Remember the Land

For the week of May 8, 2021 / 26 Iyar 5781

Hula Valley, Northern Israel

Behar & Bechukotai
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34
Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19-17:14

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But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, so that I walked contrary to them and brought them into the land of their enemies—if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land. (Vayikra/Leviticus 26:40-42)

This week’s parsha includes one of the Torah sections outlining the results of either living according to God’s directives or not (Vayikra/Leviticus 26:14-43). Included here is God’s promise of restorationif and when Israel repents after a time of spurning him. The restoration of wayward Israel is a core theme in the Books of the Prophets. While according to this and other similar sections of Torah, restoration is contingent upon repentance, the prophets envision a guaranteed restoration (e.g. Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 37:11-14), something that the New Covenant Writings affirm (see Romans 11:16-27). Based on a holistic view of Scripture we can be certain that the promised restoration will be precipitated by the necessary repentance.

The anticipation of restoration is deeply rooted in God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But notice that they are, perhaps for the only time, listed in reverse order: “then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham.” This emphasizes the depths of God’s commitment to Israel. The reverse order underscores that the commitment of God to Abraham was an inheritance. Something real and eternal was established with and to Abraham and confirmed within his family line specifically through Isaac and then Jacob. The future behavior of their descendants can in no way undermine the everlasting nature of God’s promise to the nation. How each individual may or may not benefit from their inheritance is one thing, which in no way effects the promise itself.

This passage tells us that there is more going on than a commitment to a people. God also said through Moses that he would “remember the land.” The anticipated repentance of Israel doesn’t only evoke God’s covenantal commitment to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but realigns the people of Israel with God’s purposes for the land of Israel.

God’s promise to Abraham included the land. As he continued to wait upon God for further developments, which included the creation of a nation derived from him and Sarah despite their old age, the land continued to be part and parcel of the overall promise. The unconditional nature of God’s covenant with him always included the land (see Bereshit/Genesis 15:17-21).

The tendency of many Bible adherents to emphasize the so-called spiritual aspects of scripture over and against the earthly ones undermines the effectiveness of scripture in instructing us for living life. The Bible’s understanding of the world is a wonderfully integrated mix of the seen and unseen elements of life. The creation is the realm in which we were meant to live. Israel is chosen by God to reflect the importance of living life according to the purposes and ways of God.

Human beings spend too much time attempting to resolve environmental and political problems through technology and the manipulation of behavior. We think we can fix our problems directly by confronting them with our own ingenuity. The story of Israel in the Bible us reminds, however, that the key to creation restoration is by way of humble submission to the Creator.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Let’s Eat

For the week of May 1, 2021 / 19 Iyar 5781

A group of people enjoying a meal together

Emor
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 21:1-24:23
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-31
Originally posted the week of May 13, 2017 / 17 Iyar 5777

Note: I was a little hesitant to share this message due to the current health crisis. It refers to eating together and celebrating, which has been difficult, if not impossible, for some for more than a year. While the pain of separation we feel is real, I hope you will read through to the end to discover that there’s someone who longs to be with you, whom no government restriction can keep out. – Alan Gilman

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And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons so that they abstain from the holy things of the people of Israel, which they dedicate to me, so that they do not profane my holy name: I am the Lord.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 22:1-2)

A good portion of this week’s parsha (weekly Torah selection) cautions the cohanim (English: priests) from participating in their assigned duties when deemed to be ritually unclean. There were particular prohibitions regarding their being in the presence of the dead as well as certain mourning practices. They were more limited than the general population as far as whom they could marry and the conditions under which consecrated foods were to be eaten.

It is striking how much eating played a part in the priestly service. Very few of the edible items that were offered by the people were completely consumed on the altar. Most of the offered meat, grain, and drink were either eaten by the cohanim only or by both the person making the offering and the cohanim. The dominant smell in the area of the altar must have been like a barbecue. Eating wasn’t the only thing happening, but there must have been quite a bit going on at any given time. I don’t think I am off course to say that eating was therefore a central aspect of Old Covenant worship.

