Weekly Torah Commentary – Beshalach Feb. 10, 2017

Torah reading: Exodus 13:17-17:16

Haftorah reading: Judges 4:4 – 5:31

Someone has said there are only three kinds of people in the world—those who watch things happen, those who make things happen, and those who scratch their heads and ask, “Hey, what’s happening?” The ability to make things happen is the gift of leadership.

deborah

In Judges 4–5, two godly female leaders perform legendary exploits for God. These two are willing to risk life and limb for God’s purposes. They are women of courage. In this account, our author reveals that God intervenes when we act with courageous faith. Chapter 4  focuses on Deborah’s victory (4:1–16), and on Jael’s victory (4:17–24). Chapter 5 is a victory song by Deborah.

“Then the sons of Israel again did evil in the sight of the LORD, after Ehud died.”

After Ehud gutted the “fat calf” Eglon (3:20–22), God gave His people eighty years of peace. This is the longest period of peace recorded in the Book of Judges. But once Ehud dies, the people return to their evil. This verse tells us something about sin. It is difficult to be creative in sin. Mankind simply does the same thing over again.

Today, you may have a stronghold of anger in your life and you express it to vent your frustrations. However, when the dust settles you feel awful inside and you can’t take your words back. Or perhaps it’s gossip or overeating or jealousy. All of these sins follow the cyclical pattern of sin in the Book of Judges. They are repetitious, monotonous, and destructive.

In 4:2–3, Israel’s rebellion requires God to act. “And the LORD sold them [Israel] into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan,who reigned in Hazor; and the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-hagoyim. The sons of Israel cried to the LORD; for he had nine hundred iron chariots, and he oppressed the sons of Israel severely for twenty years.”

God loves His idolatrous people enough to discipline them with idolaters. He lovingly preys on their insecurities by raising up Jabin and Sisera along with their nine hundred iron chariots who rule over Israel for twenty long years.

“Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the sons of Israel came up to her for judgment.”

God raises up a courageous woman named Deborah to be Israel’s judge. Deborah’s name means “honeybee” for she does what most marks a bee. She stings the enemy, and she brings sweet refreshment to her people. Deborah is also called “the wife of Lappidoth,” which means “woman of torches.” This is quite apropos since she will shortly light a fire under Barak and demonstrate true leadership.

Deborah “sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali, and said to him, ‘Behold, the LORD, the God of Israel, has commanded,‘Go and march to Mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand men from the sons of Naphtali and from the sons of Zebulun. I will draw out to you Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his many troops to the river Kishon, and I will give him into your hand.’” (4:4-6)

Deborah is not telling Barak anything that he does not already know. She calls Barak to Bethel to remind him of the truth that he already possesses. God has been speaking to Barak. His home was Kedesh-naphtali. “Kedesh” means sanctuary. Evidently there was a holy site there in Naphtali, and there may have been a very small glimmer of truth and light there. In any case, Barak knows the truth. He knows that he should be a man of faith. He knows that God can deliver Israel, but he is impotent, powerless, and afraid to act. Deborah is calling him to go back to what he knows is true, and to act on it.

“Then Barak said to her, ‘If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.’” (4:8)  Initially, it seems like Barak is the ultimate coward.  It appears that Barak wants Deborah to accompany him so that he can be assured of God’s presence. He also likely wants the prophetess with him so that he can consult with her as he has need. While this sounds somewhat reasonable, the problem is God’s will has already been revealed to Barak, and he is reluctant to act on the command he has received. Though the will of God is clear, Barak puts a condition on obeying God.

It’s all too easy to be passive like Barak when we receive God’s commands. We can often lack faith when God has called us to lead but when we move forward in faith, God will always intervene. He always has a perfect plan for us to follow. In the case of Barak, God chose the leader of His army, the place for the battle, and the plan for His army to follow. God also guaranteed the victory. Similarly, we know that “God’s commandments are God’s enablements” and that we should obey His will in spite of circumstances, feelings, or consequences.

