They Are Us

For the week of April 1, 2023 / 10 Nisan 5783

Message info over a collection of old photos and a pocket watch

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Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 6:1-8:36 (English 6:8 – 8:36)
Haftarah: Malachi 3:4-24 (English: 3:4 – 4:6)

And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction. (Malachi 3:24 [English 4:6])

As is my custom, I prepare TorahBytes each week by looking at both the weekly Torah and Haftarah (excerpt from the Prophets) portions. In more recent years, I also tend to look back at my previous messages based on these portions. The last time I commented on the portion from the end of Malachi, was the week of April 4, 2020. The first set of significant COVID measures, including lockdowns and social distancing, began in most places a couple of weeks prior. Here are a few excerpts from that message:

We are in sobering times. Most of us alive today have never seen a global pandemic nor have had to endure such drastic measures. Time will tell whether or not the restrictions imposed upon us are justified…We don’t know what the world will be like when this is over…People’s value systems will be transformed…Are we prepared? Are we prepared to face death? Are we prepared to face life?…The pressures of coping with COVID-19 personally and relationally are driving us individually and societally to a tipping point.

At that time, I asserted that the generational division had already been in place long before this crisis undermined our societal foundations, making dealing with COVID far more difficult than it would have been had the family unit been stronger. But something else was also going on unrelated to COVID: an all-out attack on the past.

The present can certainly be helpful in shining light on the past. Yet, it’s one thing to experience regret for our personal or communal wrongs. But it’s quite another to mercilessly attack it. We have become too quick to condemn the actions of the past based on our supposed enlightened perspective. God’s warning through Malachi speaks powerfully to the current moment. He said that unless the hearts of the fathers turn toward the children and vice versa, God would “come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” In other words, the survival of society depends on the healing of the generation gap.

Not only has the generation gap widened in the past few years, the very nature of the gap has changed. What began as a difference of opinion between adults and young people amidst the turbulent 1960s, is now a violent disdain for the actions of generations of the distant past. What had been a critique of cultural values has become a rage over long-ago events to the extent that their very memories are being wiped out of existence.

What is perhaps the most insidious aspect of this so-called social justice movement is the practical denial that the current generation are the descendants of our forebears. When we condemn them, we don’t realize how much we condemn ourselves. Assuming that the current generation possesses sufficient moral superiority, qualifying them to sit in judgment over the past, exposes a complete lack of self-awareness. Today’s social justice warrior types forget that we share the same humanity, in all its glory and brokenness, as those who came before. So, instead of owning the inheritance of past wrongs and working toward a better future, all that is gained is a sense of pride in one’s self-proclaimed moral superiority. To be so out of touch with one’s own nature can only lead to greater trouble. It’s only by recognizing that we are made of the same stuff as our ancestors can we find any resolution to the pain we feel for the social ills that have plagued humanity from the beginning. It’s when we see ourselves in the faces of the past that we can effectively address the ills of the present. But when we distance ourselves from our ancestors, we distance ourselves from ourselves.

This is why we need to heed the prophetic call to turn our hearts to our fathers. This may be our literal fathers or our historical and cultural ones. A thought: I wonder how many people who are enraged over great social ills of the distant past are also enraged at their own dads. These may be related. Be that as it may, the warning through Malachi is as relevant today as it was when it was first delivered. If the generational divide is not healed, we are in big trouble.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated


Divine Aromatherapy

For the week of March 25, 2023 / 3 Nisan 5783

Message info over an image of an essential oil diffuser humidifier

Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26
Haftarah: Isaiah 43:21 – 44:23

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And the priest shall burn all of it on the altar, as a burnt offering, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the LORD. (Vayikra/Leviticus 1:9)

Do you have a favorite smell? I have heard it said that our sense of smell supplies one of the strongest memories human beings possess. Whether we believe in aromatherapy or not, it is difficult to deny how various fragrances can have a profound effect upon us. Some fragrances may spark our appetite, while other may excite us, clear our minds, or help us relax.

As we begin Vayikra, Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, for another year, we regularly read about God’s emotive response to certain offerings. This is termed, according to the translation I’m using here, the English Standard Version, as a pleasing aroma to the Lord. This gives the impression of some sort of pleasure response on God’s part. Before I address what may be going on here specifically, I want to discuss more generally what Scripture means when it refers to God’s having what appears to be very humanlike experiences.

Many theologians assert that such references are a type of metaphor (figure of speech) called personification or anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism is when nonhuman creatures or objects are portrayed in human-like ways. Examples commonly found in books and movies, include talking animals, toys, or cars. Personification is when the actions of a nonhuman creature or object are described in humanlike ways. This is so, when weather “threatens” or pain “shouts.” Most examples like this when pertaining to God would be categorized as personification, such as when he regretted making Saul king (see Shmuel/Samuel 15:11) or one day exulting over his people with singing (see Zephaniah 3:17).

