Weekly Torah Commentary – Balak July 7, 2017

Torah reading: Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

Haftorah reading: Micah 5:6 – 6:8

This week’s reading in the prophet Micah ends with this verse:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?  Micah 6:8

This well known verse is a unique summary of what biblical obedience is all about.  Let’s get something straight from the very beginning.  Obedience according to biblical texts is not about meticulously complying with endless man made rules. It is, rather, an attitude of heart which recognizes the eternal love and compassion of the  Holy One of Israel towards us as our Father and our King (Avinu Malkenu) with the result that we want to honor, magnify and emulate Him.  You shall be holy for I am holy.  (Leviticus 19:2)

Over the centuries ‘holiness’ has been described primarily in terms of outward submission to commandments or instructions.  In all of the major religions of the world, issues such as manner of dress, style of worship, and conformity to doctrine and tradition have created the misconception that ‘holiness’ is measured by outward appearance.  Nothing could be further from the essence of biblical holiness.  Even a modern secular quote agrees: ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’

One of the most outstanding examples in the prophets that illustrates this principle is in I Samuel 16.  After the LORD had torn the kingdom of Israel from Saul because of his disobedience, He told the prophet Samuel to go to the house of Jesse in Bethlehem and anoint a new king from among Jesse’s sons.  Interestingly, the LORD didn’t tell the prophet which son. Jesse had several.

When the first son, Eliab, appeared before Samuel, the prophet looked at him and thought, Surely the LORD’s anointed is before Him. I Sam. 16:6

But the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.’  I Samuel 16:7

Apparently Eliab ‘looked’ like the perfect candidate but he wasn’t.  The ‘appearance’ of religiosity can be deceiving for mankind has a unique tendency to act one way outwardly while thinking just the opposite internally.  This is the definition of hypocrisy!

humility2

God chose the most unlikely of Jesse’s sons – the youngest, David, who was just a teenager at the time…but what a teenager!  David tended his father’s sheep, a lonely and boring task which David transformed into a consistent opportunity for worship.  He sang to the LORD on the hillsides, meditated on God’s Word while the sheep grazed, and wrote the most beautiful songs of praise and worship, the Psalms, which we enjoy to this day.  God called David, ‘a man after my own heart.‘ Wow – imagine such a compliment from the LORD!

 

David wasn’t a perfect man, but he had the qualities of heart that God loved and which Micah speaks about in this week’s haftorah.

First there is justice. Justice is a willingness to stand up for what is right. From justice comes moral integrity, honesty, a holding to God’s values. Those who are just make sure that all people are seen as valuable in God’s eyes, because they make it a point to look at everyone as created in God’s image and likeness.

The second character trait in Micah’s description is mercy.  When we are merciful we respond to hurts in peoples lives, without deepening their wounds. This motivates us to show forgiveness to those who have hurt you and done you wrong, just as God freely forgives you when you repent of your sins and failures. It also means forgiving yourself for past failures.

The third trait is humility. Humility is not about being a ‘doormat’, neither is it weakness, but it is that quality of heart that recognizes God for who He is.  The humble heart then wants to do all that God asks of you, because of who He is. It requires that we obey God even when our desire is to do otherwise. God’s will comes before our own. Humility also thinks of others more than oneself.  It is not haughty or arrogant but looks for and appreciates the good in other people.  It is the polar opposite of someone who is regularly critical, judgmental and harsh towards other people.

We could say it this way: there’s a major difference between perfectionism and excellence.  Perfectionism is concerned with doing things right (outward observance).  Excellence is concerned with doing the right thing (heart motivation).

In Tune with Torah this week = God has not called us to ‘perfectionism’ but to excellence.  We are not here to ‘perform’ before others in order to be applauded by them.  We are here to serve the living God from the depths of our hearts, loving Him, desiring what He desires and being occupied with His interests above our own.

Keep in mind that the fundamental meaning of the word ‘hypocrite’ is ‘an actor’ – someone who pretends to be someone he is not.

Let us walk before God as Micah urges: being just, showing mercy and living humbly.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Tetzaveh Feb. 19, 2016

Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

This week’s reading continues with the instructions regarding the Tabernacle.  Last week the focus was on its construction.  This week, instructions are given for what was to happen inside the Tabernacle.  Is this only a historical record of what happened back then? What does this have to do with us today?

