Weekly Torah Commentary – May 11, 2018 Behar-Bechukotai

Torah reading:  Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34

Haftorah reading: Jeremiah 16:19 – 17:14

If you follow My decrees and are careful to obey My commands, I will send the seasonal rains…I will give you peace in the Land and you will be able to sleep without cause for fear…I will look favorably upon you, make you fertile and multiplying your people…and I will fulfill My covenant with you Leviticus 26: 3, 6, 9.

Someone has said that the history of Israel could be summed up this way: Deliverance, Obedience, Rebellion, Repentance – Deliverance, Obedience, Rebellion, Repentance – over and over again.  To a great extent, that’s absolutely true.

But throughout that ebb and flow of Israel’s national character, one thing remains constant to this very day – GOD’S ETERNAL FAITHFULNESS to HIS COVENANT.

covenant

The people who populate the pages of your Bible and mine understood Covenant to a degree that few modern folks do.  In biblical times, covenants were linked to all kinds of relationships, whether nations, tribes, clans, families or individuals.

The English word ‘covenant’ comes from the Latin con-venire which literally means “to come together in agreement.”  The Hebrew word brit literally means ‘to bind or to fetter, a binding obligation’.  In biblical terms, the word Covenant is the ultimate expression of committed love and trust.

So we could define Covenant this way: It is a binding, unbreakable obligation between two parties, based on unconditional love sealed by blood and an oath, that creates a relationship in which each party is bound by specific undertakings on the other’s behalf. 

Westerners may feel strange or uncomfortable with the concept or confuse it with a ‘contract’ but they are not the same.  Contracts are negotiated by both parties and can be changed or even cancelled.  A Covenant is entirely different.  It is far above the exchange of things; it is the giving of oneself in committed relationship and the openness to receive from the other person. It cannot be altered or cancelled. A familiar example of this is the covenant between David and Jonathan detailed in the book of I Samuel.

The most amazing news announced to a man and his descendants was that God, in His unconditional love for us, cut a covenant with Abraham, thereby calling to all descendants of Abraham in every generation to enter into the most intimate and unbreakable bond of relationship known to mankind – a covenant relationship with Himself.  God’s covenant draws us into the circle of friendship in which God and His people are bound together.

What is perhaps equally amazing is that a perfect, all-wise and altogether holy God with no necessity within Him and no pressure from without, chose to create us with – of all things – free will.  Do you understand how incredible that is?  He created us with the capability to say ‘No’ to Him.  If I may put it this way, God took the greatest risk ever by creating man and woman in His image and likeness, yet with the ability within them to reject and rebel against the very One who created them.  If that’s not unconditional, eternal, unfathomable LOVE, I don’t know what is!

And when He did, He had already determined that He would make a covenant with the man of His choice, Abraham – a covenant that would last unconditionally throughout time and eternity, a covenant that He would never break because of Who He is – Almighty, Everlasting Eternally Unchangeable God!

There is another Hebrew word we must include in this discussion: chesed, which includes three ideas – strength, steadfastness and love – and it is commonly translated as loving kindness.  It denotes much more than loyalty and some legal obligation; it is genuine love, warmhearted generosity and goodness, an attitude of heart that goes beyond requirement to lavish giving of oneself and one’s resources.

By now, I’m sure you recognize that everything we’ve said about Covenant describes the very essence and character of our Heavenly Father.  He is unlimited Love, unconquerable Strength and unending faithfulness or steadfastness.  When God made covenant with Abraham, it was for keeps!

And so the psalmist wrote: Your (chesed) loving kindness, O Lord is in the heavens; Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds. Psalm 36:5

God made Covenant not to create loving kindness but to express His loving kindness – that we might see His heart now and for all eternity.

Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is Your Faithfulness.  Lamentations 3:22-23

Most importantly, let us not forget precisely what God promised Abraham:

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am El-Shaddai, ‘God Almighty’….This is My covenant with you. I will make you that father of a multitude of nations.  What’s more, I am changing your name. It will no longer by Abram. Instead you will be called Abraham, for you will be the father of many nations.  I will make you extremely fruitful. Your descendants will become many nations, and kings will be among them.’  Gen. 17:1, 4-6

This promise of ‘many nations’ – not just one – followed Abram’s declaration of Faith. And Abram believed the LORD and the LORD counted him as righteous because of his faith Gen. 15:6

This occurred some four hundred years before the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai.  Abram was not considered righteous by God because of meticulous keeping of the law for there was no law in his day! God called him ‘righteous’ because of his FAITH.

