Profound Peace

For the week of May 28, 2022 / 27 Iyar 5782

Message title information over woman sleeping on a cloud in the sky

Bechukotai
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34
Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19 – 17:14

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I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid. (Vayikra/Leviticus 26:6)

What a wonderful thought! Especially that this is a promise to an entire nation. That there might be a condition by which God would provide such a sense of security, so that people could rest at night unconcerned about danger of any sort. This is even more remarkable when we consider that the people who first heard this lived fundamentally vulnerable lives. They had nowhere near the number of effective structures and resources that many enjoy in our day.

The Hebrew word translated afraid here is “charad,” and means “to tremble.” It’s a loss of control, a fear that intimidates, causing us to run away, be it literally, so that we vacate our location, or metaphorically, where we are unable to engage the situation in which we find ourselves.

What God promises to provide Israel is peace, “shalom.” Shalom is more than calm. It may result in calm, individually or societally, but it’s a way to describe when everything is in its rightful place, working as it should and in right relationship with everything else. In this context, it’s a basic state of social health, whereby the individuals of the society are functioning well and in right relationship with others. We can see why this leads to a lack of fear.

In the context of the Sinai covenant, societal health and the resulting calm is derived from a lifestyle of godliness. The section in which this promise is found begins with: “If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them” (Vayikra/Leviticus 26:3). Some Christian interpreters regard this negatively as being part of an impossible system whereby the promised blessing could never be achieved. They think of this as God’s imposing an impossible standard in which Israel was doomed to fail. Israel did fail, but God wasn’t seeking to simply shame his chosen nation; rather he was instructing them and the world through them that real security can only be found in right relationship to him and his ways.

The misguided notion that Torah (often misunderstood as “law” in a cold legal sense, rather than “teaching” or “direction”) functions only to establish guilt, fails to notice how its blessings were enjoyed by those who genuinely followed it. We see this in both individuals, such as Moses, Joshua, David, and Elijah to name a few, and in the nation of Israel as a whole. Granted, these periods, such as the height of Solomon’s reign, are brief, but they were real. As far as Scripture is concerned, their experiences serve as important positive examples of the Torah promise above.

While these examples demonstrate the positive intent of Torah, they do, at the same time, highlight the failure of most people to experience such a sense of security. Fear is rampant. Whether it has increased in the COVID era is hard to say. I suspect that the constant reports of disease and death along with restrictions and precautions exposed the preexisting insecurities most people live with.

The Torah promise of security should challenge us to confront our fears. Living, always wondering when disaster will attack, be it a debilitating disease or social unrest, is not what we were designed for. God’s heart for his beloved creatures is to live without fear.

No one illustrates this better than the Messiah. Despite living in a most hostile environment, including his closest companions regularly misunderstanding him, he was never flustered. It’s not that he didn’t have emotions. He even got upset from time to time. But he never was looking over his shoulder, worried about what might happen to him.

One of the greatest examples was when he was crossing Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) during a storm. His disciples were freaking out while he was sleeping. I can’t relate. I have enough trouble sleeping in my comfortable bed in my quiet house.

It’s unhelpful when we view the Messiah’s sense of confidence through a lens of “He’s the Messiah; what do you expect?” We forget that he was fully human, living a truly godly life. He reflected a genuine Torah-oriented lifestyle as was offered to Israel.

And because he did so even to the point of death, followed by conquering death through his resurrection, he has opened a way for us to share in his life. We do that by admitting our failure to live by God’s standards and by relying on Yeshua, through who we not only derive the benefits of his obedience but are drawn into the type of lifestyle that results in profound peace.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Jubilee

Behar
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2
Haftarah: Jeremiah 32:6-27
Originally posted the week of May 20, 2000 / 15 Iyar 5760;
Revised version as appearing in the book “
Torah Light

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And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan. (Vayikra/Leviticus 25:10)

I love the way the Torah confronts conventional thinking. Far from being irrelevant or outdated, the Bible addresses many of the same issues we face in our own day. Yet how it deals with these issues is so very different from the dictates of popular thinking.

