Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayechi January 13, 2016

Torah reading:  Genesis 47:28-50:26

Haftorah reading: I Kings 2:1-12

Now the days of David drew near that he should die, and he charged Solomon his son, saying: “I go the way of all the earth; be strong, therefore, and prove yourself a man. And keep the charge of the Lord your God: to walk in His ways, to keep His statutes, His commandments, His judgments, and His testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn; that the Lord may fulfill His word which He spoke concerning me, saying, ‘If your sons take heed to their way, to walk before Me in truth with all their heart and with all their soul,’ He said, ‘you shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel.’ ”  I Kings 2: 1-4

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David, son of Jesse – Israel’s greatest king, apart from the Messiah – recognized that he was but a man and shared the common destiny of all men. Knowing he would soon pass from this life, David gave a final charge to his son, Solomon.

Perhaps David sensed some weakness in Solomon. Perhaps he knew Solomon would be tested in far greater ways than he was. Whatever the exact reason was, David knew Solomon needed strength and courage. Great responsibilities require great strength and courage.

David also knew that Solomon could not be strong or courageous without obedient fellowship with God. In this place of obedient fellowship, Solomon would prosper in all that he did.

David had a general reason to exhort Solomon to obedience, but he also had a specific reason, a specific promise of God. God promised David that as long as his sons walked in obedience, they would keep the throne of Israel. This was an amazing promise. No matter what the Assyrians or the Egyptians or the Babylonians did, as long as David’s sons were obedient and followed God with their heart and with all their soul, God would establish and protect their kingdom.

We love to read about the promises of God but sometimes overlook the condition tied to those promises.  The book of Deuteronomy is filled with the repetition of the words:  “If you will….I will…”  If WE will love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength, than HE will dispense blessing, protection and prosperity of soul and body to us in proportion to our obedience to Him.  This is an uncompromising principle in God’s Word.

Here are some examples of this principle:

Now if you obey Me fully and keep My covenant, then out of all the nations you will be My treasured possession.  Exodus 19:5

If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep His covenant of love with you, as He swore to your forefathers.  Deut. 7:12

See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse – the blessing if you obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today; the curse if you disobey the commands of the Lord your God and turn away from the way that I command you today by following other gods which you have not known.   Deut. 11:26-28

If you make the Most High your dwelling – even the Lord, who is my refuge – then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent.   Psalm 91:9-10

Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.  If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land… Isaiah 1:18-19

The promises of God can be likened to a spiritual bank account.  He has placed those promises on deposit, not because of anything we have done but because of His own eternal covenantal integrity.  Our means of accessing those promises is obedient faith; i.e., to believe what God has said and to walk according to His ways.  That is what ‘takes us to the bank to make a withdrawal’.  To attempt a withdrawal without the ‘access code’ will get you nowhere!  Our ‘access code’ is obedience to the conditions.

God wants us to benefit from His promises.  If He didn’t, He wouldn’t have made them!

Application:

This Shabbat would be a great time to take the scriptures quoted above and in quiet reflection, examine our own hearts to see if there are conditions we have overlooked, dismissed or ignored.  Repentance is the way back.  May we all live in such a way that the blessings of the promises of God can flow freely into our lives.

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

 

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Ki Tavo September 23, 2016

Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8

The famous list of blessings and curses is found in this week’s Torah portion.  As we look at these, it’s important to remember that God’s covenant with Abraham was unconditional while the Mosaic covenant is conditional.  The recurring phrase ‘If you will…I will…’ appears no less than forty times in the Torah!

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If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully keep all His commands that I am giving you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the world.  You will experience ALL these blessings if you obey the LORD your God.  28:1-2

So what are all these blessings?  They are specifically listed in verses 3 – 12 of chapter 28 and I encourage you to read them for yourself, slowly and thoughtfully.  Verse 6 summarizes them blessings this way: Wherever you go and whatever you do, you will be blessed.

Wow! What a great promise? Aah…but remember the conditions!  If you obey the LORD your God and walk in His ways…..

The only way you and I can obey God is by knowing and understanding what it is that He requires of us.  We learn that by consistently studying His revealed Word.  Purposely establishing a set time in our daily routine to spend some time reading and pondering what the Bible has to say is not a luxury; it is mandatory to those who are serious about walking in the blessings of God.

