Weekly Torah Commentary — Beshalach January 22, 2016

Exodus 13:17-17:16

In last week’s reading, we reviewed the first seven plagues and their effect on Egypt.  The saga continues into this week’s reading with the last three plagues, culminating in the death of the firstborn of every Egyptian household, from the palace of Pharaoh to the hut of the lowliest Egyptian.  Even the firstborn of the Egyptians’ animals died. But in Goshen, where the Hebrews lived, not one firstborn died because of the obedience of the people to swab the blood of the Passover lamb on their doorposts, as instructed by God through Moses.  This story is re-told in full every Passover.

Studying the passage this year, I was suddenly struck by a thought that had never entered my mind in all the years I’ve been studying the scriptures.  Could it be that in fact there were, in a manner of speaking, eleven plagues? Not just ten, as we commonly think?  Let me explain.

The process of getting Pharaoh to finally agree to release his army of slave laborers, the children of Israel, was a lengthy and painful one for the Egyptian people.  The water turned to blood, their homes were infested with frogs, the very dust turned into swarms and swarms of lice and on and on it continued until the final devastating plague: the death of every firstborn in Egypt.  Finally Pharaoh relented and in fact, commanded Moses to take the people and go.

However, though the children of Israel walked out of Egypt into the desert, Pharaoh still had the option of harassing them.  We see it happen when shortly after their departure, Pharaoh says to his advisers, ‘What have we done, letting all those Israelite slaves get away?’  They decide to take action.

‘So Pharaoh harnessed his chariot and called up his troops.  He took with him 600 of Egypt’s best chariots, along with the rest of the chariots of Egypt, each with its commander.  The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, so he chased after the people of Israel…’  Exodus 14:6-8

Was their freedom to be so short-lived?  Would a brief taste of freedom disintegrate into ever deeper slavery? Were they to be dragged back to Egypt in chains and subjected to harsh punishment?

By this time, seven days after they left Egypt, the Hebrews were camped by the shores of the sea. Terrified as they saw Pharaoh’s vast army approaching from the distance, the people cried and Moses prayed. At God’s instruction, Moses extended his staff over the waters and God made a way through the sea for His people.

Pharaoh and his army plunged after them, galloping into the sea as the last of the Israelites climbed up on the opposite shore. Moses lifted his staff again and the text relates that all of Egypt’s army was destroyed, its chariots, its armor and its soldiers. Is it any wonder that the people burst forth into a song of praise as they witnessed the victory of God on their behalf?  This, I propose, could be considered the 11th plague.

The mighty Hand of God had purchased their redemption in Egypt, but at the Red Sea that redemption was secured.  Not only were they free men, but the very oppressor who had enslaved them was now stripped of his ability to inflict any further harm upon them or to drag them back into slavery again.  No wonder Miriam led the women in a song of celebration as they danced for joy.

Devoted to God and His Torah, we seek to live our life within the parameters of His will. Yet in this life we encounter “harassment” in the form of trials, disappointments, setbacks and outright temptations.  We may be out of Egypt but we stand by the sea of this world pursued by an old ‘master’ every bit as real as Pharaoh of old.

Yet we have this precious hope: at the coming of the Messiah, the redeemed of the Lord will no longer have to struggle with the harassment of a former ‘master’.

In Tune with Torah this week = earlier generations had a keen sense of anticipation regarding the appearance of the promised Messiah.  Maimonides said, ‘Though the Messiah tarry, I will await him every day.’ Have we in this generation become so entangled in the pursuits of this life that our desire for His appearing is dulled?  Do we really want him to come?  Does the reality of eternal life in the presence of God impact the way we live? Are we eager to see the final ‘securing’ of our Redemption?

Shabbat Shalom

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Weekly Torah Commentary – Bo Jan. 15, 2015

Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

The time had come.

The Hebrew slaves were on the brink of release. Moses, their leader, gathered them together. They fell silent, anticipating what he was about to say.

