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 — Lech Lecha October 23, 2015

Genesis 12 – 17

This week’s reading opens with the striking call of God to Abram: “Get going out from your land and from your relatives and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, to bless you, to make your name great so that you may be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, but whoever curses you I will curse and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” 12:1

Just imagine hearing a message from God like that! The text does not elaborate on Abram’s feelings or thoughts. It simply continues: “So Abram went, just as the Lord had spoken to him.” 12:3

He was 75 years old at the time and his wife, Sarai, was 65. Quite an undertaking at that age, don’t you think? Can you picture it?

“Sarai,” Abram says to his wife. “We’re moving.”

“Moving? Where? Why?” she replies.

“I’m not really sure, Sarai. The Almighty spoke to me and said we are to leave here and go. He’ll show us the way.” Did Sarai roll her eyes??? Would you if your husband came to you with such an announcement?? Have you ever wondered what their relatives thought?
Did they try to dissuade them? Did they think Abram was deluded, foolish, even crazy?

Sometime later after they had arrived in Canaan, God spoke again to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward…..He [God] took him outside and said, Look up now at the sky and count the stars if you are able to count them. Then He said to Abram, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ Then he [Abram] believed God and God reckoned it to him as righteousness.” 15:1, 5-6

To this day, Abram, whose name God changed to Abraham on another occasion, is honored as the undisputed FATHER of the chosen people, the Patriarch, the first Hebrew. He was not given the Torah, as Moses was. He was not crowned king, as David was. There was no hierarchy, no Tabernacle or Temple, no developed religious system he was charged to oversee.

He believed God and God reckoned it to him as righteousness.

FAITH was the legacy he passed on to his son, Isaac and his grandson, Jacob. FAITH sustained his great-grandson, Joseph when he was betrayed by his brothers and imprisoned on false charges. FAITH inspired a mother of the tribe of Levi to hide her infant son that he might live. FAITH motivated that son, when he was grown, to leave behind the wealth and prestige of his upbringing in Pharaoh’s court in order to identify with his own people.

For some four centuries, FAITH was the essence of the first descendants of Abraham the righteous. It was only much later that the Torah was given through Moses so that the generation of Abraham’s descendants whose FAITH was nearly obliterated by the oppression of Egypt could find their way back to the kind of relationship with God that their father Abraham had enjoyed.

Contrary to what some may think, the essence of biblical Judaism is FAITH – relationship with the Holy One of Israel expressed in uncompromising trust in His revealed Word. This in no way minimizes the importance of His Torah; it actually defines it more clearly.
The instructions in the Torah teach us HOW to express and apply our living FAITH in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. To obey God’s commandments from a heart of FAITH is what Mt. Sinai was all about. It was FAITH that earned Abraham the right to be called Avraham Avinu, Our Father Abraham.

In Tune with Torah this week = Faith in God and love for Him motivates us to obey His commandments. Simply to follow ‘tradition’ because ‘that’s what we do’ is not Abrahamic faith; it’s religion without relationship. What God wanted with Abraham was a relationship; what God wanted with Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David was relationship.
It’s what He wants with you, too.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Vayeira November 7, 2014

Genesis/Bresheit 18-22

After the beginnings of human history yielded several examples of the misuse of the gift of free choice, a new figure comes on the scene: Abram, who will eventually have his name changed to Abraham.

As we are introduced to him, he is commanded to leave his land, birthplace and father’s house and travel “to the land I will show you,” but why? What does God want him to do there? What is his calling?  What is so special about him that warrants his becoming the father of many nations? We are not initially told.

At the root of the failures of Adam and Eve, and of Noah’s generation was a failure of responsibility.  Abraham stands out as very different.

One of the first things we notice about him is that he, by contrast to his predecessors, does demonstrate personal responsibility.  When his servants and the servants of Lot begin to quarrel, Abram steps forward with a solution:

Abram said to Lot, “Let there not be a quarrel between you and me, or between your herders and mine, for we are brothers. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.” (Gen. 13: 8-9)

Unlike many of us, Abraham does not pass judgement; does not debate about whose fault it is or who started the argument.  He does not even concern himself about who will end up with the better deal! He sees the problem and he acts.

Shortly afterwards a local war breaks out and Lot is among the people taken captive. Immediately Abraham assembles warriors, pursues the invaders, rescues Lot and with him all the other captives. And…he takes no interest in acquiring spoils of the victory.  Unlike Cain, Abram appears to understand that he is his brother’s keeper; that humans have a moral responsibility towards each other.  Despite the fact that Lot had chosen to go live in Sodom, Abram did not assume a “got-what-he-deserved” attitude but chose responsibility because it was the right thing to do, not because Lot ‘deserved’ it, necessarily.