This week’s Torah portion is a great example of this. God commanded that every fifty years was to be a jubilee year. At that time, everyone among the people of Israel was to return to his ancestral property. If anyone had sold their land to someone else or lost it due to debt, they would get it back. God says, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Vayikra/Leviticus 25:23).

What a different way of looking at property! First, in ancient Israeli society, no one actually owned land; it belonged to God, who allotted portions of the Land to the various tribal groups and specific clans. Because it was his to give, the tribal inheritances could not be lost permanently. As the people went about their daily business, they could lose their land temporarily. After every fifty years, however, the land would revert to the original owners.

In God’s economy, the highs and lows of economic fortune are balanced by the jubilee. Every fifty years the nation would basically start over. This would have prevented the poor from becoming completely destitute and staying that way from generation to generation.

This reminded the people that what they had was entrusted to them by God, something that every society would do well to realize. We wrongly think that all we have has come to us by our own efforts rather than by God’s blessing.

Another thing the jubilee teaches us is that when we truly know God, we don’t have to think that our future is dictated by the present. We too can start over. God is a God of restoration. He longs to see his beloved creatures restored to the place he intended for us. Just like he provided a physical inheritance for the clans of Israel, so he has an inheritance for all people. He wants to restore each person to the quality of life he intended before our first parents’ rebellion in the garden of Eden. When Yeshua went public, he read a passage from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue—words reminiscent of the jubilee:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
   to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
   and recovering of sight to the blind,
   to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18–19, quoted from Isaiah 62:1–2)

Through Yeshua, every one of us can experience a jubilee. No matter how destitute we have become, we can be restored to the kind of life God originally intended for us.

In the jubilee, for anyone to be restored to their land, they had to get up and go there. No one was forced to return to his God-given inheritance. Each person had to take it upon himself to reacquire what was rightfully his.

It is the same for us today, but how do we do that? Pray and ask God for your rightful inheritance. Then trust him to answer that prayer. It might mean a major change in your life, but you will finally find yourself where you were truly meant to be all along.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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You Can Count on It!

For the week of May 14, 2022 / 13 Iyar 5782

Message title information along with a barley sheaf

Emor
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-31

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You shall count seven full weeks from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering. You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath. Then you shall present a grain offering of new grain to the LORD. (Vayikra/Leviticus 23:15-16)

This week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion) includes the most complete description of the feasts of Israel in the Bible: Shabbat (the weekly sabbath); Pesach (Passover); Shavuot (Pentecost or Weeks); Yom Truah (the day of blowing [of the shofar], which traditionally marks the new year); Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement); and Sukkot (Booths or Tabernacles). Note that biblically speaking, Pesach actually refers only to the first evening, while the seven days following is the Feast of Matzah (Unleavened Bread). Eventually the term Pesach came to refer to the week-long feast.

Also included is a ritual that starts at Pesach time and continues until Shavuot. There is some controversy over which day this ritual was to begin. The Torah says, “on the day after the Sabbath,” but the first day of Pesach is to be observed as a sabbath, whatever day of the week it lands. So, it isn’t clear whether the ritual was to begin the second day of Pesach (the majority view) or the day after the first weekly Shabbat after the first day of Pesach. Sorry if that’s confusing. Regardless, what is clear is that at Pesach time an offering of the first fruits of the harvest was to be waved before the Lord and then the people were to start counting days. They were to count fifty days from the waving of the sheaf. The fiftieth day was the next festival, Shavuot (which is why it is also called Pentecost, derived from the number fifty). The Hebrew word for sheaf is “omer.” The counting of the fifty days between Pesach and Shavuot is called “Sefirat HaOmer”, the Counting of the Omer. From what’s written in Torah, it is difficult to determine whether God intended a literal counting of the days, but that is the custom. Each day a blessing is recited, and the day is counted.

That the days are counted might be behind how the New Covenant book of Acts refers to Shavuot in chapter two and verse one. To denote the arrival of the day, the Greek word, “symplay-ro-oh” is used, which has the sense of fulfilment or filling up. That is why some older translations, read, “When the day of Pentecost had fully come” instead of simply writing “arrived” as became more common in later translations. All Torah feasts have an element of anticipation, but the Counting of the Omer, takes it to another level.