What would he speak about at this monumental juncture? He could have spoken about many things. He might have talked about liberty, the breaking of their chains, and the end of slavery. He might have talked about the destination to which they were about to travel, the “land flowing with milk and honey”. Or he might have chosen a more somber theme: the journey that lay ahead, the dangers they would face on their long road to freedom. Any one of these would have been the speech of a great leader at an historic moment in the destiny of Israel.

Yet…Moses did none of these things. Instead he spoke about children, about the distant future, about the duty to pass on to generations yet unborn the profound experience of the Exodus. Three times in this week’s Torah portion he turns to the theme:

And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say … (Exodus 12:26-27)

And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt’ (Exodus 13:8)

And when, in time to come, your child asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him… (Exodus 13:14)

About to gain their freedom, the Israelites were challenged to become godly parents. Moses urged them to become a nation of educators who would invest their energy in making sure that successive generations knew what God had done for His people.  This in part is what made Moses not just a great leader, but a unique one.

In this admonition of Moses to the people, we learn that freedom is won and maintained, not on the battlefield, nor in the political arena, nor in the courts, national or international, but in the home.  You see, to defend a country you need an army. But to defend a free society you need strong families. You need parents that are not too busy to teach their children by word and example the ideals of godly living.  You need homes and schools that work together to, as King Solomon wrote in the Proverbs, ‘train up a child in the way that he should go.’

Children are a precious gift of God.  With the gift comes great responsibility.  That child is not yours; he or she is on loan from heaven, sent to this earth and into your care with a divine purpose and destiny, the greatest of which is the opportunity to get to know God and to love Him and live by His Word.

Not everyone is a parent, but we all have opportunities to influence the young. One of the greatest things we can do is listen when a child or teenager wants to speak.  Listen long enough to really hear what they are trying to say, avoiding impetuous responses before hearing the whole story.

To this day, every year at Passover, Jewish parents tell the Exodus story again to their children and grandchildren, lest we forget that slaves become free men only by the Hand of God.  Slavery as an institution has been greatly diminished but what about spiritual slavery? Are we ‘enslaved’ to careers, to negative behaviors, to greed or selfishness?  What do our children see?

In Tune with Torah this week = asking ourselves, ‘What do I model before others? Are my children and/or grandchildren knowledgeable about the God of Israel because I’ve taken the time to talk with them about Him and His Torah?  And more importantly, can they see by my lifestyle that God is first and foremost in my life?

Shabbat Shalom

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Weekly Torah Commentary — Re-eh August 14, 2015

Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17

Choice is the unique gift of God to mankind; the Bible speaks of choice in terms such as blessings and curses, or life and death. Doesn’t it seem curious that we have consistently needed to be urged to choose life? What should be a ‘no brainer’ isn’t! Why would any sane person choose a path that leads to death over the blessed path of life? Yet since the Garden of Eden, the forbidden fruit has seemed the more attractive choice.

The alternative tree in the Garden should probably be called the Tree of Death though we have used the more acceptable description, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is thought of as an ‘option’ to the Tree of Life while in fact it is its utter opposite. It is the tree that represented a confusion of good and evil, a tree whose fruit distanced us from the source of Life itself while pretending to be the source of deep spirituality. This tree and its fruit forever represents the choices that lead to death: of experience without understanding and knowledge without godly wisdom.

This choice has not changed much since the days of Adam and Eve. In our generation, computer technology and the internet give us access to a staggering amount of information but good and evil are often blurred and confused.

How much of the information at our fingertips is reliable? How do we protect our children from randomly accepting as truth whatever they read on the internet? As intelligent adults, how are we doing at discerning good from evil in the midst of the barrage of words and images we are constantly fed?

And interestingly, isn’t it curious that one of the most successful computer companies in the world has as its logo a piece of fruit with a bite missing? Did its founder intend that as a message, a warning? Or is it just a coincidence?

Technology is not evil in itself; in fact, modern technology has brought many benefits to mankind in various fields such as medicine. However, it is the confusion of good and evil, the distortion of Truth and Godliness that must be recognized and avoided. Yet the fruit of the tree of death continues to entice and attract our imagination. Why? Are we hard-wired to self-destruct? Is the urge to experience the fruit of the ‘tree of death’ a stubborn desire for what we cannot have?