In tune with Torah this week =  Abraham, father of the Hebrew nation and also father of ‘many nations’ which includes the Gentile nations, stands for all time as the premiere example of the power of FAITH.

At the age of 99, when every natural reality cried against it, Abram BELIEVED that God could do the impossible…and God did.  Every man, woman and child who believes in the Person and the Word of the living God is a child of Abraham, one of His spiritual descendants.

Child of Abraham, FAITH is the bedrock of our relationship with God; He cannot lie, His Word will never fail. You can trust your Heavenly Father implicitly for His Chesed – loving kindness – endures forever!

Shabbat Shalom

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Toldot November 17, 2017

Torah reading:  Genesis 25:19 – 28:9

Haftorah reading: I Samuel 20:18-42

This week’s reading begins by telling us of other sons whom Abraham had by Keturah, his second wife whom he married after the death of Sarah.  We are also told of Abraham’s death and burial;  we read a list of Ishmael’s descendants; and, a description of the birth of Esau and Jacob. Frankly, this reading at first glance doesn’t seem very relevant to where we all live.

So what was Moses’ purpose in writing it?

Moses was writing to a people about to go in and conquer the land promised to Abraham’s descendants through Isaac. The previous generation had the opportunity to conquer that land, but they died in the wilderness because of their unbelief. Now this generation had an opportunity to obey God in His redemptive plan of giving the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants. God’s purpose as promised to Abraham will be fulfilled. The question is, will this generation be used of God to fulfill it, or will they, too, be set aside?

I believe that the main point Moses was trying to convey was that God’s purpose according to His choice will stand. God is sovereign; what He says, He will do. But even so, His chosen people must submit and commit themselves to His purpose if they want His blessing.

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Whenever a great leader, who has founded a work or a movement, passes away, there is concern for who will carry on. However, with God’s program, there is no such concern. His purpose is greater than any man. The most certain thing in this world is that God will do what He has said. Nothing can thwart His purpose.

This section of Genesis shows that God keeps His promises. God had promised to make Abraham the father of a multitude of nations (17:4). The list of Abraham’s sons through Keturah, several of whom grew into nations, shows a part of the fulfillment of God’s promise. Even though we don’t recognize most of these names, Israel did. The existence of these nations was a demonstration to Israel that what God promises, He does.

The text goes on to make the point that Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac (25:5). While he gave some gifts to Keturah’s sons, he sent them away.  It is not that he rejected them; rather we learn from ancient records, that Abraham commissioned Keturah’s sons to go to distant lands to teach the people about the one true God – the God of Israel. Isaac, on the other hand, was God’s choice to continue the calling of Abraham, and thus God blessed him after Abraham’s death (25:11). As they were Isaac’s descendants, the generation going into the Land needed to see their part as God’s chosen means of fulfilling His promises to Abraham, and they needed to obey God in taking the promised land.

Then Moses lists the generations of Ishmael (25:12-18). Why? To make the same point–that God’s purpose according to His choice will stand. Abraham had asked God that Ishmael might live before Him (17:18). God denied that request because He had chosen Isaac, but He promised Abraham that Ishmael would become the father of twelve princes, and that He would make him into a great nation (17:20). Moses records the fulfillment of that in 25:18. The point again is, God’s purpose according to His sovereign choice was accomplished.

Moses hammers home the same concept in the account of the birth of Esau and Jacob. If God was going to make a great nation of Abraham through Isaac, then obviously Isaac needed to have children. But Rebekah, like Sarah, was barren. For 20 years there were no children in their marriage. But Isaac prayed and the Lord answered in accordance with His promise to Abraham.

But even in that situation, God made a choice. He told Rebekah that two nations would come from the twin sons in her womb, and that the older (Esau) would serve the younger (Jacob). Esau became the father of the Edomites. Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, became the father of that nation. It was God’s purpose that Israel’s descendants, those to whom Moses was writing, fulfill God’s purpose according to His choice of Jacob, by conquering the promised land.

So everything in the text is there to make the same point–that God chooses certain people for His purpose and that His purpose according to His choice will be accomplished.

These verses reveal two striking things about God’s choice:

First, God’s choice usually runs counter to man’s wisdom.

