Follow Me

For the week of October 16, 2021 / 10 Heshvan 5782

School of fish with one fish swimming in an opposite direction

Lech-Lecha
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 12:1 – 17:27
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:27 – 41:16

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Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-3)

I don’t know if you have heard of the show, “The Chosen,” the first-ever multi-season dramatic depiction of the Gospels, currently with season three in development. At some point I want to do a full review of it on my weekly video podcast “Thinking Biblically,” but for now let me say that I have found it very insightful, especially in reminding me how very real Yeshua, his followers, and the time they lived in were. Also, it has shown me how much I have read into the Bible without realizing it, including elements such as emphasis and tone. The Chosen depicts the characters and the cultural context in surprising ways, challenging me to give more thought to these elements than I usually have. Their interpretations aren’t necessarily correct but are certainly worthy of consideration. Here’s an example.

Up until watching the Chosen, I always understood Yeshua’s call as “Follow me,” (e.g. Matthew 9:9) with the emphasis on the “me.” That preaches well. As Messiah and Son of God he calls us to focus on him. After all, he is Messiah, Lord, and Savior, “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6), the only one who can restore our relationship to God. But in the Chosen, the Yeshua character doesn’t say it like that. Instead, it’s “Follow me,With the emphasis on “follow.” (I have provided a link below to the Chosen clip of Yeshua’s call of Matthew the tax collector, where you can hear it yourself.)

Of course, we don’t know for sure how it sounded. It was probably Aramaic anyway, though it could have been Hebrew (the scholarly jury is still out on that one). The point is, however, the “follow” in “follow me” is at least as important as the one we are called to follow.

Last week, we looked at what I called “Noah’s secret,” which is walking with the Lord. I mentioned that doing so is a mark of every good Bible character. Whether or not a person heard the actual words, “Follow me” as did many of Yeshua’s disciples, true godliness is expressed by living according to a course set by God, a course that is most often very different from that of the prevailing culture.

Few characters exemplify this as much as Abram, whose name became Abraham, as described in this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion). I never tire of thinking about what it must have meant for this elderly man to journey in those days from his homeland to live as a nomad in hostile foreign territory. His following a God unrecognized by those around him is the biblical model of faith.

The call to follow is a call to direct our lives in God’s direction alone. He doesn’t lasso us and drag us on a leash (sorry for the mixed metaphor). He is intent on finding those who are willing to keep in step with him, whatever the cost. To follow is to give ourselves to him as he leads us into the great unknown, a life out of step with the crowd, to go against the grain, to swim upstream, and as I mentioned last week, to march to the beat of a different drum.

To follow is not to enter into an alternate spiritual state disconnected from reality. Far from it! It is to journey through life according to reality, the reality of a creation God designed and is restoring. To follow is to live like Abraham, who, by turning his back on what others thought was normal, helped to set the course of God’s rescue plan whereby all the nations of the world would be blessed.

You can be part of that plan. But are you waiting for God to swoop you up on a magic carpet and carry you along on some spiritual high? Or will you get up, turn from whatever it might be that is holding you back, and follow the Messiah right now?

An example of “Follow me” from The Chosen:

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Noah’s Secret

For the week of October 9, 2021 / 3 Heshvan 5782

Title information against colorful background

Noach
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 6:9 – 11:32
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1 – 55:5

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And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. (Bereshit/Genesis 6:13-14)

We live in troubled times. Whether you believe that we are doomed due to climate change or climate change politics, it’s pretty unsettling. COVID, of course, has taken this to another level. Whether we view it as the plague of all plagues or an excuse for the establishment of totalitarian control, pandemic or no pandemic, we are certainly in a global predicament.

Whatever the exact nature of the current situation, whether we are on the brink of disaster or this whole thing will blow over (I would be very happily surprised if that is the case), this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading) is instructive. Its lessons are a sort of one-size-fits-all solution to just about any kind of challenge we might face in life. While it’s simple in its all-encompassing nature, implementing it is easier said than done. Yet, it’s something that is within reach of everyone.