It is important to understand how these and many other examples of God’s having or expressing humanlike attributes or emotions represent what he is experiencing. Through history many have undermined the power and meaning of such metaphors by asserting that God can’t be affected by human behavior. They conclude that these metaphors are used for our sakes alone in order to confront our beliefs and behaviors, while God himself is absolutely unmoved. If God can be affected by his creation, how would he then retain control?

Philosophically, I see the problem. But the Bible doesn’t attempt to fully satisfy our desire for an exhaustive philosophical system. Instead, it provides what we need to know in order to live effective, godly lives. That includes, in God’s wisdom, all sorts of descriptions of himself that are humanlike.

Isn’t that God’s way of coming down to our level, so that we can understand that which is completely beyond our comprehension? To some extent, yes. However, when God reveals himself in these ways, what’s the point if they don’t represent reality? When the second Psalm tells us God laughs at the conspirators (see Psalm 2:4), if he isn’t really laughing, what then is he doing? If God is as unmoved as some say he is, then it seems to me what we are left with is nothing more than a mechanical universe, while created by God, is simply behaving according to design. God isn’t involved, even though he is ultimately responsible for creation’s impersonal reactions.

But is that the reality the Bible reflects? Is not God personally involved in human affairs? Does he not communicate to and through people? Is it not more reasonable to accept that God actually experiences the emotions as told us through Scripture? I suggest that our human experiences are a real though comparably feeble reflection of what God is experiencing. Our emotions, therefore, are a taste of what God is truly feeling.

Once we accept that God is experiencing something very real in response to properly instituted offerings, we are able to look more carefully at the expression “pleasing aroma.” The word translated as “pleasing” (nee-kho-akh) is derived from the word “noo-akh,” meaning “to rest” or “to settle down.” This is why some translations prefer “soothing aroma.” It’s not just that God likes these offerings, it’s that they sooth him, the picture being one of God’s being agitated by sinful behavior but calmed by the act of sacrifice. Of course, we know from other parts of Scripture that it wasn’t the offering itself that made the difference, but the heart of the person making the offering.

And so it was with such a heart that Messiah himself not only gave himself but did so as an example to us all. As we read in the New Covenant Writings, “Conduct yourselves in love, just as the Messiah loved us, and gave himself for us, as a sweet-smelling offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2; New Testament for Everyone). The great universal effect accomplished by the Messiah’s sacrifice is to be reflected in the healing aroma of our lives.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated


Let Him In

For the week of March 18, 2023 / 25 Adar 5783

Message info over a large double wooden door, a hand opening them, and glowing light coming through

Vayakhel & Pekudei
Torah: Ex 35:1 – 40:38; & Ex 12:1-20
Haftarah: Ezekiel 45:16-46
Originally posted the week of March 9, 2019 / 2 Adar II 5779

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Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. (Shemot/Exodus 40:34)

After many chapters containing intricate details of every aspect of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle), it was finally finished. It must have been really something for a nation of former slaves to have completed their first building project that was for themselves. It was for God, of course. But it was also, in a very real sense, their own. Located in the center of their community, Israel now had a tangible expression of their unique peoplehood and faith.

However satisfying the Mishkan was or impressive it was to see, nothing can compare to what happened next. The pillar of cloud and fire, which was a physical manifestation of God himself, filled it. In some real way God himself took up residence in his house. The “everywhere” God localized his presence in the midst of the people of Israel.  

What would the Mishkan be without God inside it? Since it was built under his direction and according to his instructions, it was a legitimate place of true worship. The cohanim (English: priests), who were responsible for the sacrifices and the maintenance of the inner buildings, and Levi’im (English: Levites), who assisted them, were sanctioned by God through Moses. As long as they were faithful to the Mishkan’s Torah regulations, their activities would be pleasing to God and of benefit to the people. The understanding of God reflected by the Mishkan and its proceedings would proclaim the truth of God, his word, and his people.

So, what difference did his localized presence make?  It might surprise you if I don’t say “everything.” It’s not “everything” due to its legitimacy and the benefits I briefly tried to describe. But it is still a really big difference. The presence of God within the Mishkan allowed the people to go beyond good and true concepts of God to encountering him personally.

This personal dynamic is key to genuinely experiencing God. I wonder how much well-intentioned believers are content with a life that is more akin to the Mishkan without God’s presence. Most things in our lives appear to be in order. We believe the right things. We go through all the right motions. We avoid bad stuff (at least most of the time). But, if we are honest, God remains a concept; there’s no personal dynamic. God is around certainly, but he isn’t right here, not to mention inside us.