If we were going to pick a man to be the father of a multitude of nations, we’d probably run the couple through a fertility test and then pick the one who looked the most promising. God picked a couple who couldn’t produce any children. Then, we’d make sure that his son and his wife were fertile. In God’s sovereignty, the son’s wife was barren. His half-brother, Ishmael, didn’t seem to have any problem producing twelve sons, but Isaac could produce only two, and that only after 20 years of pleading with God. If we had to pick between the two sons, we’d pick the oldest. He seemed to be the strongest. The youngest was a wimp and a deceiver! God picked him. That’s how God’s choice usually runs–counter to man’s wisdom.

If God chose those who were strong in themselves, they would boast in themselves and God would be robbed of His glory. If God chose those who first chose Him, they could brag about their intelligent choice. So God chooses those whom the world would never choose. When His purpose is fulfilled through them, He gets the glory.

Secondly, God’s choice operates on the principle of grace, not merit.

One of the most difficult, but most rewarding, truths in the Bible to grasp is that God doesn’t operate on the merit system. He doesn’t choose those who have earned it or who show the most potential. He doesn’t choose on the basis of birth order or strength. If He did, He would have picked Ishmael over Isaac. Ishmael was tough; he grew up by surviving in a hostile desert. Isaac was a mild, blah sort of guy, not noted for much except digging a few wells.

This bothers people, because it humbles our pride, but it’s one of the most rewarding concepts in the Bible to lay hold of. It means that your redemption does not depend on you and your feeble hold on God, but on God and His firm grip on you.  It casts you totally on God and His sovereign grace, which is a good place to be. It floods you with gratitude as you consider His goodness and His mercy in choosing you in spite of your sin.

That doesn’t mean we can do anything we want. While God is sovereign, He has given me the responsibility to obey Him. I can’t presume on being one of the elect and go on living for myself.

Our responsibility is simply to submit to God and seek to obey what His Word clearly reveals, namely, that God’s sovereign purpose according to His unconditional choice will stand. When I quit fighting and submit myself to God and His ways, my relationship with Him flourishes.

The Lord didn’t wave His wand over the land of Canaan so that Israel could move in without any struggle. They had to commit themselves to God’s purpose and fight to get it.

Abraham is the example in our text. He submitted and committed himself to God’s purpose, and God blessed him abundantly. We read that he died “satisfied with life” (25:8). The expression is literally “full of years,” but it means more than just old. It implies that he couldn’t ask for anything more from life than God had given him. The only way you can truly die that way is if you have lived to further God’s purpose.

In Tune with Torah this week = Sometimes it’s easy to look at all the evil in the world and get discouraged because it seems like God’s side is losing badly.  The great truth is that God will accomplish His sovereign purpose. Let us therefore encourage one another to submit ourselves wholeheartedly to our heavenly Father and devote ourselves without reservation to His purposes.

Shabbat Shalom

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Weekly Torah Commentary – Chaya Sarah November 10, 2017

Torah reading: Genesis 23:1-25:18

Haftorah reading:  I Kings: 1-31

Moses writes, “Now Sarah lived one hundred and twenty-seven years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. Sarah died in Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan; and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.”  Genesis 23:1-2

As commentators over the centuries have noted, Sarah is the only woman in the Bible whose age at the time of her death is revealed. At 127 she is no young woman. But the death of Sarah would have seemed untimely because of her apparent youthfulness. Even at the age of ninety she was a woman attractive enough to catch the eye of King Abimelech (20:1-2). Was she the original Mrs. Oil of Olay? Her youthfulness and beauty would have certainly concealed the fact that death was coming upon her.

Abraham mourned and wept, meaning that in addition to the crying he went through the traditional mourning customs of his day: tearing clothes, cutting his beard, spreading dust on his head, and spending the seven days of mourning which have been traditional in the Middle East from the most ancient times. We read in Genesis 50 that when Jacob died and was buried in Hebron, his family mourned him for another 7 days. This tradition is still followed today in Jewish homes around the world.

Sarahdies

Genesis 23:2 is the first record of a man’s tears in the Bible. It is fitting that it should be a husband weeping and mourning over the death of his loyal wife of 60 years. It is remarkable that this is the only time we are ever told that Abraham wept. He had been through so many bitter disappointments and heartaches in his life: He was disappointed when Lot left him (13:5-12). He was heartbroken when he sent Ishmael away (21:9-14). He was devastated when he had to offer Isaac (22:1-10). But the only time the Scriptures reveal that he wept was when Sarah died. This reveals the depth of his grief and love for this woman.