Deborah replies in 4:9–10: ‘I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the honor shall not be yours on the journey that you are about to take, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hands of a woman.’ Then Deborah arose and went with Barak to Kedesh. Barak called Zebulun and Naphtali together to Kedesh, and ten thousand men went up with him; Deborah also went up with him.” This is a beautiful response from Deborah. She does not ridicule Barak or “call him out” by questioning his manhood. She doesn’t nag, command, or insist. Nor does she attempt to manipulate him. Instead, she merely reminds him of his responsibility before God.

The contrast between Deborah and Barak suggests that God raises up a woman to lead Israel because the Israelite men were cowards and declined leadership. Barak, though a gifted warrior, is tainted by his lack of faith and shamed for it. The honor of killing the enemy commander in battle will go to a woman. Who will be the woman who gets the honor?

“‘Arise! For this is the day in which the LORD has given Sisera into your hands; behold, the LORD has gone out before you.’ So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand men following him,” Deborah says to Barak. Like an ancient Joan of Arc, Deborah calls the people to battle, leading them out of idolatry and restoring their dignity as God’s chosen ones.

Not once, but twice, Deborah informs Barak that it is the Lord who is going to bring victory. It is not Deborah, Barak, or Israel; it is the Lord who will win this battle!  Chapter 5 tells us that at just the right moment, the Lord allowed the Kishon River to flood and completely disable the enemy so that Israel could slay them. Sisera’s legendary iron chariots become mired in the muck and mud. Barak’s infantry charges down from Mount Tabor and absolutely destroys the Canaanites.

The battle plan God had given Barak made little sense, militarily speaking. Chariots were very effective on the plains, but they were of little or no value in the mountains. God ordered Barak to muster his troops on Mount Tabor, and then to lead them down from the mountain and onto the plains. This is precisely where the chariots had the advantage and could do the most damage.  The Canaanites depended upon their nine hundred chariots. The Israelites chose to trust in God’s promise.  Throughout the Book of Judges, God uses weak and foolish people and methods. God intervenes when we act with courageous faith.

In chapter 4: 17-24, Barak’s fearfulness is contrasted with Jael’s faithfulness.

“Now Sisera fled away on foot to the tent of Yael the wife of Heber the Kenite, for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite.” 4:11

In 4:18, “Yael went out to meet Sisera, and said to him, ‘Turn aside, my master, turn aside to me! Do not be afraid.’ And he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. He said to her, ‘Please give me a little water to drink, for I am thirsty.’ So she opened a bottle of milk and gave him a drink; then she covered him.” Yael offers Sisera hospitality. She invites him into her tent and tells him not to fear. Like Deborah, the mother of Israel, Yael treats Sisera like a little boy. She covers him with a rug, gives him milk to drink, and tucks him into bed because he has had a long, hard day.

Before he drifts off to sleep, Sisera says to Jael, “‘Stand in the doorway of the tent, and it shall be if anyone comes and inquires of you, and says, ‘Is there anyone here?’ that you shall say, ‘No.’ But Yael, Heber’s wife, took a tent peg and seized a hammer in her hand, and went secretly to him and drove the peg into his temple,and it went through into the ground; for he was sound asleep and exhausted. So he died. And behold, as Barak pursued Sisera, Yael came out to meet him and said to him, ‘Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.’ And he entered with her, and behold Sisera was lying dead with the tent peg in his temple.” This lady is a courageous warrior!  By the standards of ancient warfare, she is a hero. She decisively and courageously helped God’s people at a critical moment in history. The glory did, indeed, go to a woman and not to Barak.

The defeat of Sisera and his army was a turning point in history because it put the Israelites on the offensive and the Canaanites on the defensive. This victory not only eliminated some of Jabin’s top warriors, but it deprived him of his greatest weapons—his nine hundred iron-rimmed chariots. The spoils of this victory would also have provided armor and weapons for many Israelite soldiers.  God brought all this to pass through the obedience of two women.

God intervenes when we act with courageous faith.