I know there’s lots of controversy about what the New Covenant Writings refer to as being filled with the Holy Spirit. Much of that controversy is wrapped up in people’s attempt to explain and formulize the personal dynamic of God’s presence in the life of the believer. Forget the controversy for a second. Is our experience of God supposed to be like the Mishkan without God? The New Covenant refers to us as the Temple of the Holy Spirit both corporately (1 Corinthians 3:16) and individually (1 Corinthians 6:19), because we are to be like the Mishkan with God inside.

If God isn’t in you the way he wants to be, let me offer some suggestions as to why. First, you may not truly believe in Yeshua. You may know that already, you may be lying to yourself, or others have deceived you into thinking that you are a true believer when you are not. If that’s the case, that can easily change right now. Turn from your sin and call out to God in Yeshua’s name. Second, the Bible speaks about grieving (Ephesian 4:30) the Holy Spirit. You may have come to believe in Yeshua, but your lifestyle is creating all sorts of barriers to truly experiencing him the way you should. The solution to that is the same as the first. Stop the bad behavior and turn to Yeshua. Let him direct you from there. Finally, you may have been conditioned against the work of God in your life. The Bible also speaks about quenching the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19). You have been taught to be suspicious of emotions, impressions, inklings, voices, and visions – these and other ways that God makes himself known to us personally. This one is more difficult that the other two, since it so insidious. Some people have been taught that many of the things that God is doing in your life is of the devil. Can’t do much about that until you have a major paradigm shift (completely new way of looking at life). Good news though – nothing is impossible for God. He can show you what’s right. But for that to happen, you’re going to have to let him in.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


The Pain of Waiting

Message info over a photo of a woman impatiently sitting alone in a waiting room

Ki Tissa
For the week of March 11, 2023 / 18 Adar 5783
Torah: Shemot / Exodus 30:11 – 34:35
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16-38
Originally posted the week of February 15, 2014 / 15 Adar 5774 (revised)

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When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” (Shemot/Exodus 32:1)

Years ago, I was talking to someone and said to them that I suffered from a lack of faith. That’s quite a confession for someone who calls himself a “believer,” seeing that biblically, belief and faith are the same thing, as is trust. Whatever the correct terminology, I was seeking to sum up my life struggles by acknowledging unbelief. My friend said “No, your trouble is lack of patience.” I think they were right. It’s not that I have never struggled with faith; it’s that my impatience has caused me unnecessary trouble time and time again.

I hate waiting! I can’t remember a time when I felt differently. Whether I am suffering, dreading a potential problem, or even anticipating something fun and exciting, I find the waiting process awful. I remember the first time I met someone who found more pleasure in the anticipation of an event than in the event itself, it was like meeting a visitor from another planet. How can anyone enjoy anticipation, when it makes me sick! It took me a while before I realized that I had a problem, a big problem.

The people of Israel camping out at Mt. Sinai vividly demonstrate for us how serious a lack of patience can be. Moses was away for over a month meeting with God. Even though Moses, a person who had proved to be so trustworthy, said he was coming back, they couldn’t handle what they took to be a delay in his return. I don’t blame them for how they felt. Of course I don’t, I can so relate! Being in a hostile environment, journeying into the unknown, having no clue when their leader would return, they were likely overwhelmed by their uncertainty and the waiting.

Patience is the ability to endure the pain of waiting, an ability they certainly lacked. But that’s not where they went wrong. Their sin was not in the pain of waiting, but in their turning to other gods. Their real problem was their lack of faith, which was exposed by their impatience.

The distinction between patience and faith is an important one. I wonder how many people are like me, especially in thinking that we are struggling with faith, not patience. Properly understanding this distinction can help us overcome this problem.

Those of us who suffer from the pain of waiting need to come to grips with the fact that so much of life is a process. Seeds are planted a long time before the plants produce fruit. Babies and other living creatures need a period of gestation before being born, hatched, etc. Maturity takes time. Projects require design and development. None of these common processes are due to sin. God invented process. Getting used to the reality of process over time is a first step in learning to be patient, to not get offended when we experience delay, short- or long-term.

Where my friend may not have been quite correct by saying that my problem was lack of patience, not lack of faith, is that they didn’t acknowledge how faith and patience are connected. While it has been helpful for me to realize that I have difficulty waiting, at the root of this is a lingering doubt over God’s general inclination toward me. For if we realize that God is in control of our lives, that he truly loves us, and his intentions toward us are always good, then when we experience delay, when we need to wait, when we cannot immediately see how our problems will be resolved, we can take comfort in God. Impatience, therefore, serves the purpose at times to reveal foundational flaws in our basic relationship to God.

Some people are afraid to pray for patience, thinking that God will bring them into the kind of difficult situations that require it. Whether or not we need to pray such a prayer, God will bring us into those situations anyway. We, like the people of Israel, will find ourselves where waiting a moment longer seems to be the most impossible thing ever. Whether our problem is lack of faith or patience, the solution is always the same. Don’t give up on God, because he has promised to be with us through the often-painful process of waiting.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version