Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayikra March 18, 2016

Leviticus 1 – 5

The third book of the Torah, Leviticus, (Vayikra in Hebrew) begins in an unusual way and reminds us that originally the Torah was not divided up into chapters and books but was one continuous narrative.

lifeofholiness

“And (He) called out to Moshe, and God spoke to him. “  The previous book, Exodus, came to an end rather abruptly and the story continues into the first chapter of Leviticus, a fact lost on some readers who don’t make the fundamental connection between the two books.

Of course, God calling out to man – especially to Moshe – is not an unusual occurrence in the Torah; however, this opening verse is different. For the first time, God calls out from within the completed Tabernacle. When we begin to read Leviticus in the context of the final verses of Exodus, we suddenly realize that this new book is the culmination of the Exodus itself.  The prophet, Jeremiah, actually helps us gain insight:

“Go and proclaim in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus says God: I remember the kindness of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.” (Jeremiah 2:2)

According to Jeremiah, God reminisces about the early days of His relationship with the Jewish People. Having rescued them from Egypt, the ex-slaves follow Moses into the desert, destined for Mt. Sinai.

Initially the experience at Sinai between God and His people strikes us as outstanding, amazing, stupendous. But no sooner is the covenant between them established, turmoil ensues as the Hebrews erect a golden calf and fall into idolatry. Is the relationship with the Almighty over?

Moses intercedes, and soon there is regret, repentance, and a restoration of the relationship. Moses ascends the mountain again and returns with the second set of Tablets which include the detailed instructions for building the Tabernacle. And as the construction is completed, the book of Exodus comes to a close.

But the Tabernacle, in and of it self, does not produce what God is ultimately after: intimacy with His people.  And that, my friends, is what Leviticus is truly all about.

Certainly God has spoken to Moses many times, but this is different; now, man has made place for God down on earth, indicating a sense of permanence to this relationship. A home has been built for them to share. Exactly like a marriage, now their relationship requires a commitment of a totally different degree.  Israel must begin to nurture and maintain the love between themselves and God in a consistent, stable and personal relationship. It is a new challenge for the congregation of former slaves and it is a challenge posed to God’s people in every generation.

Just as a magnificent home that welcomes a newlywed couple does not create intimacy and permanence in marriage, neither did the Tabernacle, nor the Temple centuries later; only personal relationship does.  Religious rules and traditions do not create intimacy with the Holy One of Israel; personal relationship with Him does.

The model of marriage plays well to our understanding.  Without personal communication between husband and wife, the marriage weakens and ultimately will fail.  Without you and I spending quality time with God, talking to Him in our own words, sharing our deepest thoughts and desires with Him and learning to listen to that still small voice within our own soul – that voice that answers us when we call upon Him – we may have religion, but we do not have relationship.

There is none so sad as he who thinks that relationship with God is simply a perfunctory habit of man-made rules. Nothing could be further from the truth. God is not looking for robots; He desires hearts that love Him with passion and devotion.

In Tune with Torah this week = Just as ‘He called out to Moses..’, He calls out to us in our own day.  Are we listening? Have we made it a priority to spend personal, intimate time with our God?  Are we consistent in our study of His inspired Word?

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayakhel March 4, 2016

Exodus 35:1-38:20

What do you do when your people have just made a golden calf, fallen into gross immorality and lost their sense of identity? How do you restore moral order – not just then in the days of Moses, but even now?

This week’s Torah portion gives us direction.

What did Moses have to do after the golden calf He had to transform the Israelites from a crowd into a community.

When Moses came down the mountain and saw the calf, the Torah says the people were peruah, meaning “wild, disorderly, chaotic, unruly, tumultuous.” He “saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies.” They were not a community but a crowd, a mob.

So – Moses began by reviewing for the people the importance of Shabbat because he knew a secret: when people will set aside that one day to focus on their personal relationship with the Holy One of Israel through prayer and study of His Word, they are drawn to love and serve their God with greater understanding and devotion.  Of course, we need to feed our spiritual nature every day of the week, but setting aside Shabbat for greater and more sustained attention to spiritual matters is vital.

Secondly, Moses instructed them to build the Tabernacle as a symbolic home for God.