This week’s reading includes the story of Noah and how God enabled him to overcome the second greatest disaster in world history. The greatest disaster of all time hasn’t happened yet. As we wait for that to happen, we continue to endure many lessor disasters. So let’s learn Noah’s secret.

It’s not a secret, actually. We are told in Bereshit/Genesis, chapter six and verse nine, “Noah walked with God.” That’s it. That’s all we need to know, sort of. You need the rest of the Bible to fully understand what walking with God is all about. But that’s what he did. That’s what made the difference between him and everyone else. That’s why only his family survived the flood. And that’s what we need to survive the challenges of our day.

To walk with God is a metaphor, a figure of speech, that creates a mental picture of traveling with God as we would with any other person. Walking with someone is necessarily relational. It requires a basic agreement between the two parties. If the parties are peers, the directional orientation may be that of mutual consent. If one is regarded as the senior in any way, then that person sets the course and the other follows, which would be the case with Noah and God. God set the course; Noah followed.

Noah’s day was one in which the prevailing culture was on the brink of destruction due to lifestyles completely contrary to the Creator’s design. Noah was different in that he kept in step with God. As a result, God entrusted him with a long-term plan that saved not only his own family, but also God’s overall creation project. To walk with God is not only beneficial for self, it finds fruition in being a blessing to others.

This is also the essence of God’s call of Abraham (see Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-3). The directive to him to go to the land which would become the land of Israel was a call to walk with God. It’s no wonder, that when the Messiah finally appears on the scene, he says, “Follow me.” To walk with God is set to one’s course in the direction in which God is going. Whatever might be happening around us, God sets the course; God determines the destination.

How walking with God finds expression in each person’s life will be different. For Noah, it meant spending a large portion of his life building an enormous rescue craft that must have appeared ridiculous to everyone else. But since Noah walked with God, he wasn’t deterred by people’s opinions and emotions. Abraham lived as an elderly foreigner in a hostile environment with little to show for his efforts while he was alive yet laid the groundwork for God’s master plan. We could look at almost every other key Bible character and remark on how they marched to the beat of a different drum – different metaphor, but you get the point.

So then, when you and I respond positively to the Messiah’s call to follow him, we find ourselves on the same journey as all these before us who walked with God. To others, we may look strange, out of place – crazy perhaps – but on a road full of life and blessing. We don’t have to be overwhelmed by these troubled times if we walk with God.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Blessing from Nothing

For the week of October 2, 2021 / 26 Tishri 5782

Open hands receiving brilliant light

Bereshit
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 1:1-6:8
Haftarah: Isaiah 42:5 – 43:11

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And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Bereshit/Genesis 1:28)

Some time ago I read through the New English Translation, also called the NET Bible. One of its key features is its extensive notes. One of those notes led me to consider an intriguing concept. It’s one of those things that is difficult to prove, but at some level, is self-evident. It’s from Bereshit/Genesis 1:22, where the word “blessed” is first found in the Bible. It’s in reference to the sea creatures and birds. The second time is in the verse I quoted at the start when God blessed human beings.

The NET Bible note makes a connection between the Hebrew words for create and bless based on the similarity of their sounds. The Hebrew for create is bara; the Hebrew for bless is barach (if you have never listened to the TorahBytes audio version, now might be a good time). As far as I know this similarity is purely coincidental. I doubt the early readers of the creation story would have thought to make a connection between creating and blessing, but there is one.

Torah is clear that God is the author of life. He is the originator, designer, and developer of all there is in the universe. He brought everything into existence by the exertion of his will through the power of his word. He himself is not created but eternal. The universe is not made up of his substance as if he used up part of himself and transformed it into something. Rather, he created everything out of nothing.

The NET Bible’s suggestion of a close association between bara and barach caused me to be aware of a creative dynamic that is present in blessing. When God blesses something or someone, he fills it with life. It possesses health, strength, and all it needs to grow and to reproduce. It is the opposite of cursing, whereby life is removed, and death ensues.

The connection between create and bless should be obvious. One initiates life, the other enables it to come to fruition, realizing its potential. That God is both the one who creates and blesses underscores that he is more than the originator of life, but it’s ongoing sustainer. Creation is dependent upon him both for its origins and its continuation. But this is not the intriguing idea that came to me that day.

