God’s Faithfulness

For the week of September 24, 2022 / 28 Elul 5782

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

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And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 30:1-3)

This section of the Torah is extraordinary. First, given all that God had done for the people of Israel up to this point, one would not think of anticipating failure resulting in exile. But more surprising is the promise of return. That God would make room for Israel’s restoration after suffering the consequences of their unfaithfulness is core to God’s revelation of himself and his character.

God used the people of Israel as the stage for making himself known to the world. It is through the giving of Torah that we learn the truth that the universe was created not by some meaningless random process, but personally by God through his word. We discover that it was made not as a substandard, less real, evil material mistake, but as a very good complex design within which God’s purposes would be accomplished. We learn that human beings are distinct from the rest of creation due to our being made in God’s image. And that we have been commissioned to care for and rule over Planet Earth. The brokenness of creation is due to the first humans’ failure to obey God, but this state is temporary until God eradicates the influence of evil. How that works out is what the story of the rest of the Bible is all about.

The promises to Abraham as passed down through his son Isaac and grandson Jacob are the foundation of the development of the people of Israel, whom God would use to accomplish the restoration of his creation. God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt demonstrates his role as rescuer. His giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai reveals how human image bearers are to reflect his holy character. Israel’s failure to live up to God’s ways shows how humans cannot resolve our alienation from God on our own. God’s judgement upon Israel emphasizes the seriousness of that alienation. His promises with regard to the Messiah returns us to the rescue motif in which we are reminded of our ongoing need of God to fulfill his promise of creation restoration.

Central to God’s character is his heart for restoration. Not only is this a foundational theme with regard to his creation generally, but also in his understanding the dynamics of how he relates to his people. Throughout the whole of Scripture, including the New Covenant Writings, he remains faithful to Israel despite his harsh warnings and severe punishments. As he said through Moses in this week’s parsha, he was determined to always remain open to the possibility of Israel’s restoration even after being exiled among the nations. Paul wonderfully elaborates upon this in Romans, chapter 11 (see my booklet on the subject for more information).

While God’s faithfulness to Israel has been a great source of hope to Israel, it is not for Israel alone. When one realizes how much we have received from God, starting with our very existence, we have no claim upon him. Every act of love and generosity on his part is derived exclusively from him. After all he has done, he has every right to make any and all demand of us, not to mention calling us to account for every abuse of our place and position in life. And yet, through Israel, he has demonstrated that he is always ready to restore us to right relationship to him whenever we turn back to him.

The New Covenant Writings strongly emphasize God’s faithfulness as rooted in Hebrew Scripture. In the well-known Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), while the son’s return journey must have taken some time, as far as his father was concerned, despite the level of disregard his son had shown him, his acceptance was immediate. We also read how God’s heart of restoration is well-expressed by John in his first letter: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Commandment Intolerant

For the week of September 17, 2022 / 21 Elul 5782

Message info over a person holding their stomach and extending the other hand palm out

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

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Then Moses and the Levitical priests said to all Israel, “Keep silence and hear, O Israel: this day you have become the people of the LORD your God. You shall therefore obey the voice of the LORD your God, keeping his commandments and his statutes, which I command you today.” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 27:9-10)

I am gluten intolerant. After testing negative for celiac disease, but based on my symptoms, my doctor advised me to stay away from wheat and other sources of gluten. What a difference it made!. I must admit, I do cheat, but rarely. When I do, it is with a sense of trepidation, as I anticipate discomfort.

With this picture in mind, it seems to me that many Christians are “commandment intolerant.” Any suggestion that God might have clear demands upon us, is deemed bad for one’s health, spiritual or otherwise. These folks seek to follow a strict commandment-free diet.

The commandment intolerant tend to regard commandments as part of an antiquated, detrimental Old Testament system. It’s as if God’s word to the ancient Israelites was nothing but damning evidence against their deprived irredeemable nature. Hundreds of commandments over hundreds of years had no other function whatsoever but to demonstrate human beings’ alienation from God as preparation for the coming of the Messiah. This appears to be backed up by New Testament statements such as:

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin (Romans 3:19-20).

