Weekly Torah Commentary – Devarim July 28, 2017

Torah reading:  Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22

Haftorah reading:  Isaiah 1: 1-27

The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.  Isaiah 1:1

Isaiah

Someone has called Isaiah the ‘Shakespeare of the biblical writers’ because of his passion and eloquence.  As we will have several Haftorah readings in the next few weeks from Isaiah’s book, let’s take a look at this man – who he was and when he lived.

Who was Isaiah? His ministry spanned the reigns of at least four kings, most likely five – Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah and probably into the reign of Manasseh. This is a period of approximately 40 years, covering the time of the second half of the 8th century B.C. (750-700). The son of Amoz, he exercised his ministry in and around Jerusalem. Some commentators speculate that he was from a well-to-do family with ties to the royal family. He was married and had at least two sons but we are told precious little about his personal and family life.

Isaiah was a contemporary of two other prophets – Micah, who also prophesied in Jerusalem (Judah), and Hosea, who prophesied in the northern kingdom of Israel. There is no mention of Isaiah and Micah knowing each other, although it is impossible to see how they could not have. There is no reference to Micah having access to the kings as Isaiah did, which again indicates that Isaiah had connections not available to Micah.

The times of Isaiah were turbulent, to say the least. King Uzziah, who reigned for fifty two years, led Judah during a period of prosperity not known since the days of Solomon. Jeroboam II reigned in Israel during most of Uzziah’s reign and had similar success. But their deaths were a turning point. By 722 B.C., the northern kingdom of Israel were destroyed by Assyria, its people forever scattered. Judah survived the Assyrian threat, but not before being reduced to a subservient country, impoverished by paying taxes to Assyria.

Uzziah’s son, Jotham served for sixteen years, pretty much in the same vein as his father. Both were described as being faithful to God, although Uzziah for some reason let pride get the best of him and fancied himself as being able to carry out the work of a priest. He entered into the temple area, reserved only for priests, and tried to burn incense on the altar. He was struck with leprosy which resulted in his death.

Ahaz, the next king, was the consummate opportunist, guided by one principle – his own ego. It was during his reign that Assyria conquered Israel; in fact, it was at his invitation! Israel wanted Judah to join them and dethrone Ahaz, in order to place their own puppet king on the throne. Ahaz’s reaction was to entreat the king of Assyria to come to his aid. The result was utter devastation for the northern kingdom of Israel and the submission of the southern kingdom of Judah. Ahaz also used his throne to promote idolatry and even offered his own sons to the fires of false gods.

Hezekiah succeeded his father and clearly was not his “father’s son.”  He followed the Lord, using his throne to bring reform to the country. It was Hezekiah who had the courage to tear down the pagan altars. He also dealt with Assyria, but unlike his father he turned to the Lord for deliverance through the counsel and encouragement of Isaiah.

The highlight of Hezekiah’s and Isaiah’s careers occurred in their response to a siege by Assyria. There were actually two separate threats made against Jerusalem by Sennacherib, king of Assyria. In the first, he sent his general to Jerusalem to order the surrender of the city. Dismayed, Hezekiah turned to the temple to pray and sent a petition to Isaiah to engage in prayer.  Isaiah strengthened the king with an encouraging prophecy that the Assyrian king would turn away due to false reports he would receive. Hezekiah then held steady, and, true to the prophecy, the Assyrian king turned away with his army. Years later Sennacherib would renew threats to Hezekiah, who again turned to God in prayer and received another promising word from Isaiah. That time, the Assyrian army was struck with a plague.  How different from the conniving Ahaz!

All the prophets, to be sure, proclaim the salvation of the Lord, but none can match Isaiah for the sheer grandeur of proclamation regarding God’s salvation.

Steadily and masterfully, the prophet describes and expands an exalted vision of the great act of redemption and restoration for God’s people. He does not merely proclaim these things will take place, but he takes every act and concept to great magnitude.  It is Isaiah who proclaims a salvation and restoration more grand than could have been imagined, culminating a new Jerusalem ‘whose righteousness shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch, who will be a crown of splendor in the LORD’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God.’ (Isaiah 62:1-3).

If we wanted to summarize the theme of Isaiah’s book, it would be this verse:  And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.  Isaiah 40:5

The incomparable glory of God shines through this book as the prophet expounds on the glory, majesty and holiness of the Holy One of Israel.