What dawned on me was that the association of bara and barach is just as God created out of nothing, so he also blesses out of nothing. In the same way that God did not depend on pre-existing stuff to create the universe, so he doesn’t depend on pre-existing stuff to bless us.

Why is this important? Maybe it’s just me, but when I am in a difficult situation and I look to God to help me, I tend to base my expectations upon possible solutions that appear to exist. I think in terms of what’s possible. Sure, I give God some credit for being God, but I tend to think he is really good at fixing things that exist, but not necessarily providing solutions that require him to make something out of nothing. He did that at creation; he doesn’t do that now—or does he?

God’s blessing is not derived from his ability to manipulate that which already is. His blessing is based on himself, his infinite creative self. His resources, therefore, are unlimited. There’s nothing he can’t do. I can’t say I know how this works. But instead of my focusing on possibilities, I need to expect the impossible. Blessing is dependent upon God and not on the world around me.

Recognizing this connection between bara and barach is essential to effectively face today’s challenges. Ever changing rules and regulations are restricting our lives. Everything seems more difficult than it was a year and a half ago. Many people are confused, depressed, and angry. Many are waiting for it all to be over. But that’s not necessary when we know the One who blesses out of nothing. Once we accept that his possibilities are limitless, we can be open to anything he wants to do in and through us.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Remember the Wilderness

For the week of September 25, 2021 / 19 Tishri 5782

A plain sukkah (booth)

Sukkot
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 33:12 – 34:26; B’midbar/Numbers 29:23-31
Haftarah: Ezekiel 38:18 – 39:16

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You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 23:42-43)

The festival of Sukkot (English: Tabernacles or Booths) began this week the evening of September 20, 2021. Sukkot is the culmination of a special three-week period beginning with the Festival of the Blowing of the Shofar, commonly known as Rosh Hashanah (English: the New Year), followed ten days later by Yom Kippur (English: the Day of Atonement). The first two weeks focus on reflection and repentance in preparation for this week-long celebration of gratitude to God.

Central to the Torah’s Sukkot observances is the building of a sukkah, a temporary, somewhat fragile, though often beautiful, structure, intended as a temporary dwelling for the duration of the festival. The purpose of the experience of living in the sukkah was to remind the people of Israel that we lived in temporary shelters during the forty years of our wilderness travels prior to acquiring the Promised Land.

The wilderness period was a unique, but necessary, stage in the development of the people of Israel. Having spent generations as slaves in Egypt, they needed to be prepared for life in their own land. One day, they would have their own homes and farms and their own governmental and religious structures. They would develop international relations, including a time of renown and influence in the region. Israel was to be a bright light in an otherwise dark world.

However, a people don’t transition from being a nation of slaves to a shining example overnight. The people of Israel were called to be the people of God. In order to realize this, they needed to learn how human beings were to function in right relationship with the Creator. While their training wouldn’t cease upon entering the Promised Land, the forty years prior to doing so were foundational.

During the forty years, the people were completely dependent upon God. During that time the environment they were in provided no stability, protection, or regular provision. They were completely at the mercy of the elements and possessed nothing tangible on which they could rely to fend off enemy attacks. All this time, God saw them through by providing food, water, and protection from both the elements and enemies.

But this particular expression of divine help was not to be God’s will for Israel forever. It is not as if they were expected to live as if they were still in the wilderness, waiting for bread from heaven and other signs and wonders. Far from it! They were to settle the Promised Land and establish permanent agricultural settlements as well as fortified cities. Eventually they were to develop dependable political and military systems. They were to take responsibility for their lives and build a prosperous country.

Yet, despite the eventual normalcy of being a nation in their own land, there was something learned in the wilderness that was never to be forgotten, a life dynamic that was to be as much at work in the Promised Land as it was in the wilderness; a principle that is still as much at work today as it was then. That principle is human beings are completely dependent upon God.