I don’t deny that this is indeed a function of God’s commandments. By revealing his standards to Israel, God makes clear to everyone the whole world’s fundamentally deprived condition. Accepting this is a necessary step in experiencing restored relationship with God through Messiah’s sacrifice on our behalf. This negative function, however, doesn’t automatically preclude one or more positive ones. Clearly, keeping God’s commandments resulted in all sorts of benefits, individually and corporately, be they health, agricultural prosperity, or national security.

Didn’t Yeshua himself say, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15)? Despite such a clear statement, the commandment intolerant claim that Yeshua’s approach is night and day different from that of Moses. Moses, they say, gave 613 commandments (which is really a rabbinic calculation. Whatever the actual number is, there are a lot of them), while Yeshua just gave two. The “two-commandment” version of the Messiah is a complete misrepresentation of what he said on the topic. Both references to the “two commandments” give “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 6:5) as the first, and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Vayikra/Leviticus 19:18) as the second. The Matthew version (Matthew 22:34-40) has a Pharisee who was also a Torah expert, ask “which is the great commandment in the Torah (Law)?.” In the Mark version (12:28-33), a Scribe asks, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” The differences in the identity of the questioners and their questions suggest that these are two different incidences. This shouldn’t be surprising due to how such questions were and are common in Jewish thought. While the two commandments are the same in each incident, Yeshua’s closing remarks are different. In Matthew’s version, it’s “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” In Mark, it’s that doing these “is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” In both cases, Yeshua in no way diminishes the important of obeying God’s commands, but rather provides God’s perspective and priorities on how best to approach them.

A commandment-intolerant position cuts the reader off from Scripture. Whether you are reading the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Covenant Writings, there is just nothing that isn’t a commandment of some kind. Scripture doesn’t require “thou shalts” to be a commandment. Whether it is a “thou shalt” or a narrative section, Scripture is God’s revelation instructing us how to live. The all-wise God has graciously revealed reality to us. To ignore his directives, however spoken, is to purposely disregard God’s gracious benefits.

This is not to say that every single one of God’s commands in Scripture is for all people everywhere for all time. But that’s another issue for another time. Still, the only way to discern the ongoing nature of Scripture is to begin with hearts open to God’s instructions, whatever they may be.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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It Is Written

For the week of September 10, 2022 / 14 Elul 5782

Message info over a image of a finger writing in the sand

Ki Teitzei
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10

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If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 22:22)

Following up on The Lost Torah from last week, I want to look at how misguided interpretations of the New Covenant writings (the New Testament) have led to a tragic neglect of God’s Word as revealed through Moses. Both Yeshua and his followers have been mischaracterized as misrepresenting their deep-seated conviction of the ongoing relevancy of Hebrew Scripture.

An example of this is the well-known story of what’s often called “the woman caught in adultery” found in the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John. It is here we read of a group of religious leaders bringing a woman to Yeshua to apparently get his legal opinion. Claiming she was “caught in adultery,” they asserted that, according to the books of Moses, she should be stoned to death. The story explicitly tells us that the leaders were doing this to purposely test him to get him in trouble. If you think about it, however, this comment is hardly needed. What other reason would there be to make such an inquiry of Yeshua? Jewish courts were well established. Yeshua’s input wasn’t necessary to determine a verdict. While theoretical discussions of this nature were commonplace among Jewish leaders and teachers of the day, this wasn’t a theoretical discussion. It was an actual case.

Regardless, Yeshua takes them on, knowing full well their hypocrisy. Note his immediate reaction. He writes with his finger on the ground. How I wish I knew what he wrote, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were a Torah verse on the subject like the one I quoted at the beginning. Yeshua then says the famous words: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7) and goes back to writing. Then one by one, they leave until only Yeshua and the woman remain.

No doubt a key lesson here is one of attitude. As sinful human beings, religious leaders included, we all need to exercise great humility when addressing the wrongs of others. But many take this further, claiming Yeshua necessarily implies that such wrongs shouldn’t be addressed at all. He is wrongly understood as teaching a novel form of extreme love and forgiveness in contrast to an assumed Old Testament harsh judgementalism.