‘But I’m so busy,’ you may protest.  I understand.  So am I.  However, let’s be honest.  We human beings are masters at finding time to do the things we really want to do.  If we ‘don’t have time’ for the Bible, what we are saying is that it’s not that important to me.  I guarantee if you take a hard look at how you spend your time from day to day, you will find a way to carve out 15-30 minutes for Bible reading and meditation.

How about limiting yourself to 30 minutes less on Facebook?  I recently read an article claiming that the average adult spends up to four hours on social media per day!!!

Or getting up 30 minutes earlier to begin each day with God’s Word?

Or turning off the TV 30 minutes earlier in the evening and taking that time for Bible reading?   Stay-at-home Moms with young children, how about pulling out your Bible when the little ones are napping?

There are so many ways that we can make it work – we just need the ‘want to’ !

Look at the list of blessings again:

*…your towns and your fields will be blessed…

*…your children and your crops…

*…the offspring of your animals

*…your food supply  (fruit baskets and bread boards)

*…rain will fall at the appropriate times to water your crops

*…the Lord Himself will conquer your enemies for you

and more…

By contrast, the curses for disobedience are lengthy – 47 verses!  It’s a worthwhile exercise to read through those verse as well, keeping in mind that it is not God’s desire to ‘curse’ anyone.  We curse ourselves when we refuse to obey His instructions.

Look at verse 15: But if you refuse to listen to the LORD your God and do not obey all the commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come and overwhelm you.

We need to understand that these ‘curses’ are societal, national.  What each one does, how each one lives does in fact have an effect on the whole of society. We are ‘our brother’s keeper’ to a degree and no man lives only to himself.  We cannot hide ourselves away in our homes, caring nothing for what is happening in our city or in our nation.

This week’s Torah portion calls us to strengthen our community consciousness.

In Tune with Torah this week = by all means, make the time to read chapter 28 of Deuteronomy – all of it.  What contribution are you making to the well being of your family, your immediate community, your city and your nation?  What changes are called for?

Shabbat Shalom

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Naso June 17, 2016

Note: At present, the Torah readings within Israel are different from those outside Israel.  This will continue for a short time and is due to the way the holidays fell this spring on the Hebrew calendar.  Since most of my readers are in countries outside Israel, I am following that schedule for the commentaries.

Numbers 4:21 – 7:89 

In this week’s Torah portion we are introduced to the Aaronic blessing.

Blessing

“Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the way you shall bless the children of Israel. Say to them: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace. So they shall invoke My name on the sons of Israel and I then will bless them.”  (Num. 6:23–27).

Many of you may be familiar with this blessing but did you notice the last verse?  We call it the Priestly blessing or the Aaronic blessing. In reality, it is God’s blessing on His people delivered through the priestly line.  ‘…I then will bless them…’

Our words have great influence in the lives of those around us, and spoken blessings can bring hope, encouragement, and direction to others. I believe that our society is sorely lacking in the art of blessing others.  This practice alone could have a powerful impact on the ills of our world.

A spoken blessing is a positive, Biblical statement that invokes the blessing of God in the life of another.  Our words have potential to do good or to do harm. The Bible speaks directly about the power of our words in verses such as these:

  • “Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof” (Proverbs 18:21).
  • “Pleasant words are as a honeycomb, sweet to the soul, and health to the bones” (Proverbs 16:24).
  • “Heaviness in the heart of man maketh it stoop: but a good word maketh it glad” (Proverbs 12:25).

While the blessing of the congregation of Israel was a task bestowed on the priestly line, it is also a template for how we can bless other people. I believe that cultivating an attitude of blessing is far more important than we realize. Sadly, cursing other people has become much more common than blessing them. To curse is to call evil or injury down on someone; to wish them harm or misfortune.  It is the very opposite of blessing. And our choice in life is to bless or to curse, to call forth goodness or to call down evil.

This choice goes beyond a formula of words for the choice between blessing or cursing someone else is a matter of the heart.  Whichever way we choose, we are unveiling the state of our inner being.  If we bless, we are living according to the commandment ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  If we curse others, we reveal a dark and sinister heart attitude.

The priestly blessing recorded in Numbers 6:24–26 provides us with an excellent example of a Godly blessing: “The Lord bless you, and keep [guard, protect, compass about with a hedge of safety] you: The Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you: The Lord lift up his countenance [give full attention in a favorable way] upon you, and give you peace [wholeness, health, security, serenity, well-being, contentment, harmony; an absence of negative stress, disturbance, tension, and conflict].”