The death of a loved one has always been a time to think about eternal realities. Ecclesiastes 7:2 says, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, because that is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart.” In light of this eventuality, two of the most profound and beneficial questions I think we can ask ourselves are:

(1) How do you want to be remembered at your funeral?

(2) What steps do you need to take for that to happen?

Abraham recognized and believed that God’s promises are still in the future. Sarah’s death may well have reminded him that there were still others of God’s promises for him to receive.  He could also have been reminded that his death may not be very far away for he was older than Sarah.

This could have been be a deeply trying moment for Abraham’s faith. Yet the scripture demonstrates that he continued to believe faithfully for the future and act accordingly, despite many difficulties. He expected God to fulfill every one of His promises whether he lived to see them all come to pass or not.

In this way, Abraham serves as an example to every generation since. We must have  faith for the future; we must have a confidence in God that goes beyond even this life for the fulfillment of His promises.  This is the faith that waits expectantly for the coming of Messiah.

In 23:3-6, Moses writes, “Then Abraham rose from before his dead, and spoke to the sons of Heth, saying, ‘I am a stranger and a sojourner among you; give me a burial site among you that I may bury my dead out of my sight.’ The sons of Heth answered Abraham, saying to him, ‘Hear us, my lord, you are a mighty prince among us; bury your dead in the choicest of our graves; none of us will refuse you his grave for burying your dead.’” Abraham’ first words are “I am a stranger and a sojourner among you” (cf. Lev 25:23; 1 Chron 29:14-15; Ps 39:12).

Abraham refers to himself as a ‘stranger’ and a ‘sojourner’ because he realized that Canaan was not his final home. He was living for his future home beyond the grave in the world to come. Eternal life in the presence of God was a reality that dictated how he lived – by faith.  The prophet Habakkuk echoed Abraham’s guiding principle when he wrote: The just shall live by faith. (Habakkuk 2:4)

Notice that the sons of Heth call Abraham “a mighty prince among us.” Apparently, Abraham’s influence counted for something.

How do you want to be remembered?

In Tune with Torah this week =  Are you so caught up with your life here and now that you don’t live with eternity in view? Our goal in this life is not to build up a sizable estate, but to live our life as a pilgrim on the way to our true home, the world which is to come.

Does your life influence others towards God? Or are you on a spiritual auto-pilot?

Are you stuck in a spiritual rut, doing what you’ve been doing for years but not demonstrating in your daily life that God is alive to you, that you are passionate about Him and seek His presence?

There is an old saying that people will drive from all over to see a fire burn. The same is true in regard to our congregational and personal lives: If we are allowing God to work in our lives, people will drive from all over to see someone on fire for God.

Why shouldn’t it be you?

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayeira November 3, 2017

Torah reading:  Genesis 18:1 – 22:24

Haftorah reading: 2 Kings 4: 1-37

This week’s Torah reading has a profound message for us right now in November 2017.  Across the world we see turmoil and chaos increasing at an alarming rate. Scandals, hate speech, racism and other factors consume the news media and become the topic of heated – sometimes vicious – exchanges on social media.

Abrahamintercedes

While we may admire Abraham’s hospitality in this week’s reading, I think there is something else that displays a high degree of spirituality and maturity in the Patriarch. The brilliance of Abraham’s character is seen in his intercession with the Lord for the sparing of the righteous in Sodom.

The Lord and the two angels made their way down toward Sodom, escorted part way by Abraham. It would seem that the Lord turned to the two angels as He asked, almost rhetorically,

… Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? For I have chosen him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; in order that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him” (Genesis 18:17b-19) .

The intimacy of the relationship between God and Abraham served as the motivation for God’s disclosure of His purposes for Sodom. Further, the Abrahamic Covenant provided the foundation on which that relationship was based. In verse 19 the necessity for Abraham’s faith to be communicated and continued by his offspring is stressed.

In contrast to the faithfulness of Abraham’s descendants is the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah.

And the Lord said, ‘The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave. I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know’ (Genesis 18:20-21).