Tabernacle

Why these two commandments rather than any others? Because the weekly Sabbath and the gathering in a sanctuary to worship with others of like faith are the two most powerful ways of building community. Moses understood that the best way to turn a crowd into a community was to have them build something together.  And he also understood that strengthening relationships within that community requires setting aside dedicated time when we focus not on our own self interests but on the things we share by praying together, studying God’s Word together, and celebrating together.  Simply put, uniting the commandment of Shabbat with the commandment to build the Tabernacle became the force by which that unruly crowd morphed gradually into a community.

The principle holds true to this very day for the golden calf was not a one-time event.  Every generation has its opportunity to ‘build a golden calf’ – an attitude, a conviction, a persuasion that begins to permeate the population’s consciousness to turn away from God and seek some other ‘god’.  The result is always deterioration of the society, conflict, violence and moral decay.

Developing community is essential if a nation or society will emerge from their own ‘golden calf crisis.’ We find God in community. We develop virtue, strength of character, and a commitment to the common good. Community is local. It is society with a human face. It is not far-off government. It is not the people we pay to look after the welfare of others. Community is the work we do ourselves, together.

Community is at once the antidote to self-centeredness as well as deliverance from over-reliance on government. A sense of community causes human beings to flourish, protects freedom and sustains the common good.

And it all began in a desert at the foot of a mountain when Moses took action to bring God’s people out of a deadly crisis.  As we look around our world today, nations are in crisis.  A crippling economy, massive unemployment, unruly mobs in the streets, increased violence – these are all ‘fruits’ of the breakdown of the biblical concept of community.  America’s founding fathers warned that the republic they established would only survive if peopled by individuals with a firm moral compass derived from their Judeo- Christian values.

Every nation worldwide that finds itself in crisis in our day would do well to emulate the principles in this week’s Torah reading.  Every local synagogue and church troubled with divisive tensions would as well.  Revived attention to the Person and Words of the Holy One of Israel, along with rebuilding the sense of community is by far the most effective long-term means of restoring a broken nation or group.

In Tune with Torah this week = it begins with you and me.  How conscious are we of seeking the good of our local community, of our religious community whether synagogue or church?  Do we make decisions more often on our own self-centered attitudes than on what is best for the community?  And – as individuals within the community, how are we doing with regard to spending personal as well as communal time in the presence of God on our ‘day off’?

The survival and flourishing of our local and national identity, whatever our home nation might be, is more dependent on these two principles than on any political or governmental effort.

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Mishpatim Feb. 5, 2016

Exodus 21-24

This week’s Torah reading opens with this verse:

Now these are the ordinances which you shall place before them [the Children of Israel].  21:1

The word ‘ordinance’ is defined as ‘an authoritative decree’; an edict, an injunction, a command, rule or mandate.  This Torah portion goes on to outline a series of rules that are to govern interpersonal relationships among His people.

WordofGod

Let’s face it – human beings generally don’t like ‘rules’.  We don’t like being told what to do, how to do it, when to do it and with whom to do it! We seem to have this innate resistance to ‘authority’ in whatever form it happens to ‘encroach’ on what we perceive as our ‘freedom.’  This attitude is so prevalent in modern times that it’s difficult to have a calm and non-emotional discussion about it at times.

That should not be among God’s people.

Recently a friend of mine was on a plane sitting opposite a mother with her young son who was perhaps about seven or eight.  As soon as they were belted into their seats, the boy began playing on an IPad.  When it was time for take-off, the flight attendant instructed the boy to turn off the IPad.  He kept playing. And Mom said nothing.  A second time the flight attendant passed by, told him to shut it down and give it to his mother until he could resume later.  The boy paid no attention.  And Mom said nothing.  The boy continued to play on the IPad all through take-off and afterward.  And Mom said nothing.  My friend commented later, “She is training him to ignore authority. Where will he be ten years from now?”

Sound too harsh?  What about the killing of 13 year old Andy Lopez in Santa Rosa, California, by police who thought he was about to shoot them with an assault rifle. It turned out to be a toy gun. Two times, the police told the boy to drop the gun. Instead he turned it on them. They fired.  Did he not hear what they told him or was he in the habit of not responding to direct commands? We may not know for sure but we know one thing.  It cost him his life.  Parents, take heed!