One of the most worthwhile habits you could cultivate is the habit of blessing which includes but is not limited to:

thinking the best of others, instead of being critical and/or judgmental

looking for the good in others, instead of focusing on their weaknesses or failures

having their best interests at heart instead of thinking just of yourself

celebrating others’ successes and good fortune without resentment or jealousy

By developing the habit of blessing others with my words, I reap the benefit of gradually creating a positive, inspiring and godly character.

Years ago I knew a young woman who was competing for the title of Miss Teenage America.  In the interview portion of the competition, she was asked this question by one of the judges:  If you could choose, would you rather be a baseball or a baseball bat?

Without hesitation, she replied, “I’d choose to be the baseball bat so I could propel someone else to achieve success.”

That reply won her the title.

In Tune with Torah this week = have you blessed anyone lately? Whether in your own mind or aloud, have you spoken the blessings of God into anyone else’s life?  It could be as simple as this: you see someone driving recklessly.  Choose: will you say, ‘Dear God, grant him wisdom and help him get to his destination safely’?

Or will you sit back and criticize (a form of cursing)?

The choice is yours.

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary — Naso May 29, 2015

Numbers/Bamidbar 4:21 – 7:89

Most of this week’s reading deals with the offerings brought by the heads of the various tribes, when the Tabernacle was consecrated. Immediately preceding the list of the offerings is this instruction:

And God spoke to Moses saying: ‘Speak to Aaron and his children saying, “Thus bless the children of Israel, say to them: ‘May God bless you and guard you. May God’s face shine on you, and may He find favor in you. May God lift His face toward you and give you peace.'” They shall put My name on the children of Israel and I shall bless them.’ (Numbers 6:22-27)

The idea of ‘Blessings’ is a matter of daily life; from the mundane action of acknowledging a person’s sneeze, to the joy of a father giving his blessing to a prospective son-in-law. Or, from the expressions of thanks for food that has been provided to the authoritative blessing of a Jewish father over his children every Friday night. Taking the word at face-value and based on a quick scan of its use throughout biblical texts, we can say that to be blessed means 1) to be favored by God and 2)to pronounce the favor of God on someone else, such as in the commonly used, ‘God bless you’.

Aaron, the older brother of Moses, was a priest, descended from the tribe of Levi, and also a prophet. He was a gentle man, a lover of peace, often using eloquent and persuasive speech as a means of communication. It was his responsibility to offer sacrifices to God and afterwards, to lift his hands and speak a blessing over the people. In Leviticus 9:23-24 we read that after blessing the people, Aaron (and Moses) went into the tent of meeting. When they came out again, it says that Aaron blessed the people again; and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people.

Note that Aaron bestows a blessing on the people after he, himself, has worshipped. Therefore, we derive the principle that our ability to declare blessings on others is the fruit of our personal relationship with God. Our words, according to Proverbs 18:21, carry the power of life and death. In another place we are reminded that the words of our mouth reflect the condition of our hearts. As a rotten tree cannot produce nourishing, edible fruit, neither can a soul darkened by bitterness, jealousies and the like produce effective words of blessing.

So who is the most effective at blessing others? The person who is deeply aware and profoundly grateful for all the blessings he himself has received from the Almighty. An abiding attitude of gratitude is foundational to the ability to successfully bestow life-giving blessings on others.

When we speak a blessing, we are not declaring our own favor on something or someone, we are speaking and the declaring the favor of God; in other words, we are agents communicating a blessing on the Lord’s behalf.

The power we can exercise in blessing others is not to be taken lightly. To Aaron, it was a supremely serious matter; it should be to us, as well. Our words and actions carry tremendous influence, whether we are aware of it or not.

In Tune with Torah this week = The late Maya Angelou said it this way: “The thing to do, it seems to me, is to prepare yourself so you can be a rainbow in somebody else’s cloud… But be a blessing to somebody. That’s what I think.” How are we doing at being ‘rainbows in someone else’s cloud’? How grateful are we on a daily basis for all of God’s goodness to us? How far have we come in developing the self-less-ness needed to care more about others than ourselves?