The prophet Daniel told us that in the end of days knowledge would increase. No generation before the present one has had such a tsunami of information overwhelm it. And it is precisely because of that, that we need all the more to be a discerning people, able to distinguish good from evil, truth from falsehood, particularly within the realm of biblical and moral thought and values. All of our modern sophistication has not made us immune to confusion; in fact, the opposite is true.

Now more than ever, we need a healthy dose of the fruit of the Tree of Life – of clear morals and righteous values that accurately interpret the enormity of information that defines modern life. Moral choices seem less cut-and-dried than those faced by previous generations. ‘Shades of grey’ seem to have obliterated the black-and-white of yesterday.

The message of this week’s Torah portion is that in every generation complex issues come down to one basic question: Which choice will lead me closer to the Source of true spiritual life?

The Word of God, symbolized by the Tree of Life, is THE source of unchangeable spiritual and moral guidelines. Evil clothes itself in deception, luring the soul with empty promises. The Word of God offers life, and that more abundantly. The promises contained therein are trustworthy; the principles clear and free of confusion.

The choice that confronted the Children of Israel as they prepared to enter the Promised Land is the same choice that confronts us, individually and collectively, to this very day. Two paths lie before us, life and death. Moses reminded Israel – and reminds us today – to rise to the occasion, to raise our heads above the swirling clouds of confusion and fix our gaze on the Tree of Life.

Above all, Moses reminds us in this week’s Torah reading that we are capable of making the right choice – but it is a choice.

God, His angels and the heroes of faith throughout the generations, urge us: “Choose life.”

In Tune with Torah this week = we are about to enter the Hebrew month of Elul, the annual month of Repentance. While we search our hearts in preparation for Rosh Hashana, the Feast of Trumpets, it is an opportune time to review our own pattern of choices over the past year and to set a course for improvement in the days ahead.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Balak July 3, 2015

Bamidbar/Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

In their journey to the Promised Land, the children of Israel have neared the border. As our weekly portion opens, they are encamped opposite Jericho in the land of Moab, whose king at the time was Balak. Being well aware of the conquests of the Israelites over other people groups, Balak would like to get rid of them once and for all. He has a formidable army so why doesn’t he attack?

The exploits of the children of Israel had reached his ears. Pagan though he was, he recognized that Israel had divine protection. They had to, he reasoned, or they would never have achieved their previous victories.
Rather than endanger his troops by sending them to attack Israel precipitously, Balak decided that first their spiritual protection had to be removed. Only then could he drive them away. He conferred with the elders of Midian and together they devised a plan. They would send for Bilam (Balaam), a gentile prophet, and instruct him to curse the people of Israel.

It’s no small thing that this pagan king recognized so many hundreds of years ago, 1) the power of divine protection and 2) the power of the spoken word. In earlier generations, it was understood that a word once spoken has within itself the power of its own fulfillment. I wonder what general or commmander today, facing an enemy army would even think about whether or not the opposing force has ‘divine protection’.

He sends messengers to Bilam with the request that he come quickly to curse the Israelits.

Words are powerful. Proverbs 18:21 says Life and Death are in the power of the tongue; those who love it will eat its fruit. We know that creation itself was spoken into being. Perhaps if we realized the inherent power in our spoken words, we might be far more careful about what proceeds out of our mouths! Selah!!

The Bible dictionary defines ‘curse’ as an invocation or proclamation to inflict harm upon someone or something. It is also described as harmful energy released against someone by hateful words, angry words, gossip and slander.

Blessing, by contrast, is a declaration of well-being, health, happiness and enlargement. The words ‘bless’, ‘blessing’, and ‘blessed’ occur 516 times in the Scripture. The words ‘curse’, ‘cursed’, and ‘cursing’ only 180 times and it is God’s prerogative, not ours.