But there is more than anticipation going on here. There is a unique, purposeful connection between the two feasts of Pesach and Shavuot. You might remember that when God directed Moses to tell Pharoah to let the people of Israel go, he said that it was so that the people would serve God at Mt. Sinai (see Shemot/Exodus 3:12). It was about fifty days between Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and their receiving the Torah from God on that very mountain. Pesach commemorates the deliverance; Shavuot the receiving of the Torah. One leads to the others. Neither are standalone events.

God rescued the people from slavery in order that they would become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Shemot/Exodus 10:6). While the experience of liberation is something to celebrate, it is essential to remember that it was a liberation unto a mission. The people weren’t set free so that they could finally do whatever they wanted. They were set free from serving the oppressive, self-seeking tyrant in order to serve the life-giving, loving Creator.

Those who have experienced the greater liberation from bondage to sin and death under the oppressive rule of the evil one also need to remember a similar connection. We too haven’t been set free just so that we can do whatever we want. As we read in the New Covenant Writings, like ancient Israel, all followers of Israel’s Messiah have been called to be “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

Sometimes, we can feel as if our lives are without purpose or direction. This can be the case even for those who have experienced the liberating power of God through the Messiah. Let’s remember, however, that becoming God’s children through faith in Yeshua is only the beginning. How our purpose is to be lived out may not always be clear, but God’s got a plan for us. You can count on it.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version 

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No Leftovers, Revisited

For the week of May 7, 2022 / 6 Iyar 5782

Message title information with a crossed-out image of leftovers in containers

Kedoshim
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27
Haftarah: Amos 9:7-15

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When you offer a sacrifice of peace offerings to the LORD, you shall offer it so that you may be accepted. It shall be eaten the same day you offer it or on the day after, and anything left over until the third day shall be burned up with fire. If it is eaten at all on the third day, it is tainted; it will not be accepted, and everyone who eats it shall bear his iniquity, because he has profaned what is holy to the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from his people. (Vayikra/Leviticus 19:5-8)

In the past I have commented on God’s directives of not allowing certain offerings to be eaten beyond a certain time. That message dealt with the thanksgiving offering, a variant of the peace offering, which was to be fully consumed on the same day it was offered. At that time, I suggested that not allowing it to stay around for longer ensured that it was being used exclusively for its intended purpose.

This week, we see a different type of the peace offering that could be eaten through the next day. Anything left over afterward had to be burned up. We are told in the Hebrew that by the third day the meat becomes “pigool.” The sense is similar to the normal expression of unacceptability, “ta-may.” Ta-may is most often translated “unclean,” denoting ritualistic defilement, while pigool appears to have the sense of “stinks.” These leftovers may not actually stink, though in the context of ancient Israel, they might. The point, however, is that as far as this offering is concerned, the meat has gone bad, and is no longer suitable.

In contrast to the other offering, there was no obligation to finish off the meat the same day. Leftovers were allowed, but only for one day and no more. There is therefore an urgency and intensity lacking. Thus, one engaged these offerings in a more laid-back fashion. And yet, there is still something key that was not to be neglected: that which was set apart for God was for God alone. It appears that allowing for an extra day of consumption didn’t distract from this, while any additional time likely would have.

Some people might be surprised that sacrifices were eaten by the one offering it. Some were not consumed by humans at all. Others included a portion for the cohanim (English: priests). But the peace offerings were divided between God, the cohanim, and the one offering the sacrifice. This reminds us that sacrifices are not always and only about giving up something completely. It has more to do with giving the thing over to God. That might include continued relationship to it. However, when such an ongoing relationship exists, it is essential to remember that the thing from that time forward always remains God’s property to do with what he wants.