Verses 20 and 21 dramatically portray the sin of Sodom and the righteous response of a holy God to it. The sin of the city is so great that it virtually cries out to heaven for retribution. God’s personal interest and focused attention is depicted as ‘going down’ to deal with it. God is not ‘going down’ to learn the facts, but to take personal interest in them and to invade the situation. So it is that Abraham discerned that God was about to destroy the city, although it was not stated specifically.

The two angels went on toward Sodom, leaving the LORD and Abraham alone, overlooking the city (19:27,28). While speaking reverently, Abraham manifested a boldness with God never seen before.

And Abraham came near and said, ‘Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt Thou indeed sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from Thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from Thee! Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?’ (Genesis 18:23-25).

Abraham’s appeal is based on the justice of God.  He recognizes the evil in the city but his thoughts turn to the possibility of righteous people in the midst of it. Certainly he was concerned for his nephew, Lot and Lot’s family, but at the same time, Abraham also understood God’s mercy and his appeal may well expose his hope that if the city were spared because of the few righteous, perhaps the wicked might yet come to faith in God.

Abraham boldly asserts that it is against God’s nature to treat the righteous and the wicked in the same way.  Therefore, if a sufficient number of righteous could be found in Sodom, there is every reason for God to spare the city from destruction.

The LORD entertains Abraham’s plea and the bargaining begins.  How many righteous will it take?

God agreed to spare the city if 50 righteous could be found (verse 26). Abraham must have doubted that such a number could be found, and so he began to plead for a lower figure.

And Abraham answered and said, ‘Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord, although I am but dust and ashes. Suppose the fifty righteous are lacking five, wilt Thou destroy the whole city because of five?’ And He said, ‘I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there’ (Genesis 18:27-28).

From here, Abraham was encouraged to attempt to further reduce the minimum number of righteous required to spare Sodom. First it was 40, then 30, then 20, and finally 10. We almost sigh with relief here, for one might fear that God would lose His patience with Abraham. Personally, I believe the heart of God was warmed by Abraham’s compassion and zeal. This was no selfish petition, but intercession for others.

Why, then, did Abraham stop with ten? Why would he not have gone on to five or even one? Some may think that he did not dare to press God farther. Perhaps so, but I do not believe that Abraham would have ceased until he were confident that Lot and his family were safe from the wrath of God.

As we know from chapter 19 Abraham’s hopes exceeded reality. This would have resulted in tragedy were it not for a great divine truth: God’s grace always exceeds our expectations.

In the final analysis there were only three righteous in Sodom, Lot and his two daughters. Some might well question the righteousness of the daughters from their actions in the next chapter. However, God did comply with Abraham’s petition. While He did not spare the city of Sodom, He did spare Lot and his daughters.

In Tune with Torah this week = in our day, nation after nation across the world is in turmoil.  Scandals, riots, violence and chaos are regular items in the daily media.  In the midst of a broken society, what are the children of Abraham to do?

Abraham, our father, is our example.

You will notice that Abraham did not spend precious time denouncing the wickedness of  Sodom.  It was obvious enough and needed no further commentary.  Abraham turned to the only One who held out any hope for a remedy.

Never underestimate the power of prayer.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Lech Lecha October 27, 2017

Torah reading: Genesis 12:1 – 17:27

Haftorah reading: I Samuel 20: 18-42

The week’s Torah reading provides us with a shift in the direction of the narrative thus far.  During the first eleven chapters of Genesis, there has been a consistent theme of sin followed by punishment.  It began with Adam and Eve.

Before long we had the days of Noah in which mankind had already sunk into untenable moral decay. God saw the condition of mankind as a whole and He destroyed the earth and all its people, except for Noah and his family, with a flood.

Not too long afterward, there was the Tower of Babel where mankind had gathered together and decided to build a tower that would reach the heavens in order to ‘make a name for ourselves.’ (Gen. 11:4)  At first glance, it seems as though the human situation is looking up. The people were unified, they all spoke the same language and they were co-operating together on a common project.  Yet God punished them – the whole group of them – by confusing their language and scattering them across the earth.

What was their sin? ‘…let us make a name for ourselves..’ It could very well be that had they attempted to build a tower in order to be closer to God and His heaven – in other words – to exalt the Name of the LORD instead of their own name – the story would have ended differently.

Therefore in the early chapters, we see the recurring theme of man’s failure to exalt His Creator and instead to follow the evil intent of his own mind which brought upon them the chastisement of the Almighty.