In Tune With Torah this week =  For Isaiah, true insight into the meaning of life is not merely that there is a God out there who loves us and offers a wonderful plan for us; it is that all things and everyone live for the glory of God. God does not exist for us; we exist for Him. The wonderful news Isaiah declares is that God is most glorified by his work of redemption.

Over the next few weeks, the haftorah readings will be primarily from Isaiah.  Expect to be enlightened and inspired by the visions and prophecies of this amazing servant of God.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Mattot-Maasei July 21, 2017

Torah reading:  Numbers 30 – 36

Haftorah reading: Jeremiah 2:  4-28, 3:4, 4: 1-2

Jeremiah begins this reading by recounting the faithfulness of the Israelites to God during the early years in the wilderness. Thus says the LORD, ‘I remember concerning you the devotion of your youth, the love of your betrothals, how you followed Me in the wilderness through a land not sown.  Israel was holy to the LORD.’  Jer. 2: 2-3

But when the Israelites entered the Promised Land, they became a bit too friendly with the locals and began to worship their gods. First they began to make friends with the Canaanites. Then they intermarried with them.  Then they began to worship the Canaanite gods of wood and stone. It was then that God punished them for their faithlessness.

Jeremiah reminded them of God’s faithfulness to them but that they, the Israelites, had abandoned him for these pieces of stone and wood. And so God says:

“For my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me, the spring of living waters,
and cut them out cisterns,
broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (2:13).

To this day, every drop of water in Israel is precious. The Israelites knew what it was to dig cisterns to collect runoff, and they knew what it was to lift buckets of water from the cistern and carry them to their gardens.

God said, “They have forsaken me, the spring of living water”—the mountain spring that flows faithful and pure—the artesian well that provides abundant water. “They have forsaken me…, and cut cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water.”

The issue was idolatry—the chasing after false gods. Jeremiah called God’s people to return to the true God of their fathers.

What does this have to do with us today?  It has everything to do with us today. What is idolatry, after all, but putting something else in God’s place; giving greater value to something earthly than to the Holy One of Israel Himself?  Whatever is more important to us than God Himself and our relationship with Him is an idol – plain and simple!

Chaplain (Major General) Kermit Johnson, a former Army Chief of Chaplains used to warn chaplains about something that he called SAM, the destroyer. When a chaplain left the Army in disgrace, it was usually because of SAM. He could have said that SAM constitutes our idolatry. What is SAM? SAM stands for sex, alcohol and money.

It should not surprise us that sex would be one of the idols—one of the things that we love more than God. Sex is the goddess of the century. It pervades our media and our entertainment and presents a total perversion of what God intended it to be.  Our modern culture deludes us by promising us without consequences, making the morals of our parents and grandparents obsolete.

But sex without rules has not lived up to its promise and in many ways has been the near-ruin of the family in country after country.

Alcohol is another one of the destroyers—another idol— alcohol and drugs.  For an alcoholic or drug addict, nothing is more important than their fix! The next fix is more important than God, family or life itself. Those who are recovering alcoholics or who have been delivered from drug addiction know very well how destructive—and idolatrous—alcohol and drugs really are.

And it should come as no surprise that money is one of our modern idols—one of the things that we love more than God. Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest men in America, said, “The amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry.”

The Bible tells us that the love of money is the root of all evil.  Money itself is not condemned nor the possession of money but the love of money.  When our decisions are based more on money than on God’s will and His ways, that’s when money becomes an idol and a destroyer of individuals and families.

But SAM—Sex, Alcohol and Money—is only part of our idolatry. This may surprise you but it has been suggested that Health is the most modern idolatry.  Ellen Goodman, a Newsweek columnist, penned some thought-provoking words on our health fetish. She said:

“The old taboos were religious. Ours are medical.
Our ancestors talked about risks to the soul,
and we talk about risks to our bodies.…
Our focus on these matters is religious in its intensity.”

Are there not people today whose whole lives revolve around their cholesterol count? Health is important and yes, we are responsible to take care of our physical bodies but when it becomes an obsession, ‘health’ becomes another idol. When we care more about the health of the body and too little about the health of the soul, our physical health has become an idol.