Even before sin and evil had the creation in its clutches due to our first parents’ rebellion in the Garden of Eden, eating was a part of God’s good design. Just because death was not a factor until after Adam and Eve’s first sin, that doesn’t mean they didn’t need to eat. The harmony within the creation they briefly enjoyed prior to the curse included regular access to an abundance of food. Sin and the curse didn’t create the need to eat, but rather make accessing food difficult (see Bereshit/Genesis 3:17-19).

The need for food established an essential dependency of humans upon the rest of creation. It’s no wonder then that much of ancient religion is focused on relating to a god or gods in order to ensure there be sufficient food to eat. That in itself isn’t misguided, but by design. Yet there is more to food than how it drives people to seek spiritual assistance.

The personal intimacy of eating food appears also to be by design. The conditions placed upon the cohanim’s eating of the offerings were primarily due to whether or not they were fit to be in God’s presence. To eat of the offerings, they had to be ritually clean. To eat or not to eat, therefore, represented one’s ability to be in fellowship with God. While this may sound strange, it was not only in the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and the Temple where people ate with God. Abraham did so when three mysterious persons came to announce in advance the birth of Isaac (Bereshit/Genesis 18:1-8), and Moses and the Elders of Israel ate with him at Mt. Sinai (Shemot/Exodus 24:9-11).

It is not a random social accident that eating food is one of our primary contexts in which fellowship between people occurs. It is clear to me, if not to most, that eating alone or on the go is not best for us. Sharing the eating experience has been the basis of so much meaningful human interaction for family and friends throughout time.

In addition, it’s a meal that is the primary context of remembering God’s establishing of relationship with his people. Through the Passover, God directed Israel to year after year celebrate his victory over the tyrant, Pharaoh. It’s not just through the symbolic elements alone that the power of remembrance is conveyed, but the festive meal itself speaks of relationship with God and one another. The New Covenant version of this same meal as established by the Messiah is all this and more as Jew and Gentile together celebrate God’s victory over the greater tyrant, death. I wish more communities of believers did so as part of a large meal.

When we lose the joy of celebration, it’s easy to simply go through the motions of religious observance. Perhaps that’s what happened to the Laodiceans, a community of believers in ancient Turkey who had lost their zeal for God. Yeshua invited them to intimately engage him again: “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20).

Unlike the ancient priests, burdened by all sorts of requirements preventing them from eating with God, Yeshua wants to walk right in and sit right down with us. He has made us fit to eat with God personally and intimately forever. Let’s eat!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Naked Truth

For the week of April 24, 2021 / 12 Iyar 5781

Title text: The Naked Truth

Achrei Mot & Kedoshim
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27
Haftarah: Amos 9:7-15

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None of you shall approach any one of his close relatives to uncover nakedness. I am the LORD. (Vayikra/Leviticus 18:6)

This week’s parsha includes a detailed list of illicit sexual relationships. The Hebrew uses a special phrase to describe this, which is “don’t uncover nakedness.” Many translations treat this phrase as a euphemism. A euphemism is a figure of speech that is “the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/euphemism). In English, instead of saying someone has died, we say they passed away. It means the same thing but passed away comes across as less jarring. So, instead of God’s saying through Moses, “Don’t have sex with a close relative,” it’s “don’t uncover their nakedness.” The image of removing one’s covering is apparently not as jarring as “don’t have sex.” That said, a great number of English translations of the Bible prefer to translate the euphemism into plain speech (you can view a list here).

It’s possible that the original hearers would have heard “don’t have sex” when Moses said, “don’t uncover nakedness,” just like we hear “died” for “passed away.” However, while this may not apply to all figures of speech, there may be something more going on than a simple code term, where the one expression represents the other. I wonder if our culture would use passed away if it didn’t hold to the idea of an afterlife at least historically. This is not the place for a full analysis of figures of speech, but the image created by a word picture has to somehow work within the psyche of the culture.