Then God informs Abram that He is about to pass judgment on Sodom and Abram challenges the Almighty:

“Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do justice?”

When you stop and think about this, it’s rather remarkable. By what right does the creature challenge the Creator, God himself?

Read the passage carefully:

Then the Lord said, Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him” … Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

Those words, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” suggest that God wanted Abraham to respond. It was a test.

You see, Abraham’s behavior can only be rightly understood when compared to Noah’s. God also told Noah in advance that He was going to judge the world:

So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.”

But Noah did not protest. Noah accepted the verdict and set about building a huge boat. Abraham, on the other hand, challenged the impending judgment. Abraham pleaded for mercy. Why? Because he understood that humanity is a community and we are responsible for one another.  The people of Sodom were not his personal family, yet he interceded on their behalf because they were fellow human beings, created by the same God who had created him.

So, why did God ‘invite’ Abraham to challenge Him?

Abraham was to become the role model for and initiator of not just one nation, Israel, but many nations.  To him fell the responsibility to exemplify the kind of faith that his descendants would need, a faith at once strong but also humble, courageous but also dependent on Almighty God, individual but also communal.  He was to model a faith that goes beyond ‘me and mine’ to ‘all of us’.

Abraham never held a ‘political office’. However, he was a role model of genuine leadership. He took responsibility. He was decisive; he didn’t wait for others to act; he took action himself. Of Noah, the Torah says, “he walked with God.” But to Abraham, God himself said, “Walk before me,” (Gen. 17: 1), meaning: be a leader. Walk forthrightly. Take moral responsibility for yourself and your family, but not just for yourself. Take responsibility for humanity.

Self-centeredness that does not concern itself with the needs of others is irresponsible.

Communal or national consciousness that degrades the individual is arrogant and dangerous.

True responsibility begins with you but doesn’t end with you.  It cares about your fellowman as well. Considering the needs of others as important as our own is what we are called to do.

In Tune with Torah this week = Abraham stands throughout history as a towering example of kindness, selflessness and responsibility towards God and towards mankind.  As children of Abraham, whether by natural birth or by adoption, it behooves us to follow his example and walk the moral high ground in our society.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Lech Lecha November 1, 2014

Breishit/Genesis 12 – 17

The opening words of this week’s reading are among the more well known Torah verses. They describe God’s call to Abram to leave his native land and to travel to a Land that the Lord will show him. God gives to Abram a powerful promise which includes these remarkable words: I will bless those who bless you and I will curse those who curse you. And in you, all the families of the earth will be blessed.

Torah records that Abram took his wife, Sarai and his nephew Lot, along with all their accumulated possessions and began the trek to his new home.

Abram passed through the land as far as the site of Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. Now the Canaanite was then in the land. The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your descendants I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD who had appeared to him. Then he proceeded from there to the mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the LORD and called upon the name of the LORD.

Abram has now arrived in the promised Land and experiences the first visitation from God WITHIN the Land. What is His reaction? To build an altar to the Lord; in other words, to erect a permanent monument to His first encounter with the Almighty inside the borders of Canaan.

Abram moved on from there a bit and pitched his tent. Now he wasn’t just camping! His tent was his home, albeit a rather impermanent, unstable ‘home’ from our perspective. But in that day and culture, it was indeed ‘home’. The tent would have been large and well decorated. We’ve already seen that Abram and Sarai brought their possessions with them and we know that Abram was a rich man, so it’s safe to assume that this tent was luxurious by the standards of that day. All that being said, however, it was still a tent!

Note the word: ‘pitched’ One cannot ‘build’ a tent; one can only ‘pitch’ a tent. Easy up, easy down!

So what happened next? Did they just camp out, chill out and revel in the fact that they’d arrived at the Land of Promise? Not exactly!

A simple geography check lets us know that Abram pitched his tent between two hills. On the first stood the altar he had already built; after pitching his tent, he then built a second altar opposite the first one on a second elevated area to honor the Lord who had called him and brought him thus far.

Altars built of stone are considered permanent; they are designed to be lasting testimonials to a miracle, or a promise, or a covenant. Large stone altars can still be seen today in Israel that date back thousands of years.

As Abram sought to follow God’s call on his life, he did something that inspires us to this day. He ‘built’ altars and ‘pitched’ tents. What does that mean?

He gave permanent and lasting value to that which honored God and would continue to do so after he was gone – altars. He ascribed temporary value to that which had temporary existence – tents.