At what point does anything become idolatry?  When we put something other than God on God’s throne.  And know this: there’s a certain characteristic of idols that never fails: idols will betray us.  When we put our faith in anything more than we put our faith in God, sooner or later, that ‘idol’ will fail us.  For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. Deuteronomy 4:24

In Tune with Torah this week =  God’s people are His ‘cherished possession.’  He does not take it lightly when we consider anything in our lives as more important than Him.  He is jealous over us with a righteous jealousy for after all, He is our Creator and Father! Jeremiah called the people of Israel to love God and to put Him in first place in their lives. The greatest commandment is this: Hear, O Israel, the LORD is God; the LORD is one.  You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your possessions. Deuteronomy 6:4-5

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Balak July 7, 2017

Torah reading: Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

Haftorah reading: Micah 5:6 – 6:8

This week’s reading in the prophet Micah ends with this verse:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?  Micah 6:8

This well known verse is a unique summary of what biblical obedience is all about.  Let’s get something straight from the very beginning.  Obedience according to biblical texts is not about meticulously complying with endless man made rules. It is, rather, an attitude of heart which recognizes the eternal love and compassion of the  Holy One of Israel towards us as our Father and our King (Avinu Malkenu) with the result that we want to honor, magnify and emulate Him.  You shall be holy for I am holy.  (Leviticus 19:2)

Over the centuries ‘holiness’ has been described primarily in terms of outward submission to commandments or instructions.  In all of the major religions of the world, issues such as manner of dress, style of worship, and conformity to doctrine and tradition have created the misconception that ‘holiness’ is measured by outward appearance.  Nothing could be further from the essence of biblical holiness.  Even a modern secular quote agrees: ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’

One of the most outstanding examples in the prophets that illustrates this principle is in I Samuel 16.  After the LORD had torn the kingdom of Israel from Saul because of his disobedience, He told the prophet Samuel to go to the house of Jesse in Bethlehem and anoint a new king from among Jesse’s sons.  Interestingly, the LORD didn’t tell the prophet which son. Jesse had several.

When the first son, Eliab, appeared before Samuel, the prophet looked at him and thought, Surely the LORD’s anointed is before Him. I Sam. 16:6

But the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.’  I Samuel 16:7

Apparently Eliab ‘looked’ like the perfect candidate but he wasn’t.  The ‘appearance’ of religiosity can be deceiving for mankind has a unique tendency to act one way outwardly while thinking just the opposite internally.  This is the definition of hypocrisy!

humility2

God chose the most unlikely of Jesse’s sons – the youngest, David, who was just a teenager at the time…but what a teenager!  David tended his father’s sheep, a lonely and boring task which David transformed into a consistent opportunity for worship.  He sang to the LORD on the hillsides, meditated on God’s Word while the sheep grazed, and wrote the most beautiful songs of praise and worship, the Psalms, which we enjoy to this day.  God called David, ‘a man after my own heart.‘ Wow – imagine such a compliment from the LORD!

 

David wasn’t a perfect man, but he had the qualities of heart that God loved and which Micah speaks about in this week’s haftorah.

First there is justice. Justice is a willingness to stand up for what is right. From justice comes moral integrity, honesty, a holding to God’s values. Those who are just make sure that all people are seen as valuable in God’s eyes, because they make it a point to look at everyone as created in God’s image and likeness.

The second character trait in Micah’s description is mercy.  When we are merciful we respond to hurts in peoples lives, without deepening their wounds. This motivates us to show forgiveness to those who have hurt you and done you wrong, just as God freely forgives you when you repent of your sins and failures. It also means forgiving yourself for past failures.

The third trait is humility. Humility is not about being a ‘doormat’, neither is it weakness, but it is that quality of heart that recognizes God for who He is.  The humble heart then wants to do all that God asks of you, because of who He is. It requires that we obey God even when our desire is to do otherwise. God’s will comes before our own. Humility also thinks of others more than oneself.  It is not haughty or arrogant but looks for and appreciates the good in other people.  It is the polar opposite of someone who is regularly critical, judgmental and harsh towards other people.

We could say it this way: there’s a major difference between perfectionism and excellence.  Perfectionism is concerned with doing things right (outward observance).  Excellence is concerned with doing the right thing (heart motivation).

In Tune with Torah this week = God has not called us to ‘perfectionism’ but to excellence.  We are not here to ‘perform’ before others in order to be applauded by them.  We are here to serve the living God from the depths of our hearts, loving Him, desiring what He desires and being occupied with His interests above our own.

Keep in mind that the fundamental meaning of the word ‘hypocrite’ is ‘an actor’ – someone who pretends to be someone he is not.

Let us walk before God as Micah urges: being just, showing mercy and living humbly.

Shabbat Shalom