Now, as we move on to chapter 12, suddenly God speaks to one man, to an individual, Abram, instead of to mankind in general.

Abram

Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country and from your relatives and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; I will bless those who bless you and the one who curses you, I will curse.  And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.’ Gen. 12:1-3

Abram wasted no time in arguing with God or procrastinating about what he’d been told. The text indicates he obeyed without hesitation and with his wife, his nephew Lot and others of his household, he set off after the call of God.   At the time he was 75 years old. (take courage, it’s never too late to be used by God!) Not until he was 100 was Isaac born.

Abram embraced the call and the promise of God quickly then awaited its fulfillment patiently, much longer than he anticipated having to wait.

From that one man would eventually arise a people with the mandate to be ‘a light to the nations’.  It never fails to impress me that in the days of Abram, whom God re-named Abraham, there was no Torah, no written scripture of any kind, no Bible study groups.

But there was a man of FAITH. There was a man whose faith did not waver, whose trust in the one true God did not dissipate and whose confidence in his God’s integrity he never questioned.

Abraham’s greatest legacy to us is the value of FAITH.  It is faith that pleases our God and centuries later the prophet Habakkuk would write, ‘the righteous man shall live by faith.’

It had to begin with Abraham; it could not have started with Moses.  For unless the faith came first, the commandments are meaningless, a compilation of do’s and don’ts fit for robots.  It is FAITH in the Holy One of Israel that prompts us to want to honor His Name not just in word but also in deed.

Abraham is the father of the Hebrew people because of his exemplary faith.  It is faith that pleases God, first and foremost,  It is faith that causes us to ‘love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul and all our resources.’  Deut. 6:5

In Tune with Torah this week = Faith is more than mental assent.  Biblical faith is a conviction in the heart that our God is real, He is Almighty, Everlasting and utterly Faithful.  He has drawn us to Himself and loves us with an unending and extravagant love.

The saying ‘Seeing is believing’ is backwards when it comes to spiritual understanding.  The truth is ‘Believing is Seeing.’

If your faith is in need of strengthening, take some time this Shabbat to read His Word and ponder it quietly in your own heart. Ask Him to reveal Himself to you.  He will.

Shabbat shalom.

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Weekly Torah Commentary – Eikev August 11, 2017

Torah reading:  Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25

Haftorah reading: Isaiah 49:14 – 51:3

Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, who seek the Lord: Look to the rock from which you were hewn and to the quarry from which you were dug.  Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who gave birth to you in pain; when he was but one I called him, then I blessed him and multiplied him.  Isaiah 51:1-2

abraham-father-of-faith

In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, the story of Abraham and his family is covered from chapter 11 through chapter 50, while only two chapters are given to the entire story of creation. What was there in the life of Abraham that distinguished him as such a man that so great a portion of Genesis is devoted to disclosing his life in great detail?

The life story of Abraham begins in Ur of the Chaldeans where Abraham lived in a comfortable home and in pleasant circumstances. Archaeology has disclosed that Ur, located not too far from Babylon, was a prosperous city with lovely homes, beautiful parks and public buildings. Abraham was comfortable and secure in Ur, but it was also a wicked city where pagan sacrifices — including human sacrifices — were continually offered.

According to Genesis 12:1, God directed Abraham to leave Ur, leave his family, and dwell in tents for the rest of his life. Abraham started out with his father and his nephew, Lot, and got as far as Haran. Only when his father died did Abraham move on to the promised land with Lot. At long last he had come to the place of God’s appointment.  Keep in mind that when God instructed Abraham (then Abram) to leave Ur, God didn’t explain exactly where Abraham was going. He simply said, ‘Leave and go…and I’ll show you where to stop!’

From Abraham’s life, we learn and re-learn some much needed lessons. Abraham demonstrated his faith that God would care for him, provide for him and guide him by doing what God told him to do regardless of how bizarre it may have sounded to his family and friends at the time, let alone his wife!  Can you imagine your husband coming home one afternoon and saying, ‘Honey, we’re moving.’  You reply in surprise, ‘Oh? Where are we going?’  Your husband replies, ‘I have no idea.  God just spoke to me today and said we must leave here and He will show us where to settle.’  Seriously?!?!?!?  It’s probably the mercy of God towards Sarah that the scripture doesn’t tell us her first reaction!  To her credit, despite whatever her first reaction was, she followed her husband, trusting his faith in God.