By living in temporary shelters for a week once a year during Sukkot, the people of Israel were caused to experience in a small but tangible way a sense of vulnerability to the elements that is so easily forgotten when living in a permanent home. Seeing the stars, feeling the heat of the day or perhaps a few drops of rain were designed to bring to remembrance when their forebears’ very survival was in jeopardy each and every day unless God personally and powerfully came through.

The reality is that human beings are always dependent upon God. More permanent systems of protection and provision may give the impression that our security is derived from the things themselves. It is easy to forget that unless God works through such systems, they will not deliver as expected. Therefore, God deemed it necessary to remind Israel and the rest of the world through his Word, how this actually works.

We don’t necessarily need Sukkot to be reminded of this. Every now and then life’s circumstances throw us into highly vulnerable situations. If we have learned the lesson of the wilderness, we won’t crumble along with our failing structures. This is the challenge of our current day. Many think that our technical knowhow and political machinations will rescue us from disease and death. Until we learn that all the good we have ever experienced has come from the hand of God, we will continue to look in other directions when hard times come.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Our Father

For the week of September 18, 2021 / 12 Tishri 5782

Hands holding Planet Earth

Ha’azinu
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:1-52
Haftarah: 2 Samuel 22:1-51

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Do you thus repay the LORD, you foolish and senseless people? Is not he your father, who created you, who made you and established you? (D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:6)

It is fairly common among scholars to downplay the presence of key New Testament concepts in the Hebrew Scriptures. These include, for example, forgiveness, life after death, and the complex unity of God, traditionally termed “the Trinity.” While it is correct to note that there is a difference with regard to the prevalence of such concepts within these two sections of the Bible, it would be wrong to claim that a relatively low number of occurrences in Hebrew Scriptures necessarily imply they lack importance.

One such concept is God as father. In the New Covenant Writings (as I prefer to call the New Testament) it is the chief identifier of God. Yeshua almost exclusively spoke of God this way. He also instructed us through his first followers, to address God as “Our Father.” One might regard this shift in emphasis as an intentional contrast to earlier scripture in the sense that under the Old Covenant, God was seen as distant and detached, but Yeshua introduced a more intimate and familiar version of God. Both Christian and Jewish thought often wants to find contrasts like this in order to disassociate Christianity from Judaism. But in order to do so, one needs to ignore what is really going on in the Bible.

It is true that God as father is a rarity in the Hebrew Scriptures, but it’s there a few times, including its first occurrence found in this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading). In addition, there are also other references to God’s having father-like characteristics.

Moses’ use of “father” for God as part of his final words to Israel is most instructive. After all he and the people had been through the past forty years, as he confronts the people regarding their inevitable unfaithfulness, he urges them to respond appropriately to God on the basis of his being their father. Directly calling God “father” sheds light on what God said to Moses forty years earlier regarding his confrontation of Pharaoh: “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son’” (Shemot/Exodus 4:22-23). To mess with God’s people was to mess with his family. In the days and years ahead for Israel, does it matter how often the term “father” is used in their holy writings? Isn’t one reference enough to be struck by the overwhelming nature of such a relationship?

The people of Israel were delivered from tyranny to serve a new master and Lord. Yet, this master was no tyrant. Instead, God, as father, was dedicated to care, provide, and guide his children. Tragically, it would remain difficult for Israel to accept God’s fatherly heart towards them. Due to the broken nature of humanity, the hearts of the people were constantly pulled away from God and his ways. Yet, our Heavenly Father would not give up. Instead, he determined to transform our nature into one in keeping with his (see Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36).

God’s role of father of Israel reveals to us God’s heart for all people. As our creator, whose familial relationship to humanity was broken due to our first parents’ misguided and selfish actions, he longs for restoration. His heart is to regain the relational intimacy between a loving father and his wayward children. Made in his image we all bear his resemblance, while our actions reflect the nature of rebels. God’s broken fatherly heart, however, could not accept our alienation from his love. And so, in the name of family, his Son, Yeshua the Messiah, completely gave himself up to restore God’s children to him. God’s determination as Israel’s father is that which cleared the way for people of all nations to have the opportunity to be equally part of God’s family.