The scripture, especially when we are reading the very words of God as we are doing here, reflects a God inspired culture. On one hand, God through Moses is using language that the people would understand. On the other, he is instructing them on how to see the world. God didn’t have to use this phrase here. The Bible uses other terms for the sexual act. But here we read of the uncovering of nakedness. Why?

I am intrigued by the initial experience of Adam and Eve: “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Bereshit/Genesis 2:25), especially in relation to their reaction upon eating the forbidden fruit: “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths” (Bereshit/Genesis 3:7). The text continues to tell us that Adam hid from God due to fear, because he was naked (see Bereshit/Genesis 3:10), which was evidence that he had eaten the fruit (see Bereshit/Genesis 3:11).

While some may be quick to connect nakedness with sex as if sex was the forbidden fruit, there is nothing in the text to suggest that. Sexuality within marriage was already blessed by God (see Bereshit/Genesis 1:28) and would continue to be so. Instead, there is something else going on here. And it’s something very difficult for most people to comprehend today.

For most people the body is nothing more than an accident of nature. The real person is entrapped in a material cage that encumbers a full and free expression of who we really are. This way of thinking is extremely common among adherents of the Bible. But according to Scripture our bodies are God-given vehicles through which to honor God and bless others. The challenges we face are not due to our physicality but due to sin. Our bodies will be fully redeemed upon Messiah’s return.

The uncovering of nakedness, then, is not simply about “having sex” with someone. That’s because sexual intimacy is not simply a physical transaction between humans. The exposing of our bodies to others is an exposing of self in our most vulnerable state. You and I were not made to expose our deepest selves to just anyone. God designed physical intimacy of this sort to be reserved within a protected exclusive relationship. To share ourselves outside of God-sanctioned marriage tears at the very fabric of what it is to be human. The results are disastrous for both individuals and society.

Beyond the prohibitions listed, we would do well to regard our bodies as God does, as vessels set apart for his service in every area of life.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version 

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Deal with It

For the week of April 17, 2021 / 5 Iyar 5781

Spray bottle and sponge on floor in front of moldy wall

Tazria & Metzora
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33
Haftarah: 2 M’lachim/2 Kings 7:3-20
Originally posted the week of April 6, 2019 / 1 Nisan 5779

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Then he shall examine the disease on the seventh day. If the disease has spread in the garment, in the warp or the woof, or in the skin, whatever be the use of the skin, the disease is a persistent leprous disease; it is unclean. And he shall burn the garment, or the warp or the woof, the wool or the linen, or any article made of skin that is diseased, for it is a persistent leprous disease. It shall be burned in the fire. (Vayikra/Leviticus 13:51-52)

As I have studied Torah for most of my life, I have come to see that there is far more to its teachings than the particular details it describes. Don’t get me wrong! The details are extremely important, but the details point beyond themselves to something much greater. I don’t mean that in some esoteric way as if the Bible is a code book of mysteries to be solved (in spite of what some may think!). It’s more straightforward than that. As we absorb its content over time, we are drawn into God’s understanding of the world in which we live. This worldview is not simply one possible way to look at life, but the only truly effective way. The God of Israel – the one who both designed and implemented the creation – is the only one who truly understands how best to negotiate the complexities of living. Through the Scriptures he has revealed that understanding.

Take for example the section of Torah we are in currently. God through Moses establishes strict guidelines with regard to certain infections. Note what’s missing. There is a great lack of spiritualization here. There’s nothing to suggest that people whose bodies or houses were afflicted were to blame in any way. While there was what to do in response, there was no reason to be ashamed of such things. Lack of shame encourages people to not hide their problems but bring them out into the open where they can be dealt with.

Not everything that looks problematic is serious. It was necessary for the general population and the leadership to learn the difference between those things that needed to be cut out and destroyed and others that could be left alone. A culture trained by God in this way would learn to approach all of life in a similar fashion. One doesn’t have to be a psychologist to know that negative human behavior can be as infectious as the examples given us in Torah.