Application:

Perhaps you are facing a decision at this time; or some type of challenge to your faith.  Perhaps an ‘enemy’ is harassing you, be it financial pressure, illness or an emotional trial. The message of this week’s Haftorah is clear: Courageous faith is the path to victory.  To do as David did and say ‘I will bless the LORD at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth’, is the first step: acknowledging your faith and dependence on God. The second step is being humble enough to receive advice and support from others in your time of need.  A faithful friend is a gift from God.  As Deborah did for Barak, they will do for you.

Shabbat Shalom

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

daviddeath

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 – Vayelech October 7, 2016

Deuteronomy 31

Be strong and courageous; do not be afraid or tremble at them for the LORD your God is the one who goes with you.  He will not fail you nor forsake you.  31:6

A timely message indeed to a world that seemingly has much to fear.  Societal unrest, terrorism, monster storms like the one bearing down this very day on the southeastern part of the United States, conflict among nations – all of these and more can cause ‘men’s hearts to faint’ as the Scripture says elsewhere.

Yet the word to us this week is ‘Be strong and courageous…’  What is courage?

courage

Courage is grace under pressure.

Karl Barth wrote that Courage is fear that has said its prayers.

Someone else has said that Courage is doing what you are afraid to do; that there is no courage unless there is something to be afraid of.

There are many examples of courage exercised in the Bible:  Moses before the Pharaoh,
David as he faced down Goliath, Abigail as she saved the entire household of Nabal
and Esther when she went before the king to save the Jews, to name just a few.

Courage always starts on the inside, in our inner man. We learn His instructions and commit to living by them, regardless of others’ opinions, knowing He has promised to be with us and never leave us. He goes with us into every difficult situation in life.  Is He is for us – and He is – who can be against us?

Courage takes a stand and makes things right.  If we submit to peer pressure and follow the crowd, we lower ourselves to their level.  By standing firmly on our convictions, we invite them to a higher standard.  Even if 20 million people believe in an irrational idea, it’s still irrational!  Numbers do not give credibility to the idea. Only the truth and righteousness found in God’s word gives credibility to any idea. Simply swimming with the tide leaves you nowhere. If you believe in something that’s good, honest and bright — stand up for it 100%. We are to be God’s change agents in this world.

Courage is contagious, have you noticed?  It’s something like a wildfire.  Once it starts to spread, there isn’t much you can do to stop it.  One act of courage and change an entire nation.  Again, think of Esther whose one act of courage saved the Jewish people from extinction.

Courage is the product of a person following God.  Courage will take you beyond your self-imposed limitations.  Courage is knowing that when I walk with God and obey Him, the very worst that could happen cannot really hurt me.  Courage stretches you beyond where you are now.  It takes you to a higher level in life and enables you to serve God to the best of your ability and reach the potential He planted in you when He created you.

Courage is strength in the face of pain or grief.  It is bravery, fearlessness, boldness, audacity and daring, empowered by the grace of God.

Joshua certainly needed courage to assume the leadership of the children of Israel upon the death of Moses.  Imagine what that must have been like.  Moses has been in charge for forty years; Moses has seen God on the mountain top; Moses heard their problems and found solutions and so much more.  Imagine how you would feel being called to follow a leader like Moses!  Is it any wonder that Moses said to Joshua more than once, ‘Be strong and courageous.  The Lord will be with you as He was with me.’

In Tune with Torah this week = is there a person, a situation, a problem that you are reluctant to face, to deal with though you know you need to?  The word of the Lord to us this week is ‘Be strong and very courageous for the Lord your God is with you.’

Shabbat Shalom

 

What’s the Fuss about ELUL? August 25, 2014

The month of ELUL on the Hebrew calendar is a thirty day preparation period for the upcoming festival of Yom Teruah (The Day of the Blowing of the Shofar), also commonly called Rosh Hashana, the new year. Throughout this month, Jews around the world and other biblical believers who are in tune with the festivals of the Lord as described in Leviticus 23, turn their attention to the subject of repentance.

Rosh Hashana is seen as the world’s ‘annual review’. In the course of your career, many of you may have experienced a corporate annual review. You know what that means. But did you know that all peoples and all nations also undergo an Annual Review in the courts of heaven? That, in fact, is what the festival is all about.