We need to come to grips with the implications of God’s identity as our Father. Sadly, this is obscured by the confusion over the fatherly role in our society today. Too many people have suffered from absent or abusive fathers. It is said that we often envision God as a reflection of our earthly fathers. But it doesn’t have to work this way. Whatever our experience has been with our natural fathers, we can look at the loving, powerful, close, communicative care of our Heavenly Father as revealed in Scripture. He is our true Father.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Technological Idolatry

For the week of September 11, 2021 / 5 Tishri 5782

Man in sitting in a meditative position with his laptop

Vayeilech
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 31:1-30
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2-10 (English 14:1-9); Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-17

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Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride on horses; and we will say no more, “Our God,” to the work of our hands. (Hosea 14:4; English 14:3)

God made human beings in his image to represent him on earth. Our primary task was to care for the creation by subduing and cultivating it (Bereshit/Genesis 1:26-28). We were to take control of Planet Earth under God’s supervision and direction. It wasn’t too long, however, before God’s order of things became skewed. Through our first parents we became subservient to the creation, due to the cunning of the serpent, who undermined God’s initial directives. The result was that instead of serving God by ruling over the creation, human beings became subject to the creation. Ever since then the creation has controlled us on its terms rather than our controlling it on God’s terms.

Being made in the image of God for the sake of creation care endowed humans with great creative skill. Contrary to popular misunderstanding, very early mankind practiced agriculture and animal husbandry. Eventually we see the development of tools and musical instruments. Two of the earliest Bible stories are examples of extraordinary technology: Noah’s ark and the Tower of Babel. The first, a boat-like structure the length of a football field designed to preserve the continuation of God’s plan for Planet Earth. The second was intended to be a great statement of human achievement. While both these projects are equally impressive, they greatly differ in their moral and spiritual quality. The ark was initiated and blessed by God to fulfill his purposes. The tower was a humanly initiated self-serving affair.

The tower project was so misguided that God determined it needed to be stopped. His assessment of the situation was this back-handed compliment: “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Bereshit/Genesis 11:6). God here acknowledges the technological savvy of human beings. This ability along with their unity due to a common language would have disastrous results.

The disruption of the Babel project didn’t put an end to humanity’s technological prowess. It slowed it down. But don’t get me wrong. It’s not our capacity to conceptualize, innovate, and implement creative tools that is destructive in itself. As I already mentioned, God used advanced (for its day) navel technology to save us. It’s our having become subservient to the creation that has twisted human motivation in such a way that, through the ages, the finest technology has been easily abused.

The abuse of technology is rooted, not in the technology itself, which is an expression of God-endowed creativity; but in the human hearts’ shift from reliance upon God, our maker and king, to the technology itself. Instead of our innovations serving the purposes to which God made us, we become enamored with the works of our own hands. We develop conveniences to alleviate suffering and discomfort, and then we can’t live without them. We design solutions to some of our greatest problems, and then we put our trust, our faith, in them instead of God.

The prophet Hosea envisioned a day when the people of Israel would finally accept the fundamental weakness of technology. He references horses, but the point is the same. Nothing wrong with riding a horse, but our lives don’t depend on the manifold ways we have subdued the creation for our benefit. “No more,” Hosea says, will we say, “‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands.” Technology need not be an idol, but that’s exactly what it is when we put our hope in it.

The ever-increasing ability of technology to monitor, care for, transform, and sustain our lives, the more god-like it becomes. The more god-like it becomes, the more it demands our allegiance, our trust, our love.

Apart from a major disruption to the earth’s magnetic field, which is not far-fetched, technological advances will continue. The question is will it serve us or will we serve it?

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Groovy Misterioso

For the week of September 4, 2021 / 27 Elul 5781

Old book and magnifying glass

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

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The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 29:29)

Back in the 70s, I played drums in my high school jazz band. One of my favorite pieces was the “Pink Panther Theme” by Henry Mancini. As you may know many pieces of music begin with an instruction in Italian to denote the tempo and feel of the piece. The Pink Panther has the unique instruction, “groovy misterioso” to denote a mysterious, but jazzy and cool feeling. (You can watch it here with Mancini himself on piano, but don’t forget to come back!)