In the New Covenant Writings, Paul provides an illustration of this (see 1 Corinthians 5:6-8). The faith community of the city of Corinth had allowed arrogance and malice to fester. He likened these negative influences to the way leaven pervades dough. Once the fermentation process gets in, it can’t be removed. It affects the entire batch. He therefore calls for a whole new lump of dough.

The problem with Paul’s illustration is when it comes to fermented dough, it’s permanent. If this was really about dough, then “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened” (1 Corinthians 5:7), would require throwing out the infected batch and starting with a new one. There’s no way he intends an exact parallel for the Corinthians. He isn’t saying that their community was beyond the point of no return; that they would need to start with a whole new group of people. What he is saying is that the transformative process required to resolve their metaphorical infection was drastic and would, therefore, require a resolve on the part of this community to take their situation seriously. They would have to do whatever was necessary to experience renewal. Thankfully, Paul’s extreme language emphasizes the potential of God’s transformative power available to them (and to us!) through Yeshua the Messiah.

Unless we are willing to identify and deal with potentially destructive issues, they will pervade our lives and spread to our loved ones and communities. God, through Yeshua, offers us complete cleansing. But we need to have the courage to take these things seriously and the wisdom to fully deal with them. While some issues are no big deal, some are. Let’s deal with them before it’s too late.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version 

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Serious Consequences

For the week of April 10, 2021 / 28 Nisan 5781

Business man looking at his phone while stepping off a cliff

Shemini
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47
Haftarah: 2 Samuel 6:1 – 7:17

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And David and all the house of Israel were celebrating before the LORD, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God. (2 Samuel 6:5-7)

The connection between this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion) and its associated haftarah (excerpt from the Prophets) is very clear. The parsha includes the death of two of Aaron’s sons for their inappropriate offering. The haftarah also includes a death due to a mishandling of one of God’s most specially set-aside objects. It was during David’s first attempt to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. When the cart upon which it was being transported tipped, a man by the name of Uzzah attempted to stabilize it, and God struck him dead as a result.

The Torah incident doesn’t provide us with the specifics as to what Aaron’s sons did wrong. All we know is that it was, in Hebrew “zur” (“strange” or “unauthorized”); in other words, outside of that which was prescribed. The context suggests they may have been drunk. We don’t know if that in itself was what was deemed unacceptable and deserving of death, or if drinking led them to make a bad decision.

In the case of the Haftarah, however, the reason for the extreme result is much clearer. David had directed his people to transport the Ark in an unauthorized way. Instead of following the Torah protocol of it being carried with poles by Levites, they had it carried on an ox cart. We see the acknowledgement of this error sometime later when they resumed the plan; this time in keeping with Torah. The reason for the change of transport method is more explicit in the parallel passage found in 1 Divrei Ha-Yamim/1 Chronicles 15:1-2.

These are two examples of Bible stories that fall into my “don’t like it” category. I am not alone. Aaron who lost his two sons was understandably grieved, while David was upset and wouldn’t continue the journey with the Ark until sometime later. Yet, as I struggle with these and other unpleasant incidents in Scripture, I realize that life is full of things that I don’t like.

I have heard statements such as “I could never believe in a god who…”, referencing stories like these. It seems to me that such sentiments are loaded with all sorts of additional assumptions. There is likely little to no understanding as to the reasons behind such extreme consequences. Plus, little to no acknowledgement or understanding of God’s complex nature, purposes, and plans that could provide necessary context for such serious consequences.

Whatever one’s relationship is to the God of the Bible, life is full of serious consequences. I am aware that much of such harshness is inexplicable. But, at the same time, how much trouble have we gotten ourselves into because we haven’t taken life as seriously as we should? At times this ignorance is at an individual level as was in the case of Aaron’s sons. It appears they themselves should have known better. In Uzzah’s case, he suffered due to the leadership’s irresponsible handling of the situation.

We could learn to accept the way the world he made works or choose to reject the God who created such an environment for human beings. More and more people insist that we need a type of freedom that ignores the consequences of our actions. Our government may protect and/or mandate all sorts of preferences and/or lifestyles. But that will never change the way things actually work. Not doing things God’s way has serious consequences.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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What Are You Making?

