failure of their parents didn’t cancel out God’s promise of the Land, only postponed it. Not much had changed in forty years, just the personnel. The nature of the task was the same. There is no indication that the inhabitants of Canaan were any less antagonistic or less able to withstand the Israelite invasion. I don’t think we are told anywhere how or why they possessed an outlook their forebears did not. The new generation may have been more experienced than their elders, but experience alone doesn’t produce faith. They were also more removed from the effects of oppressive servitude. Yet freedom can make people more self-focused, not more submissive to God. But submissive faithful hearts they had, and while they too would have significant issues with respect to trusting God, they fundamentally stayed true to him and successfully settled the Land.

It would be difficult to underestimate the effects our ancestors have upon our lives. From genetics to behavioral patterns, from loyalty to afflictions, our family of origin is probably the single greatest factor determining who we are. I am very aware of how my childhood affected me. It would be so easy for me to blame my life struggles on my parents. But God doesn’t allow me the luxury of blame shifting. My parents had their challenges. Now it is my turn. This week’s passage shows me that I don’t have to let the outcome of my life resemble that of my parents or any of my ancestors.

At the same time, I know this is easier said than done. I don’t believe the Hollywood adage “you can do anything you set your mind to.” Life doesn’t work that way. I prefer the biblical principle: we can do anything God wants us to do. With God’s help we can overcome any difficulty. Our background need not define who we are or what we do. Each and every generation has the opportunity to hear what the Master of the Universe is saying to us and do his will. Whatever may have happened in the past, it’s now our turn.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Blessed Irony

For the week of July 16, 2022 / 17 Tammuz 5782

Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 22:2 – 25:9
Haftarah: Micah 5:6 – 6:8 (English 5:7 – 6:8)
Revised version of message posted the week of July 8, 2017 / 14 Tammuz 5777

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How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced? (B’midbar/Numbers 23:8)

After Israel’s defeat of the Amorites, the neighboring Moabites were terrified they would be next. So, their king, Balak, hired a diviner named Bil’am (English: Balaam). Balak wanted Bil’am to place a curse on the Israelites, but God wouldn’t let him. Every time he tried, words of blessing proceeded from his mouth instead. His relationship to Truth is ambiguous. On one hand, it appears he was committed to only speaking God’s words. Yet, the blessings he offered were in spite of himself; all the while being aware of God’s upper hand in this affair. His general morality, or lack thereof, wasn’t ambiguous as he would later instigate the snare that drew Israel to worship other gods, which resulted in a plague that killed 24,000 people (see B’midbar/Numbers 25:1-9; 31:16). While Israel was not immune to transgression, they would remain a nation under the blessing of God regardless.

Centuries later there was another failed attempt to curse Israel. This time the attempted curse would proceed from the mouths of Israelites themselves. The result in some ways was devastating, not because God was coerced by supposed intent, but by how later generations would misrepresent the words spoken.

The scene, a courtyard in Jerusalem. Roman governor Pontius Pilate finds himself handling a situation he’d rather avoid. From his perspective, some of the Jewish leadership in the city are making a big deal out of nothing, and he wishes they would deal with the rabbi from Galilee themselves. Even when the people curiously accuse Yeshua with sedition against Rome, Pilate balks at their concerns. Eventually, as he declares his innocence, literally washing his hands of the matter, the crowd calls out, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25).

Little did Mattityahu, the original Hebrew name from which the English, Matthew, is ultimately derived, know how these words would come to haunt his people. His retelling of Yeshua’s story, more than the other three versions, is purposely placed within its Jewish context. While offering much similar material to Mark and Luke, Mattityahu was very careful to demonstrate Yeshua as the fulfillment of Jewish messianic expectation, rooted in the Hebrew scripture, and relevant to Jewish concerns of the Second Temple period. An exhaustive record of Yeshua’s life and ministry would be virtually impossible. Therefore, each of the four Gospel writers had to be extremely selective with what they put in writing. The Jewish nature of Mattityahu’s selections is vividly apparent. It is only in his Gospel that we read of foreign wise men, probably astrologers most likely from Persia, traveling all the way to Israel looking for the King of the Jews. Only in Mattityahu’s book, do we read of Yeshua, expounding Torah, cutting through the rabbinic interpretations of his day to instill its heart into the Jewish crowds following him. Only in Mattityahu do we read the clear statement from the mouth of Shimon Keifa (English: Simon Peter): “You are the Messiah!”

However, in subsequent years, as the membership of the New Covenant Community grew to not only include non-Jews, but to become majority non-Jewish, Mattityahu’s Jewish emphasis was taken as a diatribe against his own people. This was never his intention. His writings were in keeping with the passionate love the Hebrew prophets had for their people centuries before. Not only did the Gentile-dominated church misconstrue the tone and sentiment of Mattityahu’s words, they at times missed his point altogether. Yeshua’s expounding of Torah, for example, found in what is commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount, has been hijacked to support the misguided and ungodly notion that Yeshua undermined the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly Torah. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The destructive nature of how the Church has abused the words of the Jewish crowd before Pilate is another example. For centuries many Christians have insisted “His blood be on us and on our children!” was a self-imposed curse, not only upon that particular crowd and their children, but on the entire Jewish nation forever – that somehow this statement sets the Jewish people apart for suffering and oppression – even at the hands of Christians – for all time.