When something is mysterious, it is in the realm of the unknown. Mystery stories, including movies, are driven by key components being hidden from the reader or viewer. Someone dies and we are led to suspect foul play is involved. The story then anticipates the revealing of what’s hidden. If the mystery remains unsolved by the end, most people wouldn’t find the story satisfying.

Yet, many readers of the Bible seem to be fairly happy with unsolved supposed Bible mysteries. When a teacher asserts a difficult-to-understand concept, their explanation is often, “Ah, that’s a mystery,” expecting their students to respond with awe and wonder. God himself, is often described as mysterious. The problem with that is that the Bible doesn’t describe him that way. Instead, he is accessible, knowable, and personable.

The Bible, the New Testament in particular, does use the word mystery, however. It’s the Greek word “mystērion” and appears twenty-seven times, mainly in Paul’s writings; once each in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all in the context of Yeshua’s teachings on parables; and four times in the Book of Revelation. But it isn’t used to describe that which is unknown or too difficult for us to understand. Rather, it is used to describe truths that were previously hidden which have now been made known. One example is found in Ephesians, chapter three, where Paul explains that God’s intentions to include people of the nations in his messianic plan had been unknown until the good news of Yeshua was proclaimed by his followers.

This kind of mystery is very different from common mystery stories, where we are aware something is going on, but we don’t know what it is, and thus a puzzle to solve. Bible mysteries are not puzzles. Yet that doesn’t stop some people from assuming that there are codes to crack and hidden messages to decipher. Bible mysteries are also not unknowable knowables – the stuff of “you just need to accept what I am telling you even though you will never be able to understand it, because it’s a mystery!”

That doesn’t mean that everything about God and life, be it in the Bible or elsewhere is knowable. Far from it! There are things that we can’t understand. That’s what Moses says in this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion): “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 29:29). This tells us that there exist knowable and unknowable things. God has deemed some matters to be secret, known only to him. They are not mysteries to solve. Instead, they are none of our business. Then there are the revealed things. These are our business. We are to learn them, do them, and pass them on to our children.

This is not to say that there aren’t knowable, but hard-to-understand things. But they are not hidden. Sometimes we have to put in considerable effort through prayer and study to discover truth and how best to live accordingly.

The Torah tells us that God has graciously revealed in his Word all we need to know to live effective, godly lives. And that’s groovy!

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Arise & Shine!

For the week of August 28, 2021 / 20 Elul 5781

Person in a victorious stance facing the sun

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

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Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. (Isaiah 60:1-3)

This week we are looking at the Haftarah portion, the reading from the Hebrew prophets that is traditionally associated with the scheduled Torah reading. The latter part of the book of Isaiah is concerned with a time period over a hundred years after the time of the prophet. This is one of the reasons why scholars think that the Book of Isaiah is a collection of prophetic writings of not only Isaiah, but other prophets from a later time. But since no other prophets are named, and to my knowledge, archeologists have never discovered individual sections, I prefer to regard Isaiah as the sole author. It also seems that a factor that influences the multi-author view is doubt over whether Isaiah could have spoken into these later time periods. I don’t share these doubts.

The faith necessary to accept that God empowers people to speak into the future is the same faith that can accept God’s word over and against the prevailing perspective of the masses at any period of time. Pitting God’s perspective against the majority is seen right through the Book of Isaiah.

In our Haftarah, God through Isaiah speaks of a common scriptural contrast: light and darkness. He speaks of someone through whom the light of God will shine. This is reminiscent of the pillar of fire centuries earlier that guided Israel through extremely difficult terrain. Despite the nation’s continued mistrust of God in those years, later generations would remember it as a time when God was with them in a most unusual and intimate way. According to Isaiah those days were returning. The people would likely also recall Moses shining with God’s glory when he returned from God’s presence on Mt. Sinai. Perhaps this would be experienced once more. Moses’ unique encounter would be the experience of the entire nation.