The word ‘obedience’ today seems to have fallen into the dictionary of political incorrectness.  Just ask any school teacher what it’s like in today’s classroom compared to twenty years ago.

Among God’s people, it should not be.  Obedience is necessary in private life, social life and in every other sphere of life where one is expected to do his duty or earn his livelihood. An individual must obey his elders or superiors. Children must obey their parents. Students must obey their teachers. Obedience is the rule of life and without it life will sooner or later lead to misery.

Does obedience ‘ruin’ your ‘freedom’?  Absolutely not – in fact, it enhances your freedom.  The thief serving his eight year sentence in prison for breaking the law is hardly ‘free’.  The person who was tempted to steal but didn’t is going on with his life outside prison bars. Get the point?

Freedom is not doing whatever you want, whenever you want, with whomever you want.

The Bible says quite a bit about freedom, despite any impressions people have about it being filled with restrictive rules. In reality, if we are willing to consider it, the Bible teaches us how to distinguish between what it means to be free from something and to be free to do or be something. Freedom from and freedom to are two sides of the freedom coin.

Suppose ‘John’ has a real problem with gluttony and is consequently terribly overweight.  (NOTE: I am not referring to people with a genuine medical problem and/or who suffer uncomfortable weight gain as a side effect of certain medicines for other issues in their body!)  Let’s just focus on the person who can’t seem to resist the quart of chocolate ice cream or the whole package of chocolate chip cookies just before bed every night, etc.  So ‘John’ goes to a doctor for help.  He’s put on a rigorous diet and over a period of six to twelve months, John drops 100 lbs.  The doctor is pleased, John is pleased, his wife is pleased. Fast forward to three years later, John has gained back all the weight and then some. Why?

Because his heart, his inner person didn’t change.  For a short period he was “Free From” excess weight but he didn’t make the leap to be “Free T0” maintain his achievement. The external symptoms were treated but there was no change to the root cause of his problem.

God’s commandments are designed to lead us into true freedom; to be “Free To” become holy, righteous, kind, compassionate and generous individuals, reflecting in our own lives the character of our Father in Heaven who commands us “Be holy as I am holy.” Lev. 19:2

In Tune with Torah this week = before getting past the first verse of this week’s reading, examine your own attitude toward obedience in general and God’s Word in particular.  Is your focus more on being ‘free from’ or have you made the leap to be ‘free to’ become what He created you to be?

Shabbat Shalom

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Want to know more about the Psalms?  Check out our current study on Psalm 119 at Coffee and Commentary

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Miketz December 11, 2015

Genesis 41:1 – 44:17

In this Torah portion, Joseph interprets the dreams of the Pharaoh, predicting seven years of plenty and seven years of famine, and as result becomes Viceroy or Prime Minister, the second most powerful man in Egypt. After the famine began, his brothers come to Egypt to buy food. Joseph recognizes them, but they do not recognize him. He keeps his identity hidden while he decides to test them. It will be yet some time before he reveals himself and asks for his father.

Biblical scholars have long wondered why Joseph never contacted his father. He’s called a tzaddik, a righteous man so how to explain this? Wouldn’t he have realized that his father was grieving?

Nachmanides (the Ramban) suggested in his commentary that Joseph could not have contacted his father until the dreams of his youth came true.  Only then could he be vindicated and reveal himself to his family.

Other commentators disagree with this view. Dreams are in the domain of God, they say; let Him worry about dreams. It is man’s job to do what is ethical, and the ethical thing for Joseph would have been to inform his father Jacob that he was alive and well.

A contemporary writer takes yet another position. Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun has suggested that perhaps the question is not Why did Joseph not contact Jacob? but instead, Why did Jacob not try to contact Joseph?

The answer seems straightforward; Jacob thought that Joseph was dead. However, Joseph had no idea what had happened back at home, and he could well have been asking himself: “Why doesn’t my father contact me?” We can agree that the sequence of events, from Joseph’s perspective, may suggest that line of thought.

Consider: Joseph knew that Jacob was well aware of the hostility between Joseph and his brothers. Could Joseph have wondered why Jacob sent him to look for his brothers in the first place?

Furthermore, there was a pattern in the family’s history that whenever relatives did not get along, the solution was to separate. It happened between Abraham and Lot, between Ishmael and Isaac and even with his father Jacob and his uncle, Esau. Could Joseph have assumed that because of all the dissension he stirred up in his father’s house, Jacob had decided to send him away?