Without knowing where the land was to which he was going, he accepted God’s promise that his descendants would inherit that unknown land.  Keep in mind that at the time he had no descendant and he was already advanced in years.  But Abraham understood something that we moderns too often overlook: When God speaks, our only appropriate response is to obey.  It is not ours to judge what God has said and decide whether or not we agree.  He has spoken? End of story.  Do what He said!

In the materialistic society in which we live, we need a constant reminder that earthly possessions are always temporary, and only that which is eternal abides forever. There is a world to come – an eternal world – which God has prepared for His people that they  may live with Him forever.  Our status in that world has everything to do with the quality of our faith in this one, for the degree to which we choose to love God and obey Him is determined by how genuinely we believe in Him and believe His word to us as found in the pages of Scripture.

Abraham, despite his great faith, had one great frustration. For most of his life he and Sarah, his wife, had no children. How could the promises of many nations coming from him, and of his descendants inheriting the land, be fulfilled if he had no children? According to Genesis 15:1-3, Abraham suggested that his chief servant, Eliezer, be made his heir, but God said, “This man will not be your heir” (Gen. 15:4).

Sarah, being a resourceful woman, suggested to Abraham that he have a child by Hagar, an Egyptian slave that they had brought back with them from Egypt. In those times, this was not an unusual practice if a wife was barren. In due time Ishmael was born, and Abraham’s heart was delighted. But this was not the fulfillment of God’s promise.

When Abraham was already ninety-nine years old and Sarah was ninety, there was really no human basis for hope that Sarah would bear a son. Nevertheless God said, “Sarah, your wife, shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac” (Gen. 17:19).  At that advanced age, Abraham believed what God said over the “evidence” of his and Sarah’s physical status.  How could a 99 year old man with a 90 year old wife believe they could have a child?  Some today might call them crazy!

Yet Abraham’s faith in God convinced him that if God said it would happen, that was good enough for him and he did not allow the physical circumstances to shake his faith in his God.  And so from this one man, as good as dead from a physical viewpoint, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand of the seashore.

The supreme test of Abraham’s faith was yet to come. Fiery tests of faith which occur early in life sometimes climax in much greater tests of faith in a time of spiritual maturity. So it was with Abraham.

When Isaac had reached his early teens, God told Abraham to do a strange thing. One day God said to Abraham, “Take now your son, your only son, whom thou lovest, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you” (Gen. 22:2). What an astounding command! Abraham was to take the promised son on whom all the promises of God for the future of Abraham depended, and offer him as a human sacrifice upon an altar on a distant mountain.

Even though Abraham had been accustomed to human sacrifices in his pagan life in Ur, how could this possibly fit into the plan of God? What was to happen to all the promises that depended on Isaac? There is no scriptural record of any wavering. Early the next morning the journey began.

Taking two young men with him, his son Isaac, and wood for the offering, Abraham began the journey that on the third day brought them near to the place of sacrifice. When Isaac asked the searching question, “Behold, the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (Gen. 22:7). Abraham replied, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (Gen. 22:8).

When they came to the place, Abraham apparently had to tell what he was about to do. And Isaac, being a strong young man, had to be willing to be bound on the altar as God had directed Abraham. Just as Abraham took the knife to take the life of his own son, God stayed his hand, and told him to offer instead a ram caught in a thicket nearby.

The incident with Isaac reveals more clearly than any other the maturity of Abraham’s faith. Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death. Abraham had such confidence in God that even this confusing direction did not deter him from his utter confidence in God’s integrity and moral character.  Since God had said that through Isaac, the promised descendants would come.  Abraham considered that to be the final word.

In Tune with Torah this week = Abraham was a man of faith who believed he could live in God’s place, who believed in God’s provision for him in time and eternity, who believed the promise of the son whom God would give him miraculously, and who believed in God’s utter and incomparable integrity.  Now here’s the bottom line: Abraham believed God with this amazing faith because he knew God.It is not enough to know about God; we must, like Abraham, develop a personal relationship with Him by spending time in His presence, pondering His words and internalizing their message so that our lives are impacted.

It behooves us to remember that while Jewish tradition called Moses our ‘Teacher’; it is Abraham who is our ‘father’.  Therefore, Isaiah exhorts us ‘Look to Abraham…’  Judaism began with a man of FAITH, more than four hundred years before the Torah was given.