This glorious expectation, however, would not happen during pleasant times. Rather, the world would be engulfed in darkness. To be in darkness is to be in the midst of confusing and highly destructive trouble. As a result, according to Isaiah, nations and world leaders would come to Israel’s light.

While I expect this to one day come into its fulness in and through the people of Israel, it began with the coming of Israel’s Messiah. It was a dark time for Israel under Rome’s oppressive rule and the religious corruption that led to the Temple’s destruction. At the same time, the light of God had come. Thousands of Jewish people plus countless others from among the nations came to Israel’s light as emanating from the Messiah and his followers—a light that has continued to shine until today.

Dark days are returning. For many in various parts of the world they have already returned. In the Western World governments have been taking more and more control in the name of health and safety. Good is being called evil and evil, good. Freedom of speech is eroding while powerful surveillance systems are being more and more entrenched. Many think it’s no big deal. What makes it most dark is that most people are just going along, happily allowing societal power systems to determine the course of our lives.

The people of the light needn’t be overwhelmed. Some may think that the darkness needs to be beaten back, but that’s not how light works. When light shines, the darkness recedes. Those who long for light are attracted to it; those who love darkness hide away.

Followers of the Messiah shouldn’t be discouraged. Since we know the source of light, let us turn to him and allow him to shine through us again. As we put God and his word first in our lives, trusting him and following his directives, he will overcome the darkness.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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False Accusations

For the week of August 21, 2021 / 13 Elul 5781
Husband accusing wife

Ki Teze
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10
Originally posted the week of September 2, 2017 / 11 Elul 5777

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If a man marries a woman, has sexual relations with her and then, having come to dislike her, brings false charges against her… (D’varim/Deuteronomy 22:13-14)

Many people assume that the Bible is an archaic, backward book, written when people were superstitious, given over to mythical stories, and all round ignorant – nothing like we are today: enlightened, progressive, and intelligent. This might be hard to accept, but very little about humans has changed since the beginning, except for technological advances. We continue to do what we have always done, just faster and more efficiently. And that goes for things both good and bad.

This is not to say that the ancients weren’t superstitious. Many were. But many still are today. We continue to believe in all sorts of fanciful ideas, and ignorance over life essentials is rampant. Yes, much has been learned through the millennia, while some basic lessons of life continue to be ignored. The idea that people started off ignorant and foolish and have been progressing mentally and morally since then has no basis in fact.

One of the areas where the progress assumption is strongest is with regards to the Bible’s view of women. Some will even use the Bible itself to back up this claim by comparing the Old and New Testaments’ depictions and treatment of women. It is typical to assert that Yeshua was the great liberator of women, since he freely engaged females and considered some as associates in his work. That he did that is indeed the case, but making it sound as if he was being so-called progressive isn’t valid. Even a casual reading of his interactions with women demonstrates there was no scandal or even concern over them. There is his disciples’ questioning over the Samaritan Woman in John chapter four, but it isn’t clear from the text exactly what their issue was.

This is not to say that the world of that day, Jewish or otherwise, was necessarily altogether correct, vis a vis women’s rights. Certainly, all sorts of injustices were done unto women, but injustices of all kinds occurred to both men and women and have continued to this day. Whether or not we have significantly progressed to a higher moral plain is difficult to determine.

What we can determine, however, is that the whole Bible, Old and New Testaments, has a high regard for women. The divinely inspired wisdom of Scripture is displayed within a realistic view of life. Simply stating that all people should be treated equally does nothing to alleviate harmful behavior. But God knew that if left unchecked men and women would abuse each other.

In this week’s parsha, we have a situation where a man accuses his wife of deceitful impropriety prior to their marriage (see D’varim/Deuteronomy 22:13-21). The penalties for slander on the part of the man or impropriety on the part of his wife are harsh by today’s standards, but note the equality shown towards each party. If the man’s accusation is correct, then the woman was to be executed, the normal penalty for such things. But if the accusation is false, he was to be whipped, fined, and not allowed to ever divorce her. I know some will find these consequences backward in the way I referred to at the beginning, but don’t miss the sentiment here. Contrary to popular misconception, wives weren’t property to do with whatever their husbands pleased. Men were not allowed to say whatever they wanted about their wives and get away with it. There were repercussions for false accusations against women. These directives were designed to keep male selfishness in check. Yet, there is no preferential treatment here. Justice was to be done regardless of which partner was at fault.