This should help us to better understand the call under the New Covenant to give our bodies as a living sacrifice to God (see Romans 12:1). To do so isn’t accomplished by somehow completely disconnecting ourselves, giving our will away to a cause or an organization. Neither is it to absolve ourselves forever from personal responsibility. Far from it! It is that we come to a place where we truly fulfill our role as stewards of God’s creation (see Bereshit/Genesis 1:26-28). This doesn’t cut us off from deriving benefit from life. In fact, as we fully live out our callings, we discover blessings we never dreamt of when we were living for ourselves. But as we enjoy the great benefits of serving God, we must not be distracted by enjoying them for their own sakes. Rather, we need to always remember that they, as we ourselves, have been fully given over to our Lord and King.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version 

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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

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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

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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

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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

Metzora
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

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Giving Birth Is not a Disease

For the week of April 2, 2022 / 1 Nisan 5782

Message title information over a happy couple holding their newborn child

Tazria & Rosh Hodesh
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 12:1 – 13:59; B’midbar/Numbers 28:9-15; Shemot/Exodus 12:1-20
Haftarah: Ezekiel 45:16-46; Isaiah 66:1 & 24
Originally posted the week of April 2, 2011 / 27 Adar 2 5771

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And when the days of her purifying are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, and he shall offer it before the LORD and make atonement for her. Then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, either male or female. (Vayikra/Leviticus 12:6-7)

The Torah does far more than provide lists of rules and regulations. Through the study of Torah, we are drawn into seeing life from God’s perspective. A fancy, popular term for this is “worldview.” Most of us are not aware that we live our lives based on a worldview, but how we see the world controls the way we live. A worldview is something far more caught than taught in that, for the most part, how we see the world is unconsciously derived from our families of origin and the unstated values of the cultures in which we live.

The Torah is an expression of God’s worldview. The explicit statements we encounter in the Torah arise from how God sees life. God’s view of reality, which I accept to be the only true reality, is not always explained, but rather assumed. The reason for something is not usually given. After all God has no need to explain himself; he is the Creator and Master of the Universe. When he provides a directive, it is based on his correct understanding of life. But as we look closely at what he tells us, we can pick up on his perspective. As we do so, our understanding of life becomes enriched, which in turn puts his directives in their context, enabling us to fulfill them as God intended.

Before we look at a particular example, I want to point out that the context in which to best understand God’s directives is that we live in the messianic age. Unlike the original recipients of the Torah who anticipated Messiah’s coming, we live out God’s directives in these days of messianic fulfillment. Yeshua’s coming and the destruction of the Temple revolutionized how God’s people conduct their lives. Yet the radical differences between the Old and New Covenants should not distract us from God’s perspective on life which we encounter all through his sacred writings.

Now to our example of how the Torah provides us with God’s worldview. This week’s Torah portion begins with a section regarding the purification regulations of childbirth. This is then followed by a lengthy section on infectious skin conditions. There are similarities and dissimilarities between these two sections. What these two conditions have in common is that special attention was to be given to their conditions and certain rituals were to be observed when the conditions were resolved. The state of being unclean in each case placed the person in a special relationship to the things of God and in the community. This was designed to protect the community and the individual during their time of ritual uncleanness. However, the port-partum mother did not pose a risk to the community in the way those who contracted an infectious skin disease did. If it was determined that a person truly had an infectious skin condition, they were to be placed in isolation. There was no such requirement for the specified time period following childbirth. While both the post-partum mother and the person with the skin condition were to be regarded as “unclean”, whatever else unclean meant, childbirth is not a disease.

That childbirth is not a disease is, of course, rooted in God’s overall perspective on children, which is that they are a blessing and a reward (See Bereshit/Genesis 1:28, D’varim/Deuteronomy 7:4, Tehillim/Psalms 127:3, Matthew 19:14). Yet even though many cultures correctly understand the differences between these two conditions, and no one would outright say that giving birth is a disease, the amount of time and effort put in by so many people trying to prevent themselves from having children may expose a worldview very different from that of the God of the Torah.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Centrality of Israel

For the week of March 26, 2022 / 23 Adar II 5782

Message information over an old wooden door and an old key with a Star of David at its head