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Beshalach January 30, 2015

Beshalach    Exodus 13:17 – 17:16

“Pharaoh approached; the Children of Israel raised their eyes and behold – Egypt was journeying after them, and they were very frightened; the Children of Israel cried out to God. They said to Moses, ‘were there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the desert’?!”  Exodus 14: 10-11

This is admittedly a curious passage.  On the one hand, the children of Israel are terrified at the site of the Egyptian army pursuing them and so they cry out to God. But in the very next breath, they complain to Moses!  ‘You brought us out to die!’

How is it that prayer and complaint can be so closely expressed by our forefathers?

There is a disquieting truth about prayer, particularly ritual prayer.  By reading through established prayers over and over again out of habit, it can be so easy to fall into mindless praying or praying by rote with no internal involvement of the heart; and at times, even of the mind.  Ritual prayer can be rattled off with no consciousness of what we are saying. It becomes a major challenge (though not impossible) to pray with meaning and understanding in such a situation.

This is not the way the children of Israel prayed in our text.  Theirs was the prayer of turning to the God of Israel as a clear and present danger was barreling towards them. This is the prayer of ‘crying out to God’ in one’s own words, appealing to Him as one would to a best friend or a loved parent.  These are the orations that erupt from our inner being, in our own words, with our personal emotions and desires enlivening them.

Prayer is defined as a conversation with God. I doubt that you and I have the exact same conversation with our spouses and/or children every day of our lives.  The relationship would soon be boring beyond repair. This is not to say that ritual prayer is all wrong.  Not at all!  There is a place for it in communal worship and it is important to consciously involve our heart and mind in its utternace.

However, in one’s personal prayer times, spontaneity and creativity in talking with Avinu Malkenu, Our Father, Our King, is more than appropriate.  Sharing our heart and our thoughts freely with our God is how we come to experience what the psalmist wrote about: “In Your presence is fulness of joy….”

Crying out to God in times of need gives witness to the truth that He is ultimately the Source of all blessing and protection.  But to ‘cry out to God’ and then immediately turn to complaining is a paradox.  Yet we dare not point a finger at the children of Israel for we, too, are guilty of the same paradox.

If prayer is anything, it is an expression of FAITH.  It gives voice to the inner trust that we have in our God.  To pray in one breath and complain in the next is at the very least, hypocritical.  Our prayer is best clothed in thanksgiving and the thankful heart finds it difficult to complain!

In Tune with Torah this week = ask yourself: How am I doing in prayer?  Is my heart in the words, is my mind turned towards my God?  Do I regularly give thanks for all that He has done and continues to do in my life? Am I working at fixing my thoughts on Him?

Prayer is one of the most beautiful of human activities.  May it be so for all of us!

Shabbat Shalom!

Weekly Torah Commentary — Tetzaveh February 7, 2014

TETZAVEH – SHEMOT/EXODUS 27:20 – 30-10

This week’s parashah begins with God commanding Moses “And as for you, you shall instruct the Israelites to bring you pure olive oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling the Eternal Lamp (v. 20).” At first glance there doesn’t seem to be anything unusual. Isn’t God simply giving Moses yet another instruction concerning the construction of the Mishkan?

What caught our attention is the phrase: ‘and as for you.’ It’s different from the other instructions and a little study reveals that there are two other times where God’s directions begin with this same phrase: ‘and as for you.’

1) “Bring forth your brother Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites to serve me as priests (28:1)” and 2) “speak[ing] to all who are wise of heart … to make Aaron’s vestments for consecrating him to serve Me as priest (28:3).” Both of these are prefaced with ‘an as for you.’ Why?

All three instances are directly related to laws concerning the priesthood, something that was going to be Aaron’s prerogative and not that of Moses.

The Sages point out that when Moses was before the Burning Bush, he begged God to use someone else. God’s response is to tell Moses that, because of his unwillingness to take up the mission to which God is calling him, he will not be permitted to partake of the priesthood, except for the brief period of 7 days when the Mishkan is being dedicated. Afterwards, the priesthood belongs to Aaron and his descendants.

Though some would interpret this as a punishment of sorts, Moses’s reaction was to rejoice over the blessed call given to Aaron. Aaron likewise rejoices at God’s choice of Moses as the leader who will deliver Israel from the Pharaoh.

In the Torah we are told that Moses’ primary attributes were that of greatness and humility. In reality it is his humility that is at the heart of his greatness. Though Aaron is appointed High Priest, Moses’s humility allows him to rejoice, much as his humility caused him to reject God’s initial call for fear that Aaron, being the elder brother, would be hurt. This is the meaning underlying the seemingly innocuous “and as for you” that begins the command for Moses to prepare the oil, decorate the courtyard of the mishkan and instruct others to prepare Aaron’s garments.

