Weekly Torah Commentary Beha’aloscha June 9, 2017

Torah reading:  Numbers 8-12

Haftorah reading: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7   (Zechariah 2:10 – 4:7 in English translations)

The prophet Zechariah served the LORD after the remnant of Judah had returned from the 70-year Babylonian exile. His prophetic ministry was active during the reign of Darius, the ruler of the Medes and Persians. His career is not marked by the reign of a king over Israel or Judah, because there was no king of Israel or Judah in this period after the exile.

Profoundly conscious of all of God’s promises to Israel throughout the centuries, and given their recent return to Jerusalem after seventy years in Babylon, the prophet urges them to be joyful.

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Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion (Zech 2:10)

God doesn’t expect His people to be passive or “cool” in light of His faithfulness in bringing them back after seventy years just as Jeremiah had prophesied. God expects them to sing and rejoice, to be thankful and worshipful.  The prophet goes on with even more reasons for joy.

I am coming and will dwell in your midst (Zech 2:10

The first reason why God’s people should be excited is because He will be among them in a unique and powerful way. To this day the assurance of His presence with us is more than enough reason to be thankfully happy, even in the midst of difficult times.  David wrote in Psalm 16:11, ‘In Your presence there is fulness of joy.’  God is always with us, He will never forsake us.  You can anchor your soul in that promise for the Holy One of Israel does not lie; neither is He unfaithful.  He promised to be with us always and He is.  Is that not what faith is all about? Trusting absolutely in His revealed Word which can never, ever fail.

Zechariah goes on to give the returned exiles another reason to be joyful.

Many nations shall be joined to the LORD in that day and will become My people. Then I will dwell in your midst and you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you. (Zech. 2:11a)

This is a profoundly prophetic verse.  Read it again quietly to yourself.

First of all, we see that God’s love and His Redemption is for ALL nations.  His choice of Israel was for a purpose and a mission: to make His Name known and loved across the world, ‘a light to the nations’.

Now there’s something interesting about light.  It exposes what already exists.  Therefore, Israel’s national mission was (and is) to demonstrate individually and as a nation the power and the blessing of living in relationship with the Holy One of Israel.  Israel’s calling was never intended to be introspective; rather, their calling is for the sake of the rest of the nations.  Here He explicitly tells Israel more nations are going to become His people lest Israel become smug or arrogant about her calling.

Secondly, through the prophet, God informs us that He will bring many peoples into His Kingdom. He is making known to Judah and to all of Israel that His blessing upon them was never intended to isolate them from the rest of the world but to make them effective and impacting witnesses of His goodness for the sake of awakening the rest of the world to God’s love.  This echoes the thought we’ve already expressed: Israel was to be the model nation.  It was to their high calling that Zechariah was appealing, reminding and exhorting them to be mindful of WHY they were chosen and WHY they were brought back to Jerusalem.  It wasn’t just to make them happy; it was for the purposes of God’s eternal Redemption plan which was to encompass ALL the nations of the world.

Then I will dwell in your midst and you will know that the LORD of Hosts has sent me to you. (Zechariah 2:11b)

Thirdly, this second half of verse 11 clearly prophesies the Messianic Kingdom to come.  It jumps to future generations: ‘Then’ – or ‘At that time’ speaks of the future when King Messiah will literally ‘dwell in your midst’ and all Israel will know that the LORD of Hosts has sent Him, for the world will be at peace, wars will cease and His reign from Jerusalem will encompass the entire world.  Finally, the dream of Avinu Malkenu – Our Father and our King – will be realized as men and women, boys and girls from every nation under heaven worship Him in truth.  What a glorious day that will be!  What an amazing future awaits us!

In Tune with Torah this week = In light of the glorious future God has prepared for His people, should we not live with eternity in view? How will it impact your life today, this week, this year if you purpose to live conscious that you are just a traveler passing through on this planet but your true and eternal home awaits you?

Shabbat Shalom

 

Succot – A special edition October 16, 2016

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At sundown this evening, Jews around the world begin to celebrate the seven day festival of Tabernacles or Succot (the Hebrew word for tabernacles, tents, dwellings).

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The Feast of Tabernacles is a very joyous holiday lasting from the 15th of until the 22nd of the Hebrew month of Tishrei (Oct. 17-24 this year).

This festival is the last of seven mandated for the Jewish people in the book of Leviticus, chapter 23, where God instructs Moses: ”Say to the Israelites: ‘on the fifteenth day of the seventh month the Lord’s Feast of Tabernacles begins, and it lasts for seven days”.

The Feast of Tabernacles commemorates the 40 years the Israelites lived in the desert, after the Exodus from Egypt and dwelled in tents or ‘tabernacles’, on their journey to the Promised Land.  As soon as Yom Kippur is over, Jews begin to construct their temporary dwelling – in their garden if they have one, or for apartment dwellers, on their balconies.  Throughout the holiday, families eat their meals in the these temporary dwellings and some even sleep in them, at least in Israel where the weather is still warm enough to do so.