For the week of March 20, 2021 / 7 Nisan 5781

A male construction worker with a thumbs-up in front of a partially finished brick façade

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

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All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together. (Isaiah 44:9-11)

At the very core of what it means to be human is our call to create. We don’t create in the exact same way as God did, of course. He created from nothing. Yet, the directives to subdue the earth (see Bereshit/Genesis 1:28) and cultivate the garden (Bereshit/Genesis 2:15) imply working with the creation, forming it, and developing it as needed. It isn’t long in early biblical history before we see innovation through the designing of musical instruments and metal tools (see Bereshit/Genesis 4:21-22). When God decided to preserve his creation through Noah, it was through an extraordinary naval project. God’s undermining the building of the city and tower of Babel was not due to the people’s technical ingenuity and ability, but rather due to their being driven by their self-directed agenda.

While we don’t create out of nothing, we are all involved in the creative process. The God-given responsibility to work almost always includes the forming and transforming of the world we live in or the supporting of those who do. Even those who wouldn’t see their lives as focused on creativity, if they stopped to notice, would discover that in some way they too interact with the arranging and rearranging of their environment. It may be as simple as how they dress and present themselves. Exceptions would be the very infirm (for whom we should care) and the extreme lazy and neglectful (whom we should admonish).

This is all to say that the desire to make things is central to human life as determined by God from the beginning. But that doesn’t mean everything we make is good and worthwhile. In this week’s Haftarah portion (excerpt from the Prophets), we encounter a strong critique of the making of idols. What’s most instructive is that it’s not so much the worthlessness of the idols themselves that is being addressed, but those who make them.

I think we can safely assume that the worthlessness of the idol makers is due to the worthlessness of the idols. But what strikes me is that the value of what is made is being transferred to the one who makes it. For many years, I have been told that it isn’t good for us to overly identify with our work. Statements such as “you are not what you do” have sought to draw our focus toward “being” instead of “doing.” Some of this corrective is helpful, especially in terms of our perception of accomplishments. It is easy to define ourselves by our and society’s views of success. Accolades, promotions, and money serve to rate our work and how we think of ourselves. Simply being faithful to whatever our calling is, assuming it is a noble one, is rarely celebrated or even noticed. One can easily devalue oneself especially in today’s celebrity-oriented social media saturated world.

It’s right and helpful to turn our focus from these misguided values to the meaningfulness of living a good life that does good as best we can, using our gifts and talents appropriately. It matters what we do with our lives. Who we are manifests in what we do. There’s no such thing as “just a job.” We need to take care to make sure that we are being true to the plans and purposes of God both in general and specifically in our case. This doesn’t mean necessarily that we will spend every working moment at what we find the most meaningful and/or always accomplishing great things. It also doesn’t mean we won’t find our work difficult and frustrating sometimes.

The roots of frustration over our work may stem from not understanding the worth of our work. This is again where the misguided values of our culture may be distorting the truth about your life. At the same time, it’s easy to fall into a trap of worthlessness as we find false security in “the job” or “the money,” for example.

It matters what you do with the gifts and talents God has given you. May you find the creative outlets he has made you for.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Calling Generous Hearts

For the week of March 13, 2021 / 29 Adar 5781

Illustration of a mobile phone with a large heart notification

Vayakhel & Pekudei
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 35:1 – 40:38 & 12:1-20
Haftarah: Ezekiel 45:16-46

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Moses said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, “This is the thing that the LORD has commanded. Take from among you a contribution to the LORD. Whoever is of a generous heart, let him bring the LORD’s contribution: gold, silver, and bronze; blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen; goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, and goatskins; acacia wood, oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, and onyx stones and stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. (Shemot/Exodus 35:4-9)

I love this passage! God through Moses initiated a building program. The people were called to contribute to the building of the mishkan, commonly referred to in English as the tabernacle. The mishkan was, the semi-mobile structure core to the sacrificial system. It was central to the life of the nation – literally – as it was to be erected in the center of the camp of Israel with the various tribal groups positioned around it.