Properly understood, this phrase “and as for you” is not a punishment at all. It instead is an acknowledgement by God of Moses’ humility and his consequent ability to rejoice in the blessing given to his brother.

Being able to rejoice over the blessings given to others is a wonderful character trait and is the mark of a spiritually mature person; that is to say, one who is not egotistical or self-absorbed, thinking all good things should be theirs. The lack of humility breeds jealousies and resentments and betrays a lack of acceptance for God’s call and direction in one’s own life.

The ability to embrace one’s own purpose and position in life, right along with that of others, is a wonderful trait and in addition to demonstrating maturity, also conveys a deep faith in God’s guiding hand as well as an attitude of thanksgiving for one’s own blessings.

In Tune with Torah this week = Whenever our ego rears its head and urges us to move away from friends and family, and even from God, we need to remember the humility and integrity of Moses who after his initial struggle, embraced his own calling and was then free to rejoice in the calling and blessings of others.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Ki Tavo August 23, 2013

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Devarim/Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8Moses

A tremendous lesson challenges us in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo. Among the most studied passages in Devarim/Deuteronomy is the lengthy passages in which Moshe describes the blessings that will abound for the Jewish people when we follow God’s mitzvot (commandments) as well as the horrific results of acting improperly. Problems like confusion, anxiety, depression, ignorance, starvation – and worse – are listed as the outcome of godless living.

What is MOST noteworthy, however, is the reason emphasized by the Torah for such undesirable consequences. These ‘curses’ unfold when “You did not serve the Lord your God with joy and goodness of heart” (Deut. 28:47).

Joy….Goodness of heart…since the consequences of NOT having these two attitudes are pretty severe, perhaps we’d best take another look at what they mean.

JOY is not synonymous with happiness. JOY is a state of mind and an orientation of the heart. It is a settled state of contentment,inner peace and confidence in the love of God. By contrast, happiness comes and goes; it is fleeting and temporary. JOY abides independent of external circumstances.

Oxford’s dictionary defines joy as, ” A vivid emotion of pleasure arising from a sense of well-being.” Joy is found in the quiet of a life going well, but equally in a life full of turmoil and even pain, when the fleeting sense of happiness may be a vague memory. Living joyfully requires minor changes at the very center of our inner person, rather than waiting for major changes in the external aspects of our life. Since God is eternal and He has assured us in Torah and through the Prophets that His love is abiding, abundant and unconditional, inner joy is completely possible. It is a matter of deciding and embracing that the solid foundation for our life is faith and trust in the Holy One of Israel. Once that is the bedrock upon which we build our life, JOY (and the inner peace that comes with it) becomes a permanent state of heart, even in the worst of external times.

This is not to say that we become utterly “unflappable”. Hardly. Daily life is, as a friend of mine once said, “just so daily” and it serves us sweet moments along with sour ones. We may not have much happiness in the sour moments, but our joy in the overall goodness and providence of Avinu Malkenu (Our Father, Our King) remains unshaken.

“..and in goodness of heart…” We are all familiar with the phrase “out of the goodness of his heart…” which indicates a person whose general mode of behavior is characterized by kindness. Jewish teaching holds Chesed (Kindness) in very high esteem and it is taught as a major character trait to be developed in children and adults alike. In his book, KINDNESS, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin writes, “Kindness is one of the pillars of the world. Every act of kindness elevates your character and makes you a kinder person. A kind person is the agent of the Creator Himself.”

“Kind words,” said Mother Teresa, “are short and easy to speak, but their echoes are endless.”

It is profoundly significant that the lack of these two qualities — JOY and GOODNESS OF HEART (kindness) — are the given reasons for curses to come into our lives as opposed to blessings. Just that thought should give us pause…and more pause.

In Tune with Torah this week = the new Hebrew year is now a mere two weeks away. As we approach the latter part of the month of Elul, this month of introspection and repentance, the two character traits highlighted in this week’s Torah portion demand our attention. Is joy an established foundation in our innermost souls? Does the joy of the Lord sustain us in difficult times? What is our kindness quotient? Do we labor at kindness in thought, word and deed? Do we need any more important motivation than to work at these two character traits as we read this week’s Torah protion?

Shabbat Shalom