There’s more. If I read this correctly, the result of God’s word here goes beyond this specific scenario. Because God provided a disincentive regarding false accusations, one would hope that men should think twice before acting on their suspicions toward their wives. In that day as well as our own, accusations in and of themselves destroy people’s reputations whether or not the accusation is valid. Yet, unlike in Moses’ time, there are no penalties for falsely accusing someone. Unlike the Torah, many justice systems tolerate false accusations to encourage victims to come forward. But that’s not just. True justice shows no bias toward supposed victims nor alleged perpetrators. Everyone should be treated fairly before the law. To allow otherwise is not progress.

Scriptures, Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)

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Just Justice

For the week of August 14, 2021 / 6 Elul 5781

The title, Just Justice, on a protest sign

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

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Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 16:20)

The subject of justice is popular today. Before I continue, let’s get our bearings. The Hebrew Bible has two key words that have to do with justice. Tz’dakah generally refers to that which is right. Mishpat refers to the bringing about of what is right. To bring about what is right is what we call in English, “justice.” The verse I quoted from the Torah uses a word very similar to tz’dakah, tzedek. A more literal reading of the Hebrew would be more along the lines of “The right, and only the right, you shall follow.” That sounds strange, yet the point is clear. The people of Israel were directed by God to always follow what is right. That includes personally doing the right thing as well as seeking to bring about what is right within the society, seek justice in other words.

There is a particular promise to the people of Israel here that makes continued connection to the land of Israel contingent upon the pursuit of justice. While we may not be able to directly apply this to other nations, the Bible demonstrates that right living results in blessing which includes national and personal security and prosperity. Therefore, any and all people anywhere at any time can look to this verse as an encouragement to pursue justice.

This then begs the question, who is to determine what justice is? What is right for one may not be right for another. In the context of Torah, what is right is carefully and clearly defined at least as far as the people of Israel in ancient times were concerned. As for our day, even passionate adherents of the Bible may dismiss certain Torah principles as obsolete be it for the people of Israel or anyone else. I am going to leave the question of what constitutes justice for another time as there is something else in this statement that we all, regardless of who we are and where or when we live, can learn from especially in our day.

What is translated here as “justice, and only justice,” in Hebrew is simply “tzedek tzedek.” The above attempt at a literal rendering could be improved. The Hebrew is closer to “right, right, you shall follow.” Repeating the word in this way is a device to strongly emphasize it. It strengthens the focus on how justice was to be pursued. Remember writing surfaces were not cheap in ancient times, which is one of the reasons why the biblical text is so thick with meaning. Words weren’t wasted. When God states “right, right.” It is purposeful.

The pursuit of what is right must be done in the right way. We mustn’t allow other interests to get in the way when dealing with an injustice. It’s too easy to allow our feelings to determine our actions for example. Our passions prefer to do away with the care necessary to determine the full scope of a situation and the people involved. In the moment justice may looks so clear and shortcuts to justice the most just, but are they?

I wonder if what is conducted under the banner of justice today is true justice. It seems to me that it is more along the lines of revenge. There is an expectation that the society is responsible to satisfy people’s personal grievances. Yet, biblically speaking societal wrongs were primarily against God not others. I can appreciate that agnostics and atheists can’t accept that. However, without God in view, all we are left with is an expectation of others to make the world feel right for us. That will never happen.

The anger that is so prevalent among us today fails to accept that injustice is primarily an internal reality within all of us. First and foremost, we are not right with God. All we human beings are flawed. Systemic and specific injustice is part of the fabric of the whole human experience. To demand personal satisfaction for injustice is a bottomless pit into which we will all fall into unless we have the humility to see that each and every one of us is the problem. This is not to say that there aren’t wrongs that shouldn’t be righted, but unless we go about making things right in the right way, we will only continue the cycle of injustice.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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