I don’t deny that in the Messiah we encounter a greater depth of love and forgiveness hitherto unknown, but it is not as entirely different as some would have us think. It’s not as if Yeshua simply lets the woman off the hook. His final words to her are not, “Neither do I condemn you,” but “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

Exactly what the woman’s sin was, we don’t know, though in the context it is likely she had done the very thing she was accused of. Why then let her off the hook? Whether or not Yeshua wrote one or more Torah verses on the subject, he was certainly aware what Torah actually teaches on this matter: “If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 22:22). Picture the Messiah writing on the ground, “If a man is found lying with the wife of another man.” Where, then, is the man? How could it be that the woman was found caught in adultery, while the religious leaders didn’t know who the fella was? This is not about a disregard of Torah, but the exposing of gross hypocrisy.

Contrary to popular misconception, Yeshua and his followers don’t undermine Hebrew Scripture. They clarify it. Yeshua didn’t undermine, contradict, or replace Torah. Instead, he taught it as it was meant to be understood and obeyed. Once we accept that, we are far better equipped to grasp both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Covenant Writings.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Lost Torah

For the week of September 3, 2022 / 7 Elul 5782

Message info over a Torah scroll partially obscured by a broken brick wall

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

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You shall not plant any tree as an Asherah beside the altar of the LORD your God that you shall make. And you shall not set up a pillar, which the LORD your God hates. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 16:21-22)

Over the past year, for my own personal Bible reading, I have been slowly working through the books of 1 & 2 Kings – not the most encouraging section of Scripture. It’s not all negative, of course. There’s Solomon’s rise to power and how God used him to establish Israel’s golden age. But it’s Solomon’s greatness and divinely inspired wisdom that make his slide into idolatry that much more distressing. Israel never recovers from this. The result of Solomon’s unfaithfulness to God results in the dividing of the Kingdom into north and south. The north is known as Israel or Ephraim, the south as Judah.

There are also the stories of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, but their brightness shines against an intensely dark background. Apart from a few good kings, the vast majority are evil. And when the better kings reign, it doesn’t take long before the nation plunges back into false religion and immorality.

One of the greatest, if not the greatest, times of reform occurs near the end of 2 Kings, during the reign of Josiah (see 2 Kings 22-23). The north had already been conquered by the Assyrians about a hundred years earlier. For the south, it’s beyond the point of no return. The level of evil under the reign of Josiah’s father, Manasseh, was the last straw as far as God was concerned. Judgement for the south was coming. It was only a matter of time.

Yet, this didn’t prevent Josiah from doing what was right. Unlike some of the earlier good kings, his reforms were thorough. Several of the other good kings tolerated various evil activities, but not Josiah. In my reading, I was overwhelmed by the vast number of positive changes he implemented as this reflected how saturated with idolatrous customs Judah was.

That which started Josiah’s reforms was the discovery of the “sefer Torah” (English: the book of the Law) during the Temple renovations he ordered. Josiah was devastated to learn God’s perspective on the nation’s behavior and took action. But once Josiah died, his son led the nation right back into evil and the nation began to crumble until it collapsed.

I often wonder about the lost Torah. How long was it lost? God had commanded that it should be read to the nation every seven years (see D’varim/Deuteronomy 31:10). Kings were to produce their own copy of the Torah and read it all their days (see D’varim/Deuteronomy 17:18-20). Were these ever done? We don’t know. It is reasonable to think that the Torah had become forgotten very early on. Perhaps there were times when it was more central than other times.

However central Torah was throughout Israel’s history, it didn’t change the fact that the people knew better. The fact that there were kings who basically did right, though few and far between, demonstrates that the knowledge of the true God and his ways were known. Known, but ignored. Just like today.

Just like today except that the Torah isn’t lost. Not only is it accessible as never before, be it in printed or digital form, it is ignored. The general ignorance of Scripture is no excuse even if it isn’t read. The evidence of what constitutes good and bad is on display for all to see. That obedience to God leads to life, while disobedience leads to death appears to make no difference whatsoever when we are consumed with ourselves or don’t care about the long-term effect of our misguided lives.