Shemini
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47 & D’varim/Deuteronomy 25:17-19
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16-38
Originally posted the week of March 30, 2019 / 23 Adar II 5779

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And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. (Ezekiel 36:23)

The story of the Bible is the story of God’s rescue operation of the creation. According to the earliest chapters of the Bible, from the moment God cursed the world in response to our first parents’ rebellion, he determined to put a complete end to evil (see Bereshit/Genesis 3:15). Much of the rest of Scripture is the unfolding of that promise. The intricate interplay of the whole Bible is summed up by Paul when he calls God’s promise of blessing to Abraham, the “gospel,” meaning “good news” (Galatians 3:8; cf. Bereshit/Genesis 12:3). The good news is that the curse would be undone through Abraham’s descendants.

Yeshua followers are quick to point out that the realization of the promise to Abraham is wrapped up in the Messiah. That is certainly true. Yeshua’s death and resurrection provide forgiveness and eternal life to all who repent and put their trust in him. However, Yeshua’s part of the story of God, essential as it is, is not the whole story. In fact, we cannot fully appreciate Yeshua and what he has done unless we see him in the context of the whole Bible.

To understand Yeshua in the context of the Bible is to come to grips with the centrality of Israel in the plan of God. To start with, Yeshua isn’t portrayed in Scripture simply as the savior from heaven. He is that, but he is first and foremost the promised Messiah of Israel. He couldn’t be the savior of all if he wasn’t the Jewish Messiah. That’s just the beginning. There’s far more to Israel’s role in God’s rescue plan than Yeshua’s Jewish messianic pedigree.

Tragically, Israel’s role has been obscured by deep-seated prejudice towards the Jewish people through the centuries. Ignoring Paul’s warning to the non-Jewish believers in Rome to not be arrogant towards the Jewish people (see Romans 11:17-24), the church did just that. Paul must have sensed that there was a growing “new kid on the block” mentality emerging from the increasing number of Gentile believers in his day. He knew that the outworking of God’s promise to bless the nations that they were experiencing could easily be misinterpreted as a shift of God’s heart – that Israel was “out” and the Church, its non-Jewish component in particular, was “in.” His olive-tree metaphor in Romans chapter eleven is a masterful three-dimensional picture of the complexity of the multi-ethnic makeup of the New Covenant community of faith. The inclusion of non-Jews into God’s family was not to be regarded as a replacement of his earlier commitment to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And yet, that’s exactly what happened.

This anti-Jewish lens filters out the fulness of Scripture. Take this week’s Haftarah portion, for example. When you read Ezekiel’s words, do you hear God’s faithfulness to Israel or his disgust? Israel failed to live up to the standard of being God’s holy people as established at Mt. Sinai through Moses (see Shemot/Exodus 19:5-6). But many have failed to understand that Israel was made an example to demonstrate to the world everyone’s need of God. That should evoke awe and gratefulness, not disdain.

Why then does God himself seem to be so negative on Israel? Isn’t that what’s going on in this week’s Haftarah? He says through the prophet Ezekiel: “It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord GOD; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel” (Ezekiel 36:32). Words like these may appear to reflect God’s supposed rejection of his ancient covenant people. But keep on reading:

Thus says the Lord GOD: On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt. And the land that was desolate shall be tilled, instead of being the desolation that it was in the sight of all who passed by. And they will say, “This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden, and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited.” Then the nations that are left all around you shall know that I am the LORD; I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which was desolate. I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it. (Ezekiel 36:33-36)

God’s response to Israel’s failure is not rejection but restoration – a restoration that’s not only spiritual but physical as it includes a glorious transformation in their ancient homeland. Any version of God’s rescue operation that fails to include God’s ongoing plans and purposes for the Jewish people misrepresents his mission, his word, and himself.

What God began through the faithful remnant of Jewish followers of Yeshua sent out two thousand years ago will culminate in the renewal of the entire creation. When Israel is finally and fully restored, both the people and the land, the curse over the earth will be completely broken and God’s rule and reign will be established forever. God is not finished with Israel; the best is yet to come.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

 

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