Weekly Torah Commentary. – Beshalach January 26, 2018

Torah reading: Exodus 13:17 – 17:16

Haftorah reading: Judges 4:4 – 5:31

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, “If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites saying, “God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.” They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.  Exodus 13:17-22
The Exodus is a love story.   How can it not be? The story’s central theme is about a community of people, the Hebrews, held in bondage in Egypt by Pharaoh; but, a people dearly loved by God.  Therefore, He raises up Moses to lead them through a long and difficult journey to the land which God promised them.
The Exodus story leads us through a rhythmn of acts of disobedience and subsequent repentance and through it all, God, always ready to provide restoration to a
repentant people, demonstrates His abundant mercy and faithfulness over and over again. How can it not be a love story?
Is this not the same way He reveals Himself to us? God remains faithful in spite of our complaining and worrying about the inability to make things happen when we want to them to occur. This love story shows how God provides even when we don’t think there are provisions being made.
Having crossed the Red Sea, God does not allow the Israelites to enter into the Promise Land via the direct route through Philistine country; because had they done so the
Israelites would have had to pass Shur, the Egyptian wall that protected the Northeast highwaysout of Egypt. This wall was heavily guarded and could be passed only with great difficulty. If theIsraelites would have successfully crossed the border, further opposition could be anticipated from the Philistines. Instead God took them through a round about route that would take longer but had its unique purpose and reward.
We are told that the people marched like a strong army. Not haphazardly, but in formation that ensured that even though the people were taking the long way around it was done so in an orderly fashion. Why? God was allowing them to grow through the
discipline of the wilderness, so that when they were strong enough physically and mentally they would be able to come into open conflict with any formidable foes.
Did the Israelites know they were being directed the long way to reach entrance into the
“Promise Land?” They probably did. They wondered “Why so many delays?” And, we today, can empathize and understand their plight in wanting to get to the “Land of Milk and Honey” as quickly as possible; for the Israelites had suffered long enough under the Pharaoh in Egypt. We can fully understand since we know how it feels to need and
want important blessings…those blessings from God that are viewed as life altering, lifesaving, sanity-saving. Plus, it doesn’t help us in the 21stcentury that we live in an “instant society.” We want our needs to be met as soon as we identify them as being “very necessary.”
As the story unfolds describing the Israelites’ pilgrimage, God does not hold the
Chosen People’s weaknesses and complaining spirits against them. God knows they may
become discouraged, but even if the route takes longer, it’s safer for the people’s well-being. This was God’s Provision; a provision of protection. And although the Israelites were going to Canaan the long way around, Moses maintained his promise to Joseph to “carry Joseph’s bones” into the new land, an important reminder that even when blessings are delayed, it is incumbent upon us to maintain our integrity, to keep our word, to fulfill promises that we have made. It is a matter of honor to be faithful, even as God is faithful to us.
How amazing that God displays Himself as a “Pillar of Cloud” during the day and a “Pillar of Fire” during the night to the Israelites. This visible appearance of God’s presence allows the Israelites to literally behold Him. Can you imagine what it  must have been like?  And don’t we at times wish that such a visible presence would accompany us in our journey through life?  Have you ever cried out in a season of difficulty, ‘Lord, where are You?  If only I could see you?’
How do we respond when we feel as though it’s taking forever to receive an answer from God? How can we acquire a sense of peace during our marching times of walking through a painful journey that appears to never end? How do we hold on?
In Tune with Torah this week = let’s remember, the Israelites did reach the Promised Land; although it was through a roundabout way. God still made the provision and the promise was fulfilled.

Life just does not allow for everything to go as planned; as we have prayed for or hoped for. Why? Because God knows what we need, even when we don’t. It may be difficult to surrender and let go…especially when the path designed for us by God does not go in the direction we expected, dreamed about or hoped for.
However, the end goal remains.  Our journey has a destination – eternal life with God in the world to come.  If our route to get there seems roundabout, take heart.  We are in good company.  And the good news is this: the same God Who led, protected and provided for the Israelites is the same God who watches over us today. He has never failed and He will not start to do so with you.
Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary -V’etchanan August 19, 2016

Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

Within this week’s Torah reading is the great declaration that has become the hallmark of Judaism:

Hear, O Israel. The Lord is our God; the Lord is one!  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your resources.  These words which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.  You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand and they shall be as frontlets on your forehead.  You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.  Deut. 6: 4-9

In the Hebrew language there are two words that English versions of the Torah translate as ‘soul’ missing a key insight that is apparent in the original text.  The two words are neshama and nefesh.  The neshama describes man’s spirit, that essence which God ‘breathed into Adam and he became a living soul.’  He formed man from the dust of the ground and then breathed of His own life into the man he formed.  The word neshama could be rendered in English, the ‘breath of God’.

Genesis 2:7 Then the Lord, God, formed a person [Hebrew: adam] from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, so that he became a living being.It is through our spirit (neshama) that we communicate with God and hear from Him.

On the other hand, the nefesh describes our ‘animal’ soul – the seat of our mind, will and emotions; that place in us where we think, feel and make decisions. In other words, the ‘soul’ comprises our thoughts and our feelings and the resultant decisions that flow from both. For example, animals have a nefesh; it’s because a dog is not just a mass of flesh that you are able to teach and train your dog to act in certain ways. His intelligence and ability to learn comes from the ‘animal’ soul.

The reason these distinctions are important is to help us properly understand what God is saying in the ‘Shema’ – Hear, O Israel!  In the Hebrew, the phrase: ‘you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul‘, the word used is nefesh, not neshama. 

So what God is commanding us is to love Him with our thoughts, feelings and decisions.

Every act of disobedience to God’s word begins in the mind as a thought. If we entertain that thought, it leads to a decision which then is played out in our behavior.

Likewise, every act of obedience to God’s word also begins in the mind as a thought which leads to a decision to conform our behavior to God’s revealed Word.

It is in this active arena of daily life – what goes on in the nefesh – that God addresses in this week’s reading.  He calls us to demonstrate our love for Him in the way we think, in our decisions and in our consequent behavior.

It is written in Proverbs 23:7 For as he thinks within himself, so is he. Our thought life is therefore critically important to our relationship with God, with ourselves and with others.  Your thoughts have tremendous effect on your life. They can direct you in the ways of God or totally divert you into unwholesome living.  Negative and degrading thoughts you have toward yourself can paralyze you into apathy and rob you of the life God intends for you to have.   Entertaining negative thoughts towards others can cause you to develop a bitter attitude that will poison your relationships.

It all starts in the mind – the thought life – in the nefesh.  So when God tells us to love Him with our nefesh, it is a clear mandate urging us to be careful how we think in order that our decisions and behavior will be pleasing unto Him.

Negative or evil thoughts present themselves to everyone from time to time.  That is a reality of life.  However, what this commandment exhorts us to do is to recognize and reject evil thoughts before they have a chance to formulate a decision that will be harmful to our spiritual life.

‘You shall love the Lord with all your heart and with all your nefesh’… [your thoughts, your feelings and your behavior].

In Tune with Torah this week = taking stock of our thinking patterns.  How often is your mind focused on God, on His Torah, on that which is positive and life-giving?  Are you consciously aware when negative or evil thoughts try to take over and lead you astray?  Let us ask the Lord this Shabbat to cleanse our thoughts of ungodliness and unrighteousness and grant us grace to develop a clean and pure thought life.

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