Look again at the verse quoted above: Life and death are in the power of the tongue; those who love it will eat of its fruit. In other words, curses can backfire on those who pronounced them! Look at Psalm 109:17: He loved to curse; let curses come upon him. He did not delight in blessing; may blessing be far from him.

Clearly the better option is to bless. Overwhelmed as we seem to be at present, the need to bless is critical. To rant and rail against world situations that are happening is fruitless and frankly, a waste of time. Choosing to focus instead on the God of Israel and His presence in the midst of confusion and chaos, is far better.

In Tune with Torah this week = if you are not in the habit of speaking blessings over others, choose two or three people whom you respect and admire, determine to pronounce blessings on them through the week. God will take care of those who defy Him. For our part, I invite you to ‘move in’ to Psalm 37 and ‘park’ there for awhile. Practice speaking blessings over your family and friends and guard your tongue from any negative declarations of harm towards anyone. Bless the Lord at all times; may His praise be ever in our mouths.

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

Weekly Torah Commentary – Ki Tisa March 6, 2015

Exodus 30:11-34:35

This week’s Torah reading gives us a poignant study in contrasts.  As Moses stands before the God of Israel on top of the mountain, about to receive the Torah in the most spiritual, stratospheric experience of his life, at the foot of the same mountain, the children of Israel fall into rank rebellion and deplorable behavior: they erect a golden calf, an idol.

If it happened today, news media would capture on a split screen for all to see: the severe disparity between what is happening above and what is happening below. Perhaps in such a presentation, the message would arrest our attention to a life changing degree.

What we are looking it is a demonstration of the worst infidelity imaginable. Consider the general reaction when we hear that a husband takes up a mistress while his wife is pregnant with their first child; or a wife is carrying on with a lover while her husband is negotiating a mortgage for the home of her dreams.  What we watch in this week’s Torah portion is the heartbreaking contrast between commitment and infidelity, utter selflessness versus rank selfishness, eternal perspective versus immediate gratification.

How could such a thing happen? What about all the miracles they had so recently experienced?

Consider a key principle that is too often forgotten: Sin happens when we forget about eternity; when we lose our consciousness that life is about much more than what we see, hear and touch in this physical world. Sin is enabled when we allow this earthly life to cloud the reality of heaven, of the world to come, of the blessings God has already poured into our life, of the sobering reality of accountability for everyone of our words and actions.  When our life has ‘descended’ to the valley of physicality in which we no longer ‘look to the mountain’, we succumb to the identical sin of the children of Israel.  We build our own golden calfs – they take the form of the love of money or jealousies or abiding hatred towards someone else, or immorality.  The list could go on.

When Moses disappeared into the cloud on top of Mount Sinai, the proverbial ‘when the cat’s away, the mouse will play’ took over.  Their leader was not there to rebuke them and they did what their untamed nature dictated.

However, even as they sin, an incredible scene unfolds on the mountaintop. Hearing from God that the people have rebelled, Moses assumes the role of defense attorney for an impossibly guilt client.  His defense of the children of Israel stuns us.  We would except him to be disgusted and revolted. Yet with brave conviction, he pleads their case before God. Moses is convinced that within these rebels, there is potential for greatness. Moses argues with God that there will yet be a day when they have a powerful and intimate relationship with Him.

God hears his prayer.

Thus we learn: At the very moment that the children of Israel had turned away from God and sinned, what was simultaneously happening on the mountaintop would save them from destruction.  Moses interceded; God heard; the sinners are forgiven and then turned back to their God.  The people have forgotten and rejected the God of Israel but the God of Israel has not forgotten or rejected the former slaves He is now shaping into a nation for His purposes. Their memory may be short, but His is not; their faith in Him may be sorely limited but His faith in their potential is unlimited.