That Mattityahu would intentionally set his kinsman up for an eventual negative backlash is absurd. Also, how can that crowd have the authority to place such a curse on themselves let alone upon the whole nation? This popular misinterpretation that resulted in centuries-long Christian arrogance towards Jews is not based on these words or the situation in which they are found. Rather, such a conclusion is all about the unresolved pagan hatred and suspicion of the Jewish people that didn’t get sufficiently eradicated upon turning to the Jewish God.

It’s possible that this particular crowd instigated by the corrupt Jewish priesthood of that day was seeking to placate the fickle Roman governor, but Pilate was still in charge. His handling of the situation was far more due to his great disdain for the Jews, than to any sense of justice whatsoever.

Whatever the crowd understood of the situation or their motive in saying what they said, they had no more power to curse their nation than Bil’am had. No one can curse what God has blessed. They themselves may have failed to personally derive the benefits of God’s enduring faithfulness to Israel as promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but they can’t undermine the eternal plans and purposes of God intended by him for blessing.

There’s more. By the time Mattityahu reported these words, he was well aware what they implied. To claim Yeshua’s blood upon oneself is no curse. Far from it! Like centuries earlier when the Jewish people placed blood over their doors as protection from death that first Passover night, so too having the blood of Yeshua upon us and our children is the greatest blessing of all. By quoting the crowd, Mattityahu was spotlighting the blessed irony of the situation.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Don’t Lose It!

For the week of July 9, 2022 / 10 Tammuz 5782

Message info along with an image of a frustrated young boy

Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 19:1 – 22:1
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 11:1-33
Originally posted the week of June 27, 2015 / 10 Tammuz 5775

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Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” (B’midbar/Numbers 20:10-12)

Moses is one of the greatest people to have ever lived. It’s hard to believe that after trying so hard to avoid God’s call on his life, he successfully led his people out of Egypt and right up to the border of the Promised Land. Once he was on board, he remained faithful until the end of his life. He boldly confronted Pharaoh with God’s demand for the release of his people from slavery even though he knew that Pharaoh could have imprisoned, tortured, or killed him. He also faced great criticism from his own people both before and after the Exodus and he settled their disputes. On top of that, he bore the burden of waiting upon God for direction step by step and was responsible for receiving and transmitting the Torah.

One of the remarkable things about the Bible is how it doesn’t gloss over the failings and foibles of its key characters, and Moses is no exception. Long before God spoke to him at the burning bush, he tried to stand up for his people with disastrous results, having murdered an Egyptian and then running away for fear of his life. There are also two other negative incidents that took place during the time of his leadership. Both appear to be rooted in uncontrolled anger. The first is when he came down Mt. Sinai and saw the people engaging in great immorality. He reacted by smashing the two tablets upon which were written the Ten Commandments (see Shemot/Exodus 32:15-20).

The other incident is recounted in this week’s parsha. It’s a confusing story about the people complaining about not having water. God instructs Moses to take his staff, but unlike the previous time a similar thing occurred (see Shemot/Exodus 17:1-7), he was not to strike the rock, but speak to it. Why God specifically told him to take the staff, but not use it, we don’t know. It’s also difficult to discern what Moses did that was so wrong. It is described as “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel” (B’midbar/Numbers 20:12), but God doesn’t actually say that the error was the striking of the rock. It could have been the way he talked to the people by distancing himself from them, overly associated himself and Aaron with God. This might explain the reference to not upholding God as holy. Whatever he did precisely, he lost it. After decades of patiently putting up with the people, he lost it. Moses lost control and let his anger get the better of him.

Note how I said that: his anger got the better of him. The emotion of anger is so misunderstood. It’s not that Moses was angry that was the problem, but he lost control of it. Moses had been in this kind of situation so many times before. Every time the people complained about something, he went to God, God told him what to do about it, and he did it. That we are not told about how he felt doesn’t mean he had no feelings. In those forty years in the wilderness there was much to have feelings about, and not good feelings, I am sure. That Moses might have felt angry at times is to be expected. But for the vast majority of those forty years, he controlled his anger. Not this time. His loss of control cost him. It cost him the privilege of entering the Promised Land.

It’s too easy to dismiss the seriousness of this. When we look at all Moses accomplished, not entering the Land might seem like a small thing. He was probably going to die soon anyway. New Testament readers might point out that he made it in eventually when he appeared to Yeshua along with Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration (see Matthew 17:1-8). But all this misses the point.

Put yourself in Moses’s sandals. To go through all that he did, but not be allowed to reach the God-ordained goal is devastating. Read it again: devastating! If you don’t believe me that this is how Moses saw it, check out what he told the people later on – how he pleaded with God to permit him to even briefly enter the Land (see D’varim/Deuteronomy 23:26). Most of us would feel the same way. That is why it’s so important not to lose it. In the grand scheme of things, our loss of control may not completely destroy God’s plan for our lives, but it can do considerable damage to ourselves and others.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version