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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That’s Not Fair!

For the week of July 2, 2022 / 3 Tammuz 5782

Message info over children running a race

Korach
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
Haftarah: 1 Shmuel/1 Samuel 11:14 – 12:22
Revised version of message originally posted the week of June 16, 2018 / 3 Tammuz 5778

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They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” (B’midbar/Numbers 16:3)

I want share with you about time I was traumatized – maybe I should say “triggered” – about four years ago. My wife, our two youngest children, and I along with several other homeschooling families participated in an annual track and field day. We had been homeschoolers for a long time, beginning with our youngest child (we have ten in all) in the mid-1980s. Having lived in different parts of four of Canada’s largest cities and being committed to tailoring each child’s schooling as best we could to their individual needs and abilities, our education experience has been quite varied. From time to time we have been involved in formal and informal co-ops, where we would connect with other families to provide subjects and/or activities to complement what we were doing at home. That particular school year, we enrolled our two youngest (the only children still living at home at the time) in a once-a-week formal co-op. For many years, the co-op parents put on an annual field day.

That’s all to say that it had been a long time since I have attended, not to mention been involved, in such an event. I remember similar field days from my own public-school years. Just like this one, they tend to be a mix of classic track events, such as running races of various distances, standing and running long jumps, etc. as well as the more fun variety, such as the three-legged race. It was a most pleasant day for the most part, except for what triggered me.

Before I get to the truly painful part, I was first taken aback by the giving of ribbons for first through fifth place. When did they add fourth and fifth place? Will this generation be lobbying the International Olympic Committee for more medal categories? I wonder what they would be made of? Would you believe in 2012 a man from England took it upon himself to have pewter medals made and sent to fourth place finishers of the Summer Games in London? But my relatively minor state of shock over extending winning ribbons beyond third place didn’t prepare me for the BIG TRIGGER. As I was watching one of the races of the younger children (six-year-olds, perhaps), it was so obvious that some children were genetically superior than the others. It wasn’t even close as this one child (note my purposeful gender-neutral language) ran with superhero speed (comparatively speaking).

I stood there with dropped jaw. It was incredulous that well-meaning parents (as I assume these were) would allow such disparity of ability to be flaunted before impressionable minors. This child (as were a few others) were clearly physically privileged. No wonder they had ribbons for fourth and fifth places. My daughter’s group only had five competitors, so that was fine, but others had more. I don’t know how the ribbon-less children were able to show their faces in public after such a shameful display of inequality. Speak of unfair!

Korah and company who challenged Moses in this week’s parsha understood this and they were even more irate as I was (whether I really was traumatized or not is up to debate. You decide if I am being satirical or still bitter over being such a loser at athletic events myself). I know the parallel isn’t exact. The inequality demonstrated at the field day had to do with athletic prowess, while Korah was angry over what he perceived to be prejudicial preference. Yet I don’t think the resentment principle at work in these two contexts are that different, especially when you take God into account.

Korah, like Moses, was of the tribe of Levi. They were appointed by God to serve the priesthood, while God gave the priesthood itself to Moses’ brother Aaron and his descendants. Being specially set aside by God to be Levites was not good enough for Korah as he wanted the priesthood as well. While he accused Moses of favoritism, in reality his resentment was targeted at God.

Life isn’t fair. Not everyone gets to be a priest. Nor is everyone graced with the same abilities. Not everyone is born into the same life situation. Not everyone experiences the same challenges and/or opportunities. Not everyone handles their challenges and opportunities the same way. Life’s not fair.

What are we to do about it? Hand out ribbons for tenth place? Don’t hand out ribbons at all? Don’t have competitions? Some may think so, especially if equality of outcome is to be the highest value.

But is that what we want, really? More importantly, is that what God wants? With all the attention given to diversity in our day, do we know how to truly celebrate actual diversity? We are all so different. And to a great extent, it’s by God’s design. It may not be fair, but it is only when we commit ourselves to utilizing our God-given differences to their maximum potential, free of resentment, that each and every one of us can discover what we were created for.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Fully Engaged

For the week of June 25, 2022 / 26 Sivan 5782

Message info superimposed on an image of a man striving to climb a mountain

Sh’lach L’kha
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24

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The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel. From each tribe of their fathers you shall send a man, every one a chief among them.” (B’midbar/Numbers 13:1-2)

When God delivered the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt it was with the stated goal of bringing them into the land he promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In fact, we could say that God staked his life on it (see Bereshit/Genesis 15:12-21). As a result, Israel could count on acquiring the land. Still, God directed Moses to send twelve men to check out the land prior to the nation going in. I imagine he could have just told them to take the land sight unseen, but he didn’t.

As it turned out, while the land was as good as expected, ten of the twelve men were greatly intimidated by the strong people and fortified cities that they had seen. They believed that Israel would not succeed at this venture. Two of the twelve, Joshua and Caleb, disagreed, asserting that God would help them. Tragically, the fearful ones won over the nation to the extent that they were ready to choose a new leader and return to Egypt. It would be another thirty-eight years before Israel would get another opportunity to enter the land. That time too, scouts were sent in first.