If we delight in being children of Abraham, than our faith today must stand on the same foundation. Like Abraham, we are called to live by faith in the living God who will accomplish for us in time and eternity all that He has promised in His love and grace.

Shabbat shalom.

 

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary — Toldot November 12, 2015

Genesis 25:19-28:9

In this week’s Torah reading we learn that after twenty years of marriage, Isaac and Rebekah remain childless. Knowing the divine covenant of which he was an heir, surely Rebekah’s barrenness must have been a concern and yet Isaac knew that his own mother, Sarah, had herself given birth to him after decades of the same frustrating struggle: ‘..Sarah was barren.’

To Isaac’s credit, as well as to Rebekah’s, the Torah makes no mention of Rebekah ever suggesting to Isaac that he do as his father did and have a child by one her servant girls who had come with her from Padan-Aram. Rather, we are told that Rebekah – after years of waiting – asked Isaac to pray for her, which he did. Subsequently, Rebekah is found to be pregnant and only later is it revealed that she is actually carrying twins.

When they are born just minutes apart, the issue of inheritance comes front and center. In a culture where the firstborn had greater privileges as well as more responsibilities, those few minutes were critical, all the more so in light of the fact that we are not just dealing here with the division of an estate and financial benefits, but a Divine covenant that Abraham’s descendants through Isaac were called to be a unique nation with an eternal destiny which included that one day they inherit the promised Land of Israel, albeit through a path of exile and slavery.

Esav and Jacob, raised in the same household and sharing the same DNA, were distinctly different in personality and attitude. Esav was a man of the here-and-now, of immediate gratification of his wants and desires. Patience was foreign to him and indeed, something to be relegated to the ‘absurd’. The very idea of ‘waiting’ for anything was abhorrent to his way of thinking. The notion that according to a promise to his grandfather, hundreds of years of suffering in anticipation of a future reward, seemed to him at best cruel joke or at the very least, the vain imaginings of an old man. Therefore he had no interest in his birthright or its responsibilities so when Jacob had something to offer that granted him immediate gratification for his momentary physical hunger, it was a ‘bargain’. What did he care about abstract visions and diligent faithfulness for some supposed distant promise? For Esav, it was a win-win. Let his brother relieve him of the family ‘burden’; its value was questionable at any rate but what wasn’t questionable was that he was hungry – right now – and he wanted that bowl of lentils. That was far more important than some vague future. And so the narrative concludes with this comment: “Esav despised the birthright.”

Jacob was entirely different. He was willing to sacrifice in the here-and-now, to postpone gratification for hundreds of years and accept almost unimaginable suffering, in order to gain the family’s true treasure: the privilege of being chosen by the Almighty to create a nation uniquely His that would inherit the Land of Israel. With a bowl of stew, Esav freed himself from responsibilities he loathed, and Jacob secured a relationship with the Holy One of Israel that included the gift of the Land of Israel – along with the price he knew would have to be paid for its possession.

In these two brothers’ attitudes we are faced with an issue that every human being must resolve: what fundamental outlook dictates my daily life?

Do I – like Esav – prefer immediate gratification of my wants and desires, living for today’s pleasure more than tomorrow’s opportunity? Is that my general way of life? Are my practical, daily decisions birthed out of impatience? Are my physical needs or wants more in control than the principles of maturity, integrity and responsibility that of necessity will require self-discipline and self-control?

Or do I – like Jacob – live my life on the basis of God’s eternal Word? Are His commandments and His promises near and dear to my heart? Dear enough to me that patience, sacrifice and personal responsibility have value in my thinking? Have I learned that the path to maturity involves choosing to guide my decisions by God’s word more than by my transitory wants? Is this what I’m teaching my children? Even more, is this what I model to my children and my grandchildren?

Our society prizes an affluence defined in terms of money, homes, possessions and luxuries – all of which we will leave behind sooner or later. The greater ‘affluence’ which, by the way, we will not leave behind but take with us into the world to come, is defined by such virtues as kindness, integrity, moral purity, self-discipline, compassion, humility and love of our fellowman. These, in fact, are the true ‘affluence’ of a life well-lived before God and man.

In Tune with Torah this week = a simple question: which ‘affluence’ do you choose?

Shabbat Shalom