Many readers of the Bible find the chapters about the mishkan, its furnishings, and procedures difficult. Most of the Bible from the beginning to these chapters in Shemot/Exodus are story orientated. Sure, there are a few long genealogies here and there, but interesting happenings for the most part. With the giving of the Ten Commandments in chapter twenty, there’s a shift to various regulations. Still interesting until the building instructions of the mishkan, etc. For many of us, these chapters are hard to relate to. Then we return to some significant drama with the Golden Calf and tense interactions between Moses and God. But after that there’s more chapters about the mishkan that repeat much of what was listed before. It’s not actually a repeat. The first set is the instructions; the second the actual building of it.

I like to point out, however, that while the details of the mishkan may not seem too relevant to us, they must be important to God. From ancient times, so much focus has been put on the stars and planets, but the Torah dedicates only a few words to their creation, while the mishkan gets several chapters. Perhaps we should pay more attention to what God focuses on.

I share this to underscore what this building project would have meant to God’s people at that time. So, when God called for contributions, one might expect that the demand upon the people would be pretty heavy. God has no issue about making demands. Yet, the call for contributions for the mishkan was completely voluntary.

This is not to say that every form of giving within the Sinai covenantal system was voluntary. The spiritual leaders were supported by the people’s giving of a portion of their annual prosperity. Certain sacrifices and other offerings were also compulsory along with an obligation to help the poor of society. And yet contributing to God’s building project was voluntary.

Leaders of faith communities need to take great care when calling for contributions. While members of congregations have a responsibility to support their communities, giving for building projects and other grand objectives in the name of God, need to be carefully weighed by the people. People should never be coerced into giving. Rather, the need of the situation should be presented in such a way that they should feel free to give or not.

This is what Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians intended when he wrote, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). The context is Paul’s encouraging the Corinthian believers to follow through on their promise to give – most likely to support the poor believers in Jerusalem (see Galatians 2:10). He reminds them that as we are generous towards others, God will be generous towards us. Still, the act of giving must not be coerced. Even in the face of need, each one of us are responsible before God to steward our resources appropriately.

That said, I would like to encourage us all (myself included) to take some time to consider where God is calling us to give. This past year of COVID has been disorienting. The lack of normal may mean a lack of exposure to the causes we are normally called upon to support. In today’s marketing saturated society, we may be waiting for “the ask,” before we give. All along it should have been God’s voice that we should have been attentive to. Now more than ever, we need to hear what he is calling us to do…not just with our money, but with our lives.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Seriousness of Sin

For the week of March 6, 2021 / 22 Adar 5781

Message title information on a concrete background

Ki Tisa & Parah
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 30:11 – 34:35; B’midbar/Numbers 19:1-22
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16-38

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So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” But the LORD said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book. But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; behold, my angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them.” (Shemot/Exodus 32:31-34)

This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) contains one of the most tragic episodes in the entire Bible. The people of Israel, having been delivered from years of slavery in Egypt, had witnessed God’s signs and wonders on their behalf. As they journeyed toward the Promised Land through barren wilderness, they camped at the same mountain upon which God had appeared to Moses in the burning bush. Moses ascended the mountain to wait upon God for what would be a comprehensive covenant – best understood as a national constitution – that he imposed upon them by right of being their rescuer.

No one expected Moses to be up the mountain for over a month (not even Moses himself). The people grew restless to the point that they wanted Moses’ brother and associate, Aaron, to provide them with some sort of tangible representation of the hitherto invisible God. That he acquiesced never fails to astound me. The man destined to become the first ever Cohen HaGadol (English: Chief Priest), fashioned a golden calf, followed by the people’s proclamation: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Shemot/Exodus 32:4). All this while God is instructing Moses in his pure, just, and holy ways. This is followed by Moses, after seeing the sin of his people, smashing the tablets of the ten commandments, followed by the slaughter of three thousand people, and a plague.