So, why didn’t God just send the people in? It wouldn’t have been the first time that they had to face a seemingly impossible challenge. Perhaps it’s necessary in certain situations to grasp the nature of the challenge before facing it. Obviously, succeeding at such a venture required a level of sustained trust in God. It wasn’t as if God was expecting them to think of this as a nothing. The difficulty was not a concoction of their imaginations. At the same time, after all the people had gone through from the ten plagues, the Red Sea, and all that happened in the wilderness, God expected the people to be ready to trust him amid this great challenge. But they didn’t.

People often say things like, “But if God knew this would happen, why put them through it?” Some may attempt to resolve this by claiming that it had to happen. This is a way of saying that everything worked out according to plan, that at this point of Israel’s development they, of course, would behave this way. I find this reasoning completely unhelpful. What could be learned by such a “solution”? To simply accept what will be will be? I don’t think so.

There’s something far deeper going on here. God has no interest in simply commanding his people as if we are mindless puppets. True faith is not blind. Trusting in God requires keen understanding of life’s challenges. But not in isolation. We need to see all of life within the context of God’s love, power, and faithfulness to his people. God wanted the people to know exactly what they were going to be up against. That they thought they were helpless against this great challenge exposes how shallow their understanding of God was despite all he had done for them.

God calls people into an intelligent engagement of life. Designed to be his representatives on earth, we humans are to reflect who he is to the world: his wisdom, his goodness, his righteousness, and so on. This requires an understanding of the world from God’s perspective. We do this by learning his Word and developing the skill to apply it to every area of life. This also requires weighing truth and discerning appropriate solutions to the myriads of problems we face. We must learn from our own experience and the experiences of others. We need to be responsible for our lives, each of us fulfilling whatever God has given us to do.

None of this is easy. But we were never promised easy. To be fully human is to be fully engaged in life as God so directs. He never intended for us to float through life via some sort of detached spiritual emptiness. Far from it. We have been made to fully engage life as he so directs.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Full Disclosure

For the week of June 18, 2022 / 19 Sivan 5782

Message info over a person holding a book emanating light

Beha’alotcha
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English: 2:10 – 4:7)

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Now the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and say to him, When you set up the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lampstand.” And Aaron did so: he set up its lamps in front of the lampstand, as the LORD commanded Moses. (B’midbar/Numbers 8:1-3)

When I read certain parts of the Bible, in particular the Torah, the books of Moses, I wonder sometimes, what’s that doing there? Please don’t get me wrong. If God deems it to be part of his inspired written Word, I take no issue with it. It’s God’s Word after all, not mine. But why do I need to know this or that? All these instructions for the cohanim (English: priests), for example. They seem to be essential for a strict subset of the people of Israel. But what benefit does it and other such portions have to the average Joe or Joan?

I am aware that there is more to many of these passages than what might be obvious at first glance. At the same time, I can be skeptical of certain interpretations that may be doing nothing more than making stuff up. Take the verses I quoted at the beginning. It would be easy to lock on to the concept of light and run with it. Moses’ brother Aaron was given instructions to set up lamps inside the first of two highly restricted rooms contained within the mishkan (English: tabernacle). As far as we can tell, the purpose of the lamps was nothing more than practical: to provide light inside an otherwise completely dark environment. There’s nothing I know of in or around the passage to suggest otherwise. That said, if someone wants to use a passage like this to talk about how God is metaphorically our light in dark places – light signifying his knowledge that we need in order to live effective, godly, and productive lives – that’s great. But do we need this passage to know that? Aaron and his descendants needed it, of course. But what about the rest of us? Do we?

Yes we do. While perhaps there is a deeper meaning in such passages, there is something wonderful going on here. The core priestly function of ancient Israel was hidden from view. Every day, cohanim would enter the first room (the Holy Place) to tend the lamps, keep the incense burning, and replace the sacred loaves of bread. They would do this completely hidden away from view. Only select cohanim would ever get to see these unique furnishings and activities. Similarly, only one person, the Cohen HaGadol (English: the High Priest), would go into the second of the two rooms, the Holy of Holies, and ritually cleanse the Ark of the Covenant. And that happened only once each year. No one else would see it, but how do we know that? We know, because it’s explicitly described in Scripture.

To be honest, I don’t have extensive knowledge about other religions of the ancient Near East, but it seems to me that they were full of mystery. The inner workings of priests and such were for the priests alone. There seemed be a high value among both the religious leadership and their followers regarding mystery. Being clued out over what was really going on in the inner sanctum evoked a certain kind of awe that people valued.

It seems that’s still true today. Having a sense that the experts, be they religious or otherwise, possess information not accessible to the common person fuels a respect for them that allows us to trust their directions. It’s as if the more we don’t know, the more comfortable we feel entrusting our lives to them.

But that’s not God’s way. The God of the Bible is a god of disclosure. While the separateness of the innerworkings of the Mishkan evokes a sense of holiness – for a purpose I won’t delve into here – it’s not a secret. The Scriptures freely inform the people what’s going on beyond their view.

I have encountered Bible teachers who reference hard-to-understand passages as mysteries as if God wants us to simply accept all sorts of concepts just because we are told to. But that’s not the Bible’s use of the word “mystery.” In the New Covenant Writings, Paul commonly uses the word mystery to refer to something that was unknown in the past but has been made known in the present. It is not used to shut down questions and concerns about things that are hard to understand.

God delights in revealing himself and his ways to his people. While there are things beyond human understanding, God is not hiding in order to manipulate us in any way. Far from it! He longs to make himself known to us. If we find ourselves in the dark, it is only because we have not been willing to come into God’s light.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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