Could it be that only upon learning from Judah that Jacob thinks his favorite son had been “ripped apart by beasts” [Genesis 44:28] did Joseph realize that his father thought that he was in fact dead?  Is that realization what prompted Joseph to reveal himself to his brothers at that moment and send for his father?

Another viewpoint: Given Joseph’s intimate relationship with his father Jacob, is it possible that Joseph thought, How can I expose to my father the terrible thing my brothers did? And if I betray them to my father, am I not doing as they did to me? What good will come of it? Shall my father lose his other ten sons because I make myself known to him?

According to this approach, Joseph’s consideration was completely selfless. To have been reunited with his father would clearly have been a great personal triumph for him, but it would have had tragic consequences. Therefore, Joseph chose to remain apart.

In Tune with Torah this week = try to imagine yourself in Joseph’s position. What would you have done? And why?

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayeshev December 4, 2015


Among the many events in this week’s busy Torah reading is the story of Judah’s daughter-in-law, Tamar, giving birth to twins. The amount of detail we are given about this birth is unusual and curious as we are told little to nothing about the births of other important biblical personages.  In addition, these details seem even more ‘unnecessary’ since we hear almost nothing more about these two boys later on.

As Tamar is giving birth, the hand of one twin emerges, and the midwife ties a string around it so she will know which child was born first. This baby then draws back his hand and his brother, Peretz, is born before him. Only then does Tamar give birth to the baby with the string on his hand, who is named Zerach.

The key to understanding lies in the names of the twins, Peretz and Zerach.

The name, Peretz, comes from the Hebrew word paratz which means ‘to break through’ – as through a barrier.  Zerach, from zorey’ach, means ‘shining’.

Birth for all of us is about ‘breaking through’ to independent life apart from our mother’s womb.  Birth is the stepping stone to individuality.  And, as a child of God, our ultimate destiny is to be a ‘shining’ reflection of the God who created us, a living tabernacle of His presence in the earth.

As we grow into maturity, each of us faces the choice, not once but many times over, to break through (paratz) any intellectual or emotional barriers that separate us from a vibrant relationship with God. This is Peretz. When we make the right choice, and seek after the God of glory, He shines (zorey’ach) His holy light upon us, as indicated by the name Zerach (literally, “shining”).

The story of this birth is replete with so much detail because it does not refer only to Peretz and Zerach; rather, it speaks to us of the potential inherent in the birth of every human being.  The Torah is teaching us that we all have the potential to ‘reach out’ and attain a relationship with God as we grow and mature.  And, we all have the opportunity to become a ‘shining’ light of His love and gracele as we walk in His ways and obey His Word.  The names of these twins convey in two words the purpose and destiny of mankind.  Amazing, isn’t it?

In Tune with Torah this week = There’s a difference between a thermometer and a thermostat.  The thermometer tells you what the temperature is; the thermostat sets the temperature.  Which one are you?

By your life and example, do you ‘set the spiritual temperature’ in your home and place of work?   Are you a thermostat for the Lord? Or a thermometer that simply reflects the preset atmosphere around you?

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary-Vayetzei Nov. 19, 2015

Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

In Jewish thought, a person’s name is more than a means of identification.  Jews believe that when parents name their child, they tap into the neshama; that is, the spiritual essence of their newborn.  To say it another way, one’s name is directly connected to one’s destiny and calling in life whether or not the parents truly realized it at the time.

This week’s Torah portion describes the births of the twelve sons of Jacob who eventually become the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel. A great deal of space in the text is devoted to explaining the origin of their names. Even the most casual reading reveals that they were all named by their mothers, not their father, Jacob.

In addition, as we follow the story we being to realize that the names of the twelve sons relate to the relationship between their father and his wives, Rachel and Leah.

How can the names of these twelve boys reflect the spiritual essence of the tribes they would father in the future?

Let’s start with one example: Leah named her third son “Levi” which means “attached to”.