As this tragedy unfolded, Moses engaged God on two occasions with regard to God’s relationship to the people. From what I can tell, the first one, prior to Moses’ seeing the goings on, is on a national level. God had told Moses of the people’s corruption and announced to him that he would wipe them out and start afresh with a new nation derived from Moses himself. Moses’ intercedes for Israel on the basis of God’s honor, telling God that destroying the people would undermine God’s reputation in the world. God relents.

But a different type of interaction between them occurs after Moses goes down the mountain and deals with the situation. He correctly understands that the people’s actions placed them as individuals under God wrath, and so he returned to plead with God a second time. As he implores God, he offers himself in the place of the people. How noble; what a sacrifice! This time, however, God says, “No” – “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book” (32:32).

I imagine some Christian thinkers jumping in at this point, contrasting the offers of Moses and the Messiah. What God deemed as inappropriate for Moses, he reserved for Yeshua. But this misses the point. The point is that sin can cost you your life.

Much Christian theology has a tendency to focus on sin’s relationship to eternal life to the neglect of dealing with serious moral and spiritual wrongdoing. The story at hand reminds us that being in the right group and having had genuine God experiences doesn’t get us off the hook when we sin. Yes, there is forgiveness from God on the basis of his Son’s sacrifice, but the gift of eternal life can be squandered to such an extent that we can cause great damage to ourselves and others to the point where our future life with God may be jeopardized.

I am aware of the theological technicalities that insist that the believer in Yeshua can in no way fall away from God’s favor. But let me leave you with this quote from the New Covenant book of Hebrews:

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:26-31).

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Is It Your Time?

For the week of February 27, 2021 / 15 Adar 5781

Man in business suit pointing at watch

Tetzaveh
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 27:20 – 30:10
Haftarah: Ezekiel 43:10-27

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And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this? (Esther 4:14)

These are the words spoken by Mordecai to his cousin Esther who had been selected queen of Persia after the former queen had been deposed due to insubordination. Only God knew the circumstances Esther, Mordecai. and the rest of the Jewish people in Persia would find themselves in. At some point after Esther’s installment, the king promoted Haman to the highest bureaucratic position. One of Haman’s perks was that everyone had to display deference towards him whenever he passed by, which everyone did but Mordecai. This infuriated Haman to the extent that he not only wanted to put Mordecai to death, but all of Mordechai’s people, the Jewish people, as well.

Prior to this, Mordecai instructed Esther not to make her Jewishness known. But now, realizing by God’s providence she was in a place of influence he sent a message to her entreating her to approach the king on her people’s behalf. It was obvious, at least to Mordecai, that God’s hand was at work in Esther’s becoming queen, and he helped her to see that perhaps she had come to her role in the kingdom for such a time as this.

As readers of this story, what Mordecai discerned with regard to Esther’s role is obvious. Of course, we also have the benefit of knowing the rest of the story. Anyone who approached the king uninvited would be killed unless the king extended his scepter to that person, a risk Esther decided to take. Not only did the king extend his scepter to her, Haman’s devilish plot was exposed, and the Jewish people overcame another existential threat. This is why we celebrate the festival of Purim (this year: Thursday evening, February 25).

I don’t know how many people ever find themselves in such a position. After all, this is an extreme case, both in terms of the threat and the unusual place that Esther found herself in. I would hope that if I found myself is such a unique position to help that I too would be willing to do what Esther did.

But how about when the situation isn’t as dramatic as this; when the place we find ourselves isn’t as obvious as it was to Mordecai? How about when life seems to be normal: family, work, home, school – day in, day out, same old, same old, what about then? Could it be that wherever we may be and whatever we may be doing there are opportunities staring at us that we are uniquely positioned for, but we are distracted by normal? What if we were more aware of what’s really going on around us? What would happen if we were more sensitive to the Lord’s promptings in our lives? Maybe life wouldn’t seem so normal all the time.

When I referred to “normal,” did you think to yourself we are not in normal times? It’s been a year of COVID confusion, fear, and restrictions, not to mention all the other social, political, and environmental challenges. Yet many are just trying to cope, waiting for this to all be over . We’ll clean it up and regroup after it passes by. But what are you waiting for? This might be your time.