Much of the reading is devoted to instructions regarding the priests, Aaron and his sons. ‘Call for your brother, Aaron, and his sons, Nadav And Abihu, Eleazer and Ithamar.  Set them apart from the rest of the people of Israel so they may minister to me and be my priests.’ 28:1  The chapter continues with explicit instructions about the clothing the priests were to wear.

HighPriest

Aaron and his descendants have a permanent calling to serve God as representatives of the people.  Anyone not descended from Aaron is not qualified for that unique service.

However, earlier in Exodus 19:6, God declared to the children of Israel:

And you shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.

What does it mean that God wants us to be ‘a kingdom of priests’?

The call to priesthood is three-fold:  to be set-apart, to share God’s character and to be brought close to His presence.

As a priest serves as an intermediary between God and men, so each of us who are part of the “kingdom of priests” is called by God to 1) understand that we are set apart for His purposes; 2) we are to emulate His character; and 3) we are to do all in our power to get as close to Him as possible.  Only then are we able to share His Word with others by demonstration and expression.  Wherever we find ourselves in this world, our primary destiny is to reflect the character of the Almighty through how we live.  Our words, our actions, our attitudes, our choices are to be governed by the Word of God and when they are, we become that influence over those around us that God created us to be.

Part of being a ‘priest’ was also to stand in the gap for the people. While you and I may not qualify to exercise that responsibility in the same way that Aaron and his sons did in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, nevertheless we are able to step into that role through prayer.  Turning to God on behalf of others is part of the duty of a ‘kingdom of priests.’

Our world is facing challenges and dangers from many directions.  Thousands are suffering in various and sundry ways – diseases, famines, natural disasters.  Others are struggling with unemployment, homelessness, depression.  The list goes on.  Are we touched with the pain of others? Or are we so wrapped up in ourselves that we pay no attention to the suffering and the persecuted?

Compassion is defined as ‘sympathetic concern for the sufferings and misfortunes of others.’ Whether you are able to give any practical assistance to someone in need or in pain is not the only issue.  Sometimes we can; sometimes we can’t.  But what we can always do is be the ‘priest’ and at the very least, lift them in prayer to our heavenly Father. We can follow the example of Abraham, who seeing the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah and being told that God was going to destroy the city, cried out in prayer for mercy.  “If You find fifty righteous, will You spare the city?” He asked the Lord.   How many times Moses went to God on behalf of the people when they sinned, when they rebelled, when they complained and he interceded on their behalf before God?

That is the duty of a priest.  That is the duty of a kingdom of priests.

In Tune with Torah this week = think about your prayers of the past week, the past month.  Were they primarily focused on you, your family, your needs, your concerns? If so, don’t beat yourself up about it – most of us would probably be in the same boat with you.

But don’t justify it either.  Our hearts need to be expanded so our prayers will be more inclusive of others beyond our immediate circle.  God’s compassion never fails, His mercies are new every morning.  Aren’t we all thankful for that!! We need to be more like Him and cultivate compassionate hearts towards others.

Weekly Torah Commentary – Noah October 15, 2015

Genesis 6:9-11:32

These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a good and just man. He was a pure man in his generation. [Genesis 6:9]

The story of Noah and the flood is well known, yet Noah, the man, arouses our curiosity. The Bible says he was righteous “in his generation.” Does that mean that compared to an immoral and self-serving generation, Noah looked pretty good? Or was he indeed a noble soul?

To answer that question, let’s take a look at his contemporaries.

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were pretty; and they took as wives all those whom they chose … The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth. And God said to Noah, ‘The end of all flesh has come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.’ [Genesis 6:1-2, 11-12]

Noah’s society is one of corruption and thievery. Immorality is rampant. Men do as they please without regard for their neighbor’s welfare. Hmm, sound familiar?

Noah was apparently upright in his morals and did not partake in the evil actions of those around him. But neither does the Bible say he was performing all sorts of good deeds. We could suggest that Noah is an island, neither hurting others, nor helping them. This is the greatness of Noah – but also the tragedy of Noah.

Noah, as a righteous man in his generation, had responsibilities toward his fellow citizens. Noah did not intercede for his generation, nor did he defend them to God. He was detached. By contrast, when God informed Abraham that He was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham cried out for mercy; he pleaded with God to spare the city if there were even ten righteous within it. Also Moses interceded for the children of Israel repeatedly. But there is no evidence that Noah, aware of the coming flood, spoke even one word of prayer on behalf of his contemporaries.