“Again she conceived and bore a son and declared, ‘This time my husband will become attached to me for I have born him three sons.’ Therefore He called his name Levi.” (Genesis 29:34)

Interestingly enough, this very child, Levi grew up to be the progenitor of the tribe that attaches Israel to God – the Levites!  Levi’s descendants consisted of the priestly class who officiated at the sacrifices in the Temple. They also accompanied these sacrifices with song and were in charge of the general maintenance of all the sacred property.

Thus Leah was correct in her perception that if this child strengthened the husband-wife bond between Jacob and herself through his birth, it was coincidence; it was in fact because of the spiritual essence inherent in the soul of her third born son.

Leah hit the mark perfectly again when she named her fourth son Judah, which means “praise.” The Torah relates:

“She conceived again, and bore a son and declared, ‘This time let me gratefully praise God.’ Therefore she called his name Judah. Then she stopped giving birth.” (Genesis 29:35)

Judah became the progenitor of Jewish royalty. Of the first two Jewish kings descended from Judah, King David authored the Psalms, the universally adopted book of praise and thanksgiving to God; while David’s son, Solomon, authored the Song of Songs, regarded by many as the most sublime outpouring of Divine praise ever written.

The name Judah links Jewish royalty with the extraordinary ability in singing God’s praises is not coincidental. It is no surprise then that the comin Messiah King is of the tribe of Judah.

In Tune with Torah this week = Do you know what your name means? Or its etymological origins? Are you living up to the calling and destiny that is encoded in the name your parents gave you?

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary — Passover & the Omer April 10, 2015

As we are coming to the end of this year’s Passover celebration, the regular reading of the Torah portions is not resumed until next week.  So, let’s look at a relevant topic in which the Jewish people are involved at present.

From the second day of Passover, we are commanded to “count the omer.” 

You shall count for yourselves — from the day after the Shabbat, from the day when you bring the Omer of the waving — seven Shabbats, they shall be complete. Until the day after the seventh sabbath you shall count, fifty days… -Leviticus 23:15-16

You shall count for yourselves seven weeks, from when the sickle is first put to the standing crop shall you begin counting seven weeks. Then you will observe the Festival of Shavu’ot for the LORD, your God. -Deuteronomy 16:9-10

So what is this all about?

We are counting the days between the first day of Passover – when the Exodus from Egypt took place – to the festival of Shavuot or Pentecost, when the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai. The practice is designed to remind us that the deliverance from Egypt had as its great purpose to lead the former slaves to a life-changing encounter with God Himself on Mt. Sinai, where they were gifted with His instructions for achieving a life of holiness. Counting the omer is a means to keep forefront in our mind the truth that the redemption from Egypt was not only about ‘going out’. More importantly, it was about ‘coming in’ to an intimate relationship with God Himself.

As there is no Temple today where an omer of grain can be waved before the God of Israel, as we count each day and recite a blessing that accompanies the counting, our anticipation increases, much as a bride counts the days until her wedding. A love for and desire to receive the Word of the Living God is stirred within us as we anticipate Shavuot.

It is a period of inner reflection. How much do I love the Word of God? How often do I read it? Meditate on it? If I review my activities over the past month, the past three months, the past six months, did I spend more time reading other books, newspapers and magazines than I devoted to thoughtful reading of the Scriptures?

Psalm 119 is full of exhortations towards reading and meditating on God’s Word. For example, “Deal bountifully with Your servant that I may live and keep Your Word. Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from your Torah. I am a stranger in the earth; do not hide Your commandments from me.”

And, “Oh, how I love Your Torah! It is my meditation all day long. Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies.”

And again, “Your Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light to my path.”

And one of my favorites: “Those who love Your Word have great peace, and nothing causes them to stumble.”

Indeed, taking Psalm 119 as a guide for prayer and meditation would keep one going for several weeks, even months.

What countless ills in our modern society stem from a marginalizing of God’s Word in our society? How many personal and family issues could be resolved in a godly way by each individual applying the teachings of Scripture in humility and faithfulness?

Counting the Omer is a season of weeks in which we are called to remember that though heaven and earth pass away, the revelation of the Living God, His inestimable Words of truth and light, will never, ever pass away.

In Tune with Torah this week = take a fresh look at the Scriptures, approaching them as if you were receiving this gift for the very first time. Ask God to open your mind to His revelation, to grant you understanding and the accompanying grace to put into practice all that you learn from these sacred pages.

Shabbat Shalom