Esther’s initial reaction to Mordecai was “What can I do?” seeing that she hadn’t been summoned to the king in a while. However, she wasn’t in her position simply to accept the way things were, but rather to risk her life to make a difference. She needed to challenge the status quo and put herself in a dangerous place in order to bring about the necessary changes.

This is not the time to sit back and do nothing. You may believe you don’t have any other option. That’s never the case with the God of Israel. What you might be called to do may not have the same impact as what Esther did, but you’ll never know until you are willing to step out in that direction. It might be nothing more than a phone call or an email. But as God leads you, there’s no telling the difference you might make. Perhaps this is your time.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Show and Do

For the week of February 20, 2021 / 8 Adar 5781

Illustration of the tabernacle in the wilderness

Illustration: The tabernacle erected in the wilderness, surrounded by an enclosure and miles of tents. Colored etching after W. Dickes. Courtesy of Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.

Terumah & Zachor
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 25:1 – 27:19 & D’varim/Deuteronomy 25:17-19
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 15:2-34

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Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it. (Shemot/Exodus 25:9)

There are two major sections in the second book of the Torah that are concerned about the building of the mishkan, usually translated into English as “tabernacle.” It was a large, yet mobile, complex designed as the locale for the offering of sacrifices and other priestly functions on behalf of the nation of Israel. Mishkan means, “dwelling place,” as it was to represent God’s dwelling among his people. This week’s parsha (English: Torah reading portion) through chapter thirty contains the instructions of the mishkan, its furnishings, and other related items, including the priests’ clothing and recipes for the special oil and incense. Then the actual construction is described beginning in chapter thirty-five through the end of the book, chapter forty.

Various people have attempted to draw or build accurate images or models – including life-sized versions – of the mishkan, but there is no way to ensure accuracy due to a missing ingredient in the instructions recorded by Moses. It appears that he was privy to something besides the details we read in the Torah. Not only did God tell him what to do, he also showed it to him. Because Moses saw what to do, he could also instruct the people on how to do it.

Before I continue, a word about the so-called Oral Torah. Jewish tradition claims that when God gave Moses his word to write down, he also told him other things that he did not write down, but instead was to be passed on orally. One of the main purposes of the Oral Torah is to interpret the written Torah. The Mishnah, which is the core of the Talmud is the written version of the Oral Torah. A scriptural basis for the Mishnah is the verse we are looking at, since it suggests that Moses was made aware of certain aspects of God’s revelation to Israel that he didn’t write down. However, this is no way legitimizes an oral tradition that most certainly was developed over time. Just because Moses was equipped with more than the written instructions for the Mishkan here doesn’t prove anything about other later rabbinic teachings.

What, then, might we learn from Moses’ experience of the mishkan? The people of Israel needed more than just “the what” of building it. They also needed “the how.” Throughout the ages people have abused the Bible because they thought that a simple reading was sufficient to live out its teachings. Armed with only the what, well-meaning, but otherwise naïve people have caused more damage than good. They claim to be taking God at his word but possess neither the sensitivity necessary to understand it nor his wisdom to live it out effectively.

When we read the Bible, we are not on our own. It’s a very old book, but its ultimate author is still alive. Not only that, he has made himself available to anyone who seeks him. In order to truly understand his word, we need to rely on him to show us how. This is not to say that our intuition or spiritual senses are reliable guides in themselves to understand the difficult and not-so difficult parts of scripture. The scriptures themselves provide interpretive boundaries for us. If Moses, having recorded the mishkan instructions, claimed that God showed that they were to build a boat, then everyone would know something was not right. I know that’s an extreme example, but it makes the point clear. If an interpretation of scripture is not well-supported by scripture, we should not trust it.

The same goes for any attempt to follow God’s instructions. Through the Ruach HaKodesh (English: the Holy Spirit) God speaks to his people in various ways. But too often we fail to wait upon him for how to do what he is calling us to do. Instead, we need to wait on him to show us, and then do.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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