Now, if you were facing an important court date, an event that could potentially alter your entire future depending on its outcome, you would likely prepare thoroughly for weeks ahead of time, driven by a desire for the most favorable outcome possible.

On Rosh Hashanah, whether mankind is aware of it or not, the heavenly books are opened and God conducts His own audit of each individual as well as each nation. What have you done in the past year with the blessings you’ve received, the challenges you’ve faced, the talents you possess? Have you used each one as a platform for higher growth as a person? Are you, for example, a bit wiser than you were at this time last year? Are you kinder? More compassionate? Or by contrast, is your temper shorter and your faith weaker?

What of the nation? Is justice and righteousness increasing? Or is morality breaking down?

In both cases, it is His assessment that ordains the events of the coming year. What is it that you need to experience in the year to come in order to draw closer to Him, to lead a meaningful and effective life and to advance personally towards the fulfillment of your life’s purpose?

Understanding what is at stake as Rosh Hashana approaches, on the first of Elul the wise begin a period of intensive introspection, of clarifying life’s goals, and of coming closer to God. It is a time for refocusing on our purpose in life while turning away from robotic existence. It is a time when we step back and look at ourselves critically and honestly with the intention of improving. After all, who doesn’t want a favorable ‘Annual Review’?

Elul is the time that we acknowledge our failures, apologize where necessary and make amends to repair any residual damage because of our words or actions.

Elul is THE month to be reminded that life on this earth is at best temporary but a greater world awaits.
Your position and mine in the world to come will profoundly reflect how we lived our time on this earth.
The young don’t often think of such realities, but as we get older, we do. And so we should…at every age.

Psalm 27 is thematic for the month of Elul and deserves our attention and meditation.

The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the defense of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
When evildoers came upon me to devour my flesh,
My adversaries and my enemies, they stumbled and fell.
Though a host encamp against me, my heart will not fear;
Though war arise against me, in spite of this I shall be confident.

One thing I have asked of the LORD, that I shall seek:
That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
To behold the beauty of the LORD
And to meditate in His temple.

For in the day of trouble He will conceal me in His tabernacle;
In the secret place of His tent He will hide me; He will lift me up on a rock.

And now my head will be lifted up above my enemies around me,
And I will offer in His tent sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing, yes, I will sing praises to the LORD.

Hear, O LORD, when I cry with my voice, And be gracious to me and answer me.

When You said, “Seek My face,” my heart said to You, “Your face, O LORD, I shall seek.”
Do not hide Your face from me, Do not turn Your servant away in anger;
You have been my help; Do not abandon me nor forsake me, O God of my salvation!

For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the LORD will take me up.

Teach me Your way, O LORD, and lead me in a level path
Because of my foes.

Do not deliver me over to the desire of my adversaries,
For false witnesses have risen against me, and such as breathe out violence.
I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD
In the land of the living.

Wait for the LORD; Be strong and let your heart take courage; Yes, wait for the LORD.

Elul is a sober time but it is not a fearful time for the God of Israel reaches out to us as we turn towards Him. He loves the repentant soul and because His mercies are new every morning and His compassion never fails, we are assured of forgiveness as we prepare for a brand new start in a brand new Hebrew year.

Elul 1 falls on August 27, 2014, two days from now.

What does this post say to you? I look forward to your comments.

Weekly Torah Portion — Shelach June 13, 2014

NUMBERS/BAMIDBAR 13-15

In this week’s Torah reading, the episode of the spies takes center stage. Moses had sent them to spy out the Land of Promise but upon their return they acknowledged that the Land was indeed “flowing with milk and honey” as Moses had previously told the children of Israel, BUT….” It was the “BUT” that caused all the ensuing problems, for they added “but it is impossible to conquer.”

“The people who live there are powerful, and the cities fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of the giant there … We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are … All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the titans there … We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we seemed in theirs” (Num. 13:28-33).