The tabernacle, or ‘Succah’, must consist of at least three walls covered with a top made by branches or leaves from a Palm tree. The roof of the tabernacle should include an open space so that the stars can be seen to remind those who sit in it that life on this earth is temporary and we look forward to eternal life in the world to come. It is the special pleasure of the children in the family to decorate the succah with all manner of colorful pictures, hangings and fruit.

Zechariah the prophet refers to the Feast of Tabernacles when he prophesies that in the end of days when the Messiah comes:  ”the nations shall go every year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts and to keep the Feast of Succot”.  His prophecy also states that those nations that will not come to Jerusalem to worship the LORD will suffer drought as a consequence.

Here in Israel, Succot is one of the most joyful times of the year.  Throughout this coming week, visits to family and friends add to our enjoyment of the festival.  Yet even as we celebrate, partake of wonderful food and happy reunions the reality of eternity is never far from our consciousness.

We pray that this would be the year the Messiah would appear and bring the Kingdom of God to this troubled world.

For all of you celebrating Succot with us, may you realize the immense blessings of this festival and come closer to God than ever before.  May He ‘tabernacle’ with you in a special way during this week.

To friends of every nation, Succot is also the time when we celebrate that all mankind are God’s creation; every nation has its place and its calling in God’s overall plan for the world.  In fact, the Succot liturgy includes prayers for all the nations of the world.

One day – may it be soon – Messiah will reign from Jerusalem; swords will be beaten into plowshares, the lion will lie down with the lamb and peace shall finally come between men and women of every race and nation.

May it come soon – even in our day.

A happy, healthy and blessed Succot week to all of you.

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 — Yitro February 6, 2015

Shemot/Exodus 18 – 20

The monumental event that took place at Mt. Sinai — the giving of the Torah to Moses – is recorded in this week’s reading.  Immediately after the Ten Commandments (or Instructions) were given, we read these words:

All the people perceived the thunder and the lightning flashes and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood at a distance.  Then they said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us or we will die.”  Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin.” 20:18-20

‘…in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin.’

The Fear of the Lord is far less popular as a sermon or bible study topic than the Love of God.  Yet there are abundant references to it in the Scriptures and misconceptions about it abound.

The Fear of the Lord is defined as 1) an awe-inspiring reverence for God; 2) a personal awareness of His majestic sovereignty and power; 3) a true reverence, awe and respect toward the Almighty; 4) a humble and respectful fear of sinning against Him.

It is this last definition – a humble and respectful fear of sinning against Him – that is stated in the verses quoted above.  Moses explained to the Children of Israel that they were not to be ‘afraid’ of God, but rather, afraid of sinning against Him; in other words, the privilege that was theirs of witnessing – even from a distance – the powerful delivery of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai was to serve for the rest of their lives as a deterrent to sin.

The miracles He wrought for their deliverance from slavery, the destruction of Egypt’s army, the thunder, the lightning and the smoking mountain – all of these were to inspire in them a reverential awe of God along with a deeply grateful love towards Him for all of His goodness towards them.  The result of such awe and love should naturally be a desire to refrain from any type of actions or words that would contradict His revealed instructions as to how they should live out the remainder of their days.

We may not have stood physically at the foot of Mt. Sinai, but have not each of us received abundant blessings from God in our lives?  Blessings that too often we have taken for granted?  As we observe our world today, I suggest that the Fear of the Lord has become a rarity in many a society and nation, even within the communities of God’s people.  Because of it, Sin abounds and is in fact, accepted.  Evil is called good; good is called evil.  Our world has by and large lost the Fear of the Lord.

Consider these verses:

The fear of the Lord is to hate evil: pride and arrogance and the evil way and the perverse mouth I hate.  Proverbs 8:13

…by fear of the Lord, one departs from evil.  Proverbs 6:16

Do not let your heart envy sinners but in the fear of the Lord continue all day long; for surely there is a hereafter, and your hope will not be cut off.  Proverbs 23:17

The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear Him.  Psalm 147:11

The fear of the Lord prolongs one’s life, but the years of the wicked will be shortened.  Proverbs 10:27

Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who delights greatly in His commandments.  His descendants will be mighty upon the earth; the generation of the upright will be blessed.  Wealth and riches will be in his house and his righteousness endures forever.  Psalm 112: 1-3

In the fear of the Lord there is strong confidence and His children will have a place of refuge.  The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, to avoid the snares of death.  Proverbs 14:26

These are just a few of the dozens of references stressing the importance of and extolling the blessings we derive from maintaining the fear of the Lord in our souls.  To learn to ‘hate evil’ and ‘love righteousness’ is a worthy and laudable pursuit, and one we should teach our children.

The great King Solomon sums up the matter this way at the end of the book of Ecclesiastes:

The conclusion of the matter is this: Fear God and keep His commandments for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether it is good or whether it is evil.  Eccl. 12:13

A side effect of losing the Fear of the Lord is a diminishing awareness of the World To Come.  We get so caught up in the here and now that the reality of eternity eludes us.  Were you or I to live 120 years, it’s but a moment compared to the eternity which awaits us.  We are forgetting that our life in the ‘here and now’ will have a direct effect on the ‘there and then’.  For as we read in the quote above from Proverbs 23, “…surely there is a hereafter…” As you read this commentary, you are one day closer to eternity, the most important journey you will ever take.  How are your preparations coming?