Noah accepts the decree of God. If the people are guilty, in his mind there is no argument. So Noah toils for 120 years building the ark, yet in all that time, not one person was brought under the influence of this great religious personality. When he is finished building, he boards the ark with his family and the designated animals, leaving everyone else to perish.

Even after he leaves the ark, Noah’s spiritual stumbling continues. He and his family are the only human beings alive – surrounded by utter devastation. How does Noah cope with all this?

He plants a vineyard and then gets drunk on the wine. Is it that Noah cannot cope with the enormity of the destruction that he has witnessed? Does he perhaps feel that his own passivity towards his peers led to the destruction of an entire civilization? What thoughts whirled about in his mind – after the flood?

Noah lived for some 300 years after the flood, fathered children, watched countless generations come and go. Does he change his ways? Do we find him more involved, more concerned, more invested in those around him?

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech … And they said one to another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach to heaven … And the Lord said, “Behold, the people are one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have schemed to do.” [Genesis 11:1-6]

Noah was still alive at this time. A world of people gathered to challenge the Almighty.

Noah was tragically silent – again.

He will be remembered as a man who knew how to stay calm in the presence of incredible social pressures; a man who knew how to stand alone; but a man whose very ‘aloneness’ kept him from being a force for good within his generations.

But someone else is alive by now. Abraham was forty eight years old at the time of the destruction of the Tower of Babel and the dispersion of the peoples. Abraham saw and learned. Abraham would also have to stand alone but in a very different way. In next week’s Torah portion, we’ll be introduced to the other man who stood alone but in doing so changed the entire world.

In Tune with Torah this week = standing alone against the tide can be a great thing – or a mediocre thing. It depends on what moves the heart. Do we stand alone with a “could-care-less” about what others will have to suffer in this hour? Or like Abraham, do we stand for God – sometimes alone – but always with the welfare of our fellow man close to our heart?

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Matot-Masei July 17, 2015

Bamidbar/Numbers 33-36
The Danger of Suspicion

In this week’s Torah reading we learn that two of the tribes, Reuben and Gad, see that the land east of the Jordan is ideally suited as pasture for their large herds and flocks of livestock. Accompanied by half the tribe of Manasseh, they approach Moses and ask to have permission to settle there rather than cross the Jordan. Moses is initially furious at their request. Doing so will demoralize the rest of the people, he protests: “Shall your fellow countrymen go to war while you sit here?” Had they learned nothing from the sin of the spies who, by discouraging the people through their behavior, condemned an entire generation to forty years of wandering in the desert?

The Reubenites and Gadites get the point. They reply that they have no intention to separate themselves from the struggles of their brethren and are fully prepared to accompany them into the promised land and fight alongside them. “We will not return to our homes until every Israelite has received his inheritance.” Moses requires them to declare a public pledge to this effect and grants their request on condition that they fulfill their word. “When the land is conquered before God you may then return, free of any obligation before God and Israel and this land will be yours as your permanent property before God.”

The italicized phrase is the basis for an ethical axiom in Judaism. It is not enough to do what is right in the eyes of God. We are admonished to conduct ourselves in such a way as to be above suspicion. Our behavior and ethics should be above reproach.

All well and good but we know that at times the innocent are accused unjustly. Why?

Because the tendency to judge another is all too common in mankind.

We criticize in others what we do not like about ourselves. Let’s suppose you’re shy and someone in your workplace or class is outgoing and the proverbial ‘life of the party’. Because you would be embarrassed to be the center of attention, you don’t like it when someone else is and you get offended. So you ‘judge’ them as ‘show-off’s’. Perhaps what you really dislike is that they have the freedom to be themselves and for one reason or another, you feel that you don’t. Or somewhere along the line, you’ve decided that there’s something “wrong” with being shy.

We criticize in others what we are unwilling to deal with in ourselves. It’s easier to dislike it “out there” than take the steps to change ourselves. Haven’t you been around someone complaining about another person’s behavior and you think to yourself, “That’s funny, they do the same thing they are finding fault with in their friend!”

We criticize out of envy or jealousy. Do you find yourself resenting other people’s success, rather than being inspired by it? Are you prone to ‘brag’ about being poor, for example, because you resent those who are financially secure?

Most of our judgments towards others are attempts to avoid uncomfortable feelings. Maturity increases as we understand that each person we encounter has something to teach us if we’ll be humble enough to learn.