How could they have gotten it so wrong? The truth is that while they were terrified of the inhabitants of the Land, they entirely failed to realize that those same inhabitants were terrified of them!
Rahab, the prostitute in Jericho, tells the spies sent by Joshua a generation later: “I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you … our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Joshua 2:10-11).

How then did these men, leaders in the congregation, make such a terrible mistake? Did they misinterpret what they saw? Was their faith in God too weak? Did they lack faith in themselves? Or was it something else? Maimonides argues in his work,The Guide for the Perplexed, that their fear was inevitable given their past history. They had spent most of their lives as slaves. Only recently had they acquired their freedom. They were not yet ready to fight a prolonged series of battles and establish themselves as a free people in their own land. That would take a new generation, born in freedom. Humans change, but not that quickly (Guide III, 32).

Most commentaries accuse the spies of a failure of courage or faith or both. Yet, as mentioned above, these men were, after all, “princes, chieftains, leaders” (Num. 13:2-3). Could it be that in fact they did not fear failure; they feared sucess?

Could it be that they did not want to leave the wilderness? Who could blame them for that? Think about it! They did not want to lose their unique relationship with God in the peaceful silence of the desert, far removed from the rest of the nations and their problems. Here, in the desert, they were closer to God than any generation had ever been. The God of Israel was a palpable, visible presence in the Sanctuary in their midst. Every day they looked at the awesome pillar of cloud by day and the brilliant pillar of fire by night. They ate manna from heaven and water from the rock. They experienced miracles daily. So long as they stayed in the desert under God’s sheltering canopy, they did not need to plow the earth, plant seeds, gather harvests, defend a country, run an economy, maintain a welfare system, or shoulder any of the other earthly burdens and distractions that take peoples’ minds away from their relationship with God.

Here, suspended between past and future, they were able to live with a simplicity and directness of relationship with their God they could not hope to find once they had re-entered everyday life in the material world. Paradoxically, although a desert is typically considered to be the exact opposite of a garden, in fact, the wilderness was the Israelites’ ‘Garden of Eden’. Here they were as close to God as Adam and Eve were before their loss of innocence.

Both Hosea and Jeremiah compared the wilderness to a honeymoon. Hosea said in the name of God: “I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her” (Hos. 2:16), implying that in the future God would take the people back there to celebrate a second honeymoon. Jeremiah said in God’s name, “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown” (Jer. 2:2). For both prophets, the wilderness years were the time of the first love between God and the Israelites. That, I suggest to you, is what the spies did not want to leave.

They did not want to let go of the intimacy and innocence of childhood and enter the adult world. Every parent faces the time when a certain measure of separation must occur for their child to become an adult. Ultimately, I suggest for your consideration, that the spies feared freedom and its responsibilities.

But that is what Torah is all about.

The Torah is not about retreat from the world, but engagement with the world. The Torah is a template for the construction of a society with all its gritty details: laws of warfare and welfare, harvests and livestock, loans and employer-employee relationships, the code of a nation in its land, part of the real world of politics and economics, yet somehow pointing to a better world where justice and compassion, love of the neighbor and stranger, are not lofty and philosophical ideals but principles worked out in peoples’ everyday lives. God chose Israel to make His presence visible in the world. To affect this world one must live in it, not hide in a quiet desert.

Certainly, throughout history, there have been some ascetics among the Jewish people, but these were the exceptions, not the rule. This is not the destiny of God’s people as communities of faith, to live outside time and space in ashrams or monasteries as the world’s recluses.

The spies did not want to contaminate Judaism by bringing it into contact with the real world. They sought the eternal childhood of God’s protection and the endless honeymoon of His all-embracing love. There is something noble about this desire, but also something profoundly irresponsible that de-moralised the people and provoked God’s anger. For the Torah, as the constitution of the Jewish nation under the sovereignty of God, is about building a society in the land of Israel that so honors human dignity and freedom that it will one day lead the world to say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deut. 4:6).

In Tune with Torah this week = Our duty is not to fear the real world but to enter and transform it. That is what the spies did not understand. Do we understand it even now?

Shabbat Shalom