The Fear of the Lord and the awareness of Eternal Life are critical to a successful spiritual life in the here and now.

In Tune with Torah this week – set aside some time to meditate on the verses quoted above.  Let them speak to your soul and draw you closer to our Father, our King.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayetzei November 27, 2014

Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

“And God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her, and opened her womb. And she became pregnant and she bore a son, and she said God has gathered in my disgrace. And she called his name Jospeh, saying, ‘May God grant me another son.’ ”

After many years of barrenness, the matriarch Rachel finally realizes the answer to her prayers. She gives birth to a son. Almost immediately, she asks the Lord for another child. Does that sound surprising?

Actually Rachel’s desire for more children was not selfish. For Rachel, having children meant playing a key role in the building of the children of Israel. Her request to have more children was a reflection of her own desire to play a greater role in building the legacy of her beloved, Jacob; of contributing sons who would be leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel to come; of adding to those who were called to fulfill God’s purpose as His chosen nation. This was not a sign of ingratitude, but the expression of a woman who yearned to participate in God’s purposes.

Life on this earth has many components and a plethora of opportunities. Our individual time on this earth is a journey of choices. We can focus on the accomplishments that this world values: career, possessions, bank accounts, prestige, achievements, success. We can build strong families and provide college educations for our children. In and of themselves, all of these have a certain merit.

But it’s not enough. The central issue is WHY. Why do we work long hours, build an enviable career, achieve a certain social status, strain for success? Why do we have children, raise them and educate them?

A life that is lived without eternity in focus is an incomplete and limited journey. There is a proverb in Ethics of the Fathers that describes this world as the “lobby of the World to Come” and urges us to so live each day mindful that eternity awaits us. Conscious of that, we will be diligent to protect our spiritual life lest it be crippled or damaged by the pressures and cares of life on earth.

It is highly possible to stumble through life on a kind of ‘automatic pilot’- going through the motions of life but without any great desire to seek God and to achieve spiritual greatness. The matriarch, Rachel, along with all the other Matriarchs and Patriarchs urge us by their example to keep our priorities in order: Seek God, learn His ways, apply them in daily life, teach them to your children and
in all you do, be mindful that this life is the ‘lobby of the World to Come’. Let every day be preparation for the Grand Entrance into His glorious Presence!

Shabbat Shalom – and to all my American readers, a blessed and healthy Thanksgiving!

Weekly Torah Commentary – Sukkot September 20, 2013

Leviticus 22:26-23:44

The Shabbat that occurs during the eight days of Sukkot has its own reading in keeping with the holiday. So what is this holiday all about? For seven nights Jews around the world eat – and some even sleep – in the outdoor temporary huts unique to this Jewish festival. Why do we do that?

One of our greatest Sages, Rabbi Akiva, taught that the “sukkot” or huts signify the specific relationship which the chosen people enjoy with the Holy One of Israel. It is a relationship to be sure with very specific demands but also great joys.

Our forefathers wandered into the desert under the leadership of Moses after being set free from the slavery of Pharaoh. Their faith in God sustained them throughout the forty years of their sojourn and that same faith sustains the Jew to this day. For us as individuals and families to forego the comforts of our homes and ‘live’ in a temporary shelter for these seven days is the heart of the Sukkot experience. It reminds us that in fact this earth is not our permanent dwelling place, but the God of Israel who led and fed our forefathers in the desert, and Who dwells in ultimate glory in the world to come awaits our reunion with Him after this life is over.

It also expresses our complete trust in His almighty providence and provision. It is an expression of our unwavering faith that despite the uncertainties of this world and its systems, we have a heavenly Father Who watches over us unceasingly and responds to our trust in His covenant with us.

Taking our meals in the Sukkah also serves as a reminder that since this life is temporary, it behooves us to focus on that which is spiritual. As food feeds the body, so spiritual food in the form of prayer and meditation on God’s Word, feeds our soul.

Though death is not something we generally like to think about, the serious minded person understands that at some point, this life as we know it will come to an end, and then what? Our Sages remind us that “this world is like the lobby for the World to Come; therefore, prepare yourself in the lobby so that you might enter the Banquet Hall of the Great King.” Sukkot is a vivid reminder that our thoughts, words, and actions on a daily basis DO matter; that each day we are creating our position, so to speak, in the next world. Each act of kindness, each choice to serve others rather than ourselves, each opportunity to pray, to study the Torah, to hold back our tongues from speaking negatively about others — all of these and more are recorded in the heavens and on that day when we are called to stand before the heavenly Court, those good deeds will be all we can take with us. Bank accounts, homes, jewelry, possessions — they will all remain behind. Our mitzvot – our good deeds – will accompany us into the presence of the King. Doesn’t it make sense to invest in what will remain for eternity?

In Tune with Torah this week – Sukkot is a wonderful time to reflect on our daily tasks. Are they simply routine or do we take the opportunity to make each one an offering of praise to Him Who has given us life and sustains us day by day?

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!