If we, for one moment, reflected on this split-screen scene when tempted to sin, perhaps the absurdity of living this life without the consciousness of eternity would keep us from failing.  There is no such thing as being ‘so heavenly minded you’re not earthly good’ as some have claimed.  To be truly heavenly minded is to live each day keenly aware that this life is, as it says in Pirchei Avot, “a lobby for the world to come.” Therefore, it behooves us to keep our destination in mind while making the journey.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Terumah February 20, 2015

Exodus 25:1-27:19

Beginning with this week’s Torah reading, we have a series of five portions which focus on the building of Tabernacle, the portable, tent-like structure which was the first house of worship for the children of Israel.  The details are so exhaustive that the narrative fills nearly the whole of the last third of the book of Exodus.  Why in the world do we have such detail when the Tabernacle was only a temporary home for the presence of the Holy One.

Besides, why is the construction of the Tabernacle in the book of Exodus at all? It would seem more likely to be found in Leviticus which outlines, also in exhaustive detail, the services to be held and the sacrifices to be offered in the Tabernacle.  Exodus is about the transition of the children of Israel from slavery to freedom, climaxing in the covenant made on Mt. Sinai between the God of Israel and His people.  Why detail the Tabernacle at this point?

To come to an answer, we need to review the history of Israelites since their departure from Egypt.  It has been one long series of complaints.  Remember their reaction when Moses first approached Pharaoh? The Egyptian ruler made their work even harder and they railed against Moses.  Then, at the Red Sea, they accused Moses: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” (Ex. 14:11-12).

Even after the miracle of the parting of the Sea, complaints continued. First they complained about the lack of water, then that the water was bitter, then about the manna, then about the lack of water again. To top it all off, right after the revelation at Sinai, they made a golden calf. If such an amazing series of miracles didn’t cure them of their complaining, what will?

God alone knew the remedy.  He said: Let them build something together. This simple command transformed a nation of complainers. During the entire construction of the tabernacle not one complaint is recorded. The people contributed abundantly and willingly, some gold, some silver, some bronze, some animal skins and drapes. Others freely donated their time and skill. They contributed so much that Moses had to order them to stop.

What does this say to us?  It is not what God does for us that transforms us. It is what we do for God.

Think about it: as long as every crisis they encountered was handled by Moses and miracles, the children of Israel remained in the mindset of slaves: dependency and no personal sense of responsibility. The result was complaining. For them to grow into responsibility, their mindset needed a radical transformation.  They needed to transition from dependence on God, Moses and miracles to assuming the responsibility to co-create with God.  They needed to become His partners.  Remember how many times the Torah records, “If you will…. I will….”?

The Torah is God’s call to responsibility, to the unique privilege of working with Him. It beckons us to leave childish attitudes behind and to assume responsibility to discover the gifts with which each of us is endowed and then use those gifts and talents to make the knowledge of Him known in this world.

It is easy to live a life of dependency that allows for laziness and apathy. It is equally easy to make the mistake of saying “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me” (Deut. 8:17). The Torah’s view is to achieve the balance between those two extremes which gave rise to the saying, Work as if everything depended on you and pray as if everything depended on God.

The building of the Tabernacle was Israel’s first great national project. It required selflessness in the form of generosity and skill.  It taught them the dignity of labor and creative endeavor, as opposed to the harshness of labor under slavery. It symbolized the challenge of their future: to create in the land of Israel a community in which everyone would have their part to play.

From this we can derive the fundamental difference between a ‘state’ and a ‘society.’

The ‘state’ represents what is done for us through the workings of government. ‘Society’ is what we do for one another through communities, non-profit organizations and personal kindnesses.

The Torah indicates a clear preference for ‘society’ as pre-eminent over ‘state’ in creating a just and righteous nation because it is how we treat each other, what we do for one another that transforms us, not what the government does for us.  To paraphrase that politically, we could say that the Torah encourages big society and small government.

The greatest leaders of history have not done all the work on behalf of the people. They have taught the people how to do the work themselves.

In Tune with Torah this week = our responsibility is two-fold: to be ever grateful and aware of all the goodness and blessings God has given us; but to equally understand and implement the truth that every gift, every talent, every blessing we receive is our opportunity to give back to Him through service to others.  The happiest people on earth are not those who ‘get’ but those who live a life of giving.

Shabbat Shalom!