We live amidst a great fog of meaninglessness and self-absorption. For many, pursuing godliness feels futile. The world seems to be going down the drain at lightening speed. Why even try?

Ask King Josiah. He knew that doing the right thing was the right thing to do. Serving God faithfully in his generation whatever would happen down the road was worth it. Frankly, I don’t think we live in a day like Josiah’s. I don’t think we are going down the drain. It just feels like that sometimes. God has great things in store for those who are willing to trust him. Let’s not wait until our circumstances changes before we do.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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When in Rome, Don’t

For the week of August 27, 2022 / 30 Av 5782

Message info over a photo of ancient Rome

Re’eh
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17; B’midbar/Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5; 66:1-24; 1 Shmuel/1 Samuel 20:18-42
Originally posted the week of August 11, 2018 / 30 Av 5778

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When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 12:29-31)

There is a good deal of wisdom in the saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Before venturing into a foreign culture, we are well-advised to learn as much as we can about local customs and conventions to avoid misunderstanding and cause unnecessary offense. This principle doesn’t only apply to travelling to distant places. Interacting with neighbors and co-workers may require crossing very long cultural bridges in order to communicate effectively. Many years ago, the young lady who would one day become my wife had a roommate, the daughter of Canadian parents, who grew up in a South American country. The roommate was aghast when she first saw someone use the common gesture of making an “o” with their thumb and forefinger to signify “okay.” This was because where she grew up, such a gesture was vulgar (it didn’t mean “okay”!). Obviously, should we ever venture to that country, we would avoid the gesture, even though to us it is completely innocuous.

Tragically, many well-intentioned (and not-so-well-intentioned) people have caused a significant amount of damage due to ignoring the sage advice of “when in Rome, do.” Oft times it’s due to ignorance, other times to moral superiority. There is no excuse for the former, though hopefully such sins are worthy of patience and forgiveness. Moral superiority, on the other hand, is far more complex.

It is too simplistic to apply “when in Rome, do” to every context, however. For example, while eating and drinking like a local is a wonderful way to connect with people of other countries and cultures, it can be deadly. Locals have adapted to their environment over time. And while “when in Rome, do” may be a lovely gesture, it is not okay in this case. But accepting one’s inability to immediately acclimatize to a foreign environment is also no excuse for showing arrogant disdain towards cultural differences. Business people and missionaries have often been infamous for this kind of insensitivity. Perhaps they have good things to offer that would indeed greatly benefit the target culture, but carrying one’s self with an air of superiority tends to offset whatever potential benefits there may be.

God’s word to ancient Israel was clearly, “When in Rome, don’t.” However offensive this is to modern readers, God was establishing a morally and spiritually superior culture in what had been known as the land of Canaan. The wickedness of the people Israel was to dispossess was so extreme, Israel wasn’t even to ask about it.

However you might think about such an approach, this chapter of God’s epic story was unique. Israel was to establish a new culture untainted by other spiritual and moral influences. That this failed is a different chapter for another time. Skipping over the failure chapter for now, God’s story eventually sees Israel moving beyond its borders into the rest of the world. This is a key aspect of the epoch launched by the coming of the Messiah. Following Yeshua’s resurrection, the time had come to venture toward Rome (actually and figuratively).

So, when in Rome, is it “do” or “don’t”? On one hand it was “do,” as it was necessary to enculturate the truth of God. On the other hand, it was “don’t,” as it was also necessary to preserve the essence of that truth. The challenge in those early years was how best to embody God’s word within foreign cultures without compromising it.

Today, there tends to be more emphasis on cultural adaptation. As a result, those components of Scripture deemed problematic are downplayed or completely discarded. Israel’s earlier call to absolute purity is regarded as obsolete if not altogether misguided. This fails to appreciate the necessary preparation God’s people needed to experience in order to equip them one day to make the positive difference among the nations in the name of the Messiah.