The sad part about it all is that most of our judgments are false because we presume to know the motive or thought pattern of the person we are judging. The Torah forbids us to do so. We hardly know our own inner workings, let alone have the right to pronounce judgment on others. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? Jeremiah 17:9 By contrast, Proverbs 16:9 enjoins us: Better to be of a humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud. Judgment of others is, after all, an act of pride, of ego.

In Tune with Torah this week = The Word of God teaches us to ‘love one another as yourself’. The ‘Golden Rule’ says ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ The spiritually mature chooses humility and compassion towards others, fleeing from a judgmental spirit and thereby, reflecting the image and likeness of the Almighty in whose image we have been created.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Acharei-mot & Kedoshim April 24, 2015

Leviticus 16-20

This week our Torah reading encompasses two sections: Acharei-Mot and Kedoshim. At the very center of this double reading, we come across a succinct yet most powerful commandment:

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I,the Lord your God, am holy. (Lev. 19:1-2)

In its simplest definition, to be holy is to live one’s life according to the disciplines and instructions of God. Holiness is the fruit of a deliberate and ongoing choice to order one’s thoughts, words and deeds according to God’s revealed will as expressed in the Bible. Holiness is not some ethereal, pie-in-the-sky, unrealistic way of life. It is at once eminently practical as well as profoundly spiritual. It is summed up in the two greatest commandments: to love God with our whole heart, soul and resources and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

To be sure, volumes have been written about holiness and a brief commentary such as this cannot begin to describe it in all its beauty. But I offer the following thoughts for your reflection:

1) Holiness is not a negative commandment; it is not a matter of what you cannot do but rather an issue of the heart. What is the predominant motive for your daily thoughts, words and actions? Do you live each day against the backdrop of a desire to delight the heart of God? Is that your over-riding purpose in life?

2) Holiness does not mean you never fail or make a mistake. What it does mean is that when you do, you turn quickly to the Lord in repentance, ask His forgiveness and learn from your failure. Holiness is a journey, not a destination.

3) Holiness is not old-fashioned, nor is it reserved for the ‘chosen few’. We live in a culture that pushes the boundaries with language, with entertainment, with alcohol, etc. It is written that Job was “righteous in his generation.” That means that in the midst of a culture that was not unlike ours, Job maintained his integrity and morality. Everyone around him could have made the same choice but Job was not moved by their choices. He stood firm in his own.

4) The choices of those who desire holiness is thought of by some as judgmental and intolerant. Political correctness frowns and criticizes those who uphold a higher standard of living based on God’s word. It does not like words or phrases such as ‘self-discipline’ or ‘obedience’ or ‘the righteous fear of the Lord’. It labels those who uphold such principles as ‘radicals’. If being ‘radical’ means that you love God sincerely from the heart and seek to live according to His ways, then to be called a ‘radical’ is the highest compliment you could receive!

5) Holiness is not ‘weirdness’. True holiness will transform you into a loving, kind, gentle and compassionate person. Loving God is not weird; neither is loving your neighbor. Mother Teresa gained worldwide acclaim, not for railing against sinners, but for extending compassion and care to the needy around her. She is remembered for saying:
‘Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier’
‘We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do’
‘In this life we cannot do big things but we can do small things with great love’.

In Tune with Torah this week = a fresh look at the true meaning of holiness is in order for all of us. How are we doing at loving God with all our heart and loving our neighbor as ourself? In these two commandments are hidden the ways and means to holiness.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayishlach December 5, 2014

Genesis 32:4-36:43

In this week’s reading, the brothers, Jacob and Esau, meet again after a separation of twenty two years. Years before, Esau had sworn to kill Jacob in revenge for what he saw as the theft of his blessing. Is he still angry enough to kill? Jacob sends messengers to let his brother know he is coming. On their return, they inform Jacob that Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men. We then read:

Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed. (32:8)

Jacob is in the grip of strong emotions. But what is the difference between fear and distress? Could it be that he was in fear of being killed? And distressed that he might have to kill his own brother in self-defense?

The difference between being afraid and distressed is that it is one thing to fear one’s own death, quite another to contemplate being the cause of someone else’s. Jacob was distressed at the possibility of being forced to kill even if that were entirely justified by the concept of self-defense..