How often have we in our own lives ‘built’ tents and ‘pitched’ altars instead? Just the opposite of what he did!

We invest great effort and finances in that which has only a temporary existence – the things of our earthly lifespan; and too little effort and finances in that which is eternal – our spiritual life and growth. Father Abraham would certainly chide us about our priorities!

In Tune with Torah this week = a priority check is in order. A psychologist friend once told me that we can discern what our heart is most attached to but tracking our thoughts. How often do thoughts of God, eternity, words of Torah, development of virtues, etc. occupy our mind? Or, to be honest, do we spend too much of our waking hours consumed with worry and anxiety over our bank accounts, our future, the house we want to buy, the car we prefer to drive, and all the other multitudinous physical possessions that often become more of a burden than a blessing? The question to ask ourselves this weekend is this one: What is my heart attached to the most? This life or eternal life to come?

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Lech Lecha October 26, 2012

In keeping with our theme for this year — finding inspiration in every week’s Torah portion regarding the cardinal commandment to love our fellow man — we look this week at Hashem’s commandment to Abram (later to become Abraham) to leave his native land and his father’s house and go to the Land that Hashem will show him.

What is intriguing is that in “Lech Lecha”, the words that identify this portion, God is literally saying to Abram, ‘Go for yourself’ meaning ‘Go for your own sake…’ He followed this command with the promise that Abraham’s descendants would be a source of blessing to the entire world: “And I will bless those who bless you and him who curses you I will curse; and in you will all the families of the earth be blessed.”

It sounds at first glance as though Abraham is being sent for the benefit of the world, rather than ‘for his own sake’. Quite the opposite.

Abram’s choice to follow God’s command was the strategic decision of his life. Had he not followed, he would not be the Patriarch that he is, the Father of many nations that he is, the progenitor of the chosen people that He is. Had he chosen to ignore God’s call, Abram would have utterly failed to fulfill the destiny for which he was born and the repercussions would have been devastating for millions upon millions of people throughout the generations. This scenario underscores a vital issue that touches every one of us.

Every human being is born with a destiny bigger than him/her self. To choose God’s way and will for your life is first and foremost the highest ‘gift’ you give yourself; i.e., the opportunity to fulfill the purpose for which you were created. Any lasting good that you or I can do for others is predicated on this critical choice. “Go for your own sake…” means that in choosing to follow God’s call, Abram embraced and acted upon this truth: Fulfilling the purpose for which I was created and put on this earth is more important than my historical lineage, more important than my geographical homeland, more important than my occupation or ‘career’, more important even than upholding my parents’ traditions when those traditions and beliefs are contrary to the truth.

It did not mean that Abraham cared little for his father and mother, for his family; it meant that he loved God more — and that he had a healthy self-respect that demanded he commit himself to fulfill his destiny, even in the face of opposition and uncertainty.

You cannot love your neighbor unless you first love yourself enough to make right choices. In essence, God’s challenge to Abraham was this: I want to use you, Abraham, to bless the entire world in every generation to come. For Me to do so, however, requires that you make the vital decision to follow My path for your life. Will you do it? Selah…..

A bit later in the Torah portion we read that there was strife between Abraham’s herdsmen and those of his nephew, Lot. Lot’s workers, with Lot’s agreement, were trespassing on land belonging to the Canaanites and the Perizzites who were living in the Land at that time. This action could easily have precipitated a major conflict.

Abram wanted peace and though he was the Elder and the one to whom God had promised the Land, and therefore would have been well within his rights to dictate the terms, he chose the path of humility. “So Abram said to Lot, ‘Please let there be no strife between me and you and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen for we are brothers. Is not all the Land before you? Please, separate from me. If you go left, then I will go right, and if you go right,then I will go left.’ “

There are many things we can learn from this exchange. Among those lessons is this: clearly, Abram ascribed more value to his relationship with his nephew than to his position of preeminence. Abram would have been well within his rights to choose and legislate to his nephew where he could take his flocks and his workers. But that is not the approach he chose.

Abram believed God’s promise; he felt no need to fight for what God had already promised him. He felt no need to exert any superiority. He was far more concerned with achieving peace.

‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself…’ In his interactions with Lot, Abram left us a powerful example not only of how to show love and respect towards your fellow man, but also how humility is the path to greatness. The Elder set an example that has reverberated through the ages.

In Tune with Torah this week: no one truly fulfills their personal destiny by trampling on others or clawing their way past those around them. The path of peace, humility and respect for others is the surest, if not the quickest, way to becoming the person you were created to be.