The early Jewish believers wisely embraced the delicate balance of communicating the uncompromising truths of God within foreign, not to mention hostile, cultural settings. They understood those elements of Scripture that were uniquely Jewish, while identifying those which were universal. They knew “when in Rome, do, but sometimes don’t.”

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Preventative Measures

For the week of August 20, 2022 / 23 Av 5782

Message info over an illustration of a virus

Eikev
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25
Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14 – 51:3

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And the LORD will take away from you all sickness, and none of the evil diseases of Egypt, which you knew, will he inflict on you, but he will lay them on all who hate you. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 7:15)

The last time I commented on this verse was two years ago (Avoiding Disease). We were still in the early stages of the COVID era. At that time, I explained that the “diseases of Egypt” were not the ten plagues, but illnesses arising due to ungodly living. Israel was promised health as a result of following God’s ways. What was true then is still true today. God’s directives regarding lifestyle, sexuality, sanitation, etc. result in life. Ignorance and neglect of these principles lead to sickness and death.

We live in a post-biblical age. The Western World was built, imperfectly, on biblical principles. While adherence to these principles has ebbed and flowed through the centuries, generation after generation have been instructed in a very particular approach to morality. During this time, for the most part, people who ventured away from biblical morality knew they were doing so. When they suffered consequences, they had a good idea why.

It’s not like that anymore. For many years, we have been told that we are nothing more than the result of meaningless, impersonal forces; truth can’t be known; everything is subjective. Therefore, there is no right and wrong, no objective morality. This would explain why shame has taken the place of guilt as the main reaction to our sense of being out of sorts with the world. Guilt requires a clear sense of right and wrong. Without that, we are left with a much fuzzier uneasiness with ourselves. We know there is something wrong with us but don’t know why. We don’t know why because we have become ignorant of God’s ways as revealed in Scripture.

This ignorance undermines the vast amount of scientific knowledge we have acquired in the past several centuries. Whether we are aware of it or not we are the product of centuries of cultures that were not only biblically informed to a significant extent, but also thoroughly experienced in an approach to life based on biblical foundations. Many people would be surprised to learn that without the Bible we would have never seen the emergence of the vast array of beneficial technical advancements we so treasure. Collectively we know far more about sickness and health than any generation before us. What we know today is the result of centuries of investigation and implementation. In other words, we know how this stuff works. And yet, we are seeing an increase in certain infections as never before, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in particular. And then there’s monkeypox.

Technically speaking, monkeypox isn’t an STI, but you don’t have to be a medical professional or investigative reporter to realize that the vast amount of monkeypox cases is due to certain sexual behaviors. And yet the messaging we receive, be it for STIs or monkeypox, is anything but avoiding the behaviors that put people at risk.

I remember years ago when the vaccine for the human papillomavirus (HPV) was promoted in the region of Canada where I live. HPV is an STI that especially affects young people in their teens and twenties. It is of particular concern to women in that it may lead to cervical cancer. The vaccine was touted as the solution to the problem. I remember seeing a promotional poster for the HPV vaccine in my doctor’s office waiting room. What troubled me was the implication that it was assumed that young girls were having casual sex despite the health risks. I don’t doubt that children and other unmarried people are having casual sex, but to make it sound as if the risks of contracting HPV were so out of their control that it required a medical intervention assumes the complete rejection of biblically directed morality. Teaching sexual abstinence to young people is thought of as a useless, if not oppressive, venture. Sexual appetite may be difficult to curb, but when did fighting urges become a bad thing?

I fear we have forgotten what it means to be truly human. I say, “forgotten,” because we in the West once knew. But now we are immersed in such an abundance of scientific knowledge, offering all sorts of solutions, while being blind to God’s prescribed and effective preventative measures.

We suffer for nothing. God’s word is still available to us. Not only can we put the brakes on the snowballing cultural decay, God, through the Messiah, is available to forgive and heal us if we are willing to trust him and do life his way.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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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

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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

Pinchas
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

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Blessed Irony

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

Balak
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

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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

Chukat
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

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