At stake is a moral dilemma. A dilemma is not simply a conflict. There are many moral conflicts. May we perform an abortion to save the life of the mother, for example? When two duties conflict the higher value, once determined, takes priority. An answer is forthcoming.

A dilemma, however, is a situation in which there is no right answer. I ought not to do A (allow myself to be killed); I ought not to do B (kill someone else); but I must do one or the other. The fact that one principle (self-defense) overrides another (the prohibition against killing) does not mean that, faced with such a choice, I am without inner qualms. Sometimes being moral means that I experience distress at finding myself in the position to even make such a choice. Doing the right thing may mean that I do not feel guilt, but I may still feel regret that I had to do what I did at all.

A moral system which leaves room for the existence of dilemmas is one that does not attempt to eliminate the complexities of the human life. In a conflict between two rights or two wrongs, there may be a proper way to act but this does not cancel out all emotional pain. It is indicative of Jacob’s greatness that he was capable of moral anxiety even at the prospect of doing something entirely justified, namely defending his own life at the cost of his brother’s. A person or a nation capable of feeling distress, even in victory, is one that knows the tragic complexity of moral life.

In Tune with Torah this week = in the complicated times of life, are we the kind of people who seek to choose the higher ground and establish priorities while maintaining a sincere love towards our fellow man? Imagine yourself in Jacob’s shoes. How would you have felt?

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Ki Tavo September 12, 2014

Ki Tavo Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8

In this week’s reading, Moses prepares for his departure from the children of Israel. He – and they – are aware that while they are finally to enter the Promised Land, he will not go with him for Moses is about to die and be buried by God Himself. After forty years of guiding, teaching and leading the people, Moses issues his final plea and exhortation. He recounts the blessings God has promised them for walking in obedience to Him. Then warns of the curses that will fall on them if they don’t.

And all these curses shall come upon you, and shall pursue you and overtake you, until you are destroyed; because you did not hearken to the voice of your God, the Almighty, to keep His commandments and His statutes which He commanded you. [These curses] shall be a sign and for a proof to you and your descendents forever; because you did not serve the Almighty your God with joy and gladness of heart when you enjoyed an abundance of all things. (Devarim 28:45-48)

Lack of joy, serving God out of a cold sense of duty rather than a glad and grateful heart, lies at the very core of all the horrific curses listed in this section.

Some people think that joy is simply an emotion, a ‘feeling good’ all the time. That understanding reduces the spiritual trait of joy to a temporary emotion for no one feels good all the time. That’s impossible! Even the greatest optimist isn’t bubbling over with joy 24/7.

To understand Moses’ admonition, we need a definition of joy based on the scripture.

Nehemiah 8:10 “Do not be grieved; for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Psalm 5:11 But let all who take refuge in You be glad, Let them ever sing for joy;
And may You shelter them, That those who love Your name may exult in You.

Psalm 16:11 You will make known to me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.

Psalm 45:7 You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You
With the oil of joy above Your fellows.

Psalm 92:4 For You, O LORD, have made me glad by what You have done, I will sing for joy at the works of Your hands.

There are many other references but these are more than enough to convey the importance of rejoicing in the goodness and love of God towards us.

Joy is not a passing feeling; Joy is deeply related to faith and this definition makes that clear.

Joy is the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything that happens or doesn’t happen is designed for my ultimate good, and therefore, I make a determined choice to praise God in every situation. This becomes my ultimate expression of complete faith and trust in Him.

Life is a journey that affords us exhilarating peaks and depressing valleys; the thrill of pleasures and the weariness of pain. Each morning we wake up with some idea of what the day will hold but oblivious to the interruptions, the disappointments, the exciting surprises or the unexpected blessings that only God knows will come our way. Each of those has its place in our life for the ultimate purpose of providing us with opportunities to grow in the holiness and righteousness that Moses longed to see in the children of Israel. He knew that mechanical obedience to the His instructions without love and joy in one’s soul would result in frustration, boredom and ultimately, rejection of His commandments.

Serving the Lord with joy and from a heart of love for Him is the only true service.

So, my friends, when happiness isn’t enough because of it’s fleeting nature, joy in our relationship with God anchors our souls in the ever compassionate God Whom we serve.

In Tune with Torah this week = this shabbat is a good time to meditate on the verses listed above and to shift our focus from the myriad of chaotic issues in our world back to the assurance of His love for us, His care and His faithfulness.

Shabbat Shalom