Weekly Torah Commentary – Va’etchanan August 4, 2017

Torah reading: Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

Haftorah reading:  Isaiah 40: 1-26

This chapter of the book of Isaiah is the prologue to a series of oracles and songs that follow; it has the basic themes that are found throughout the following chapters. The passage begins with an instruction to comfort the people of God (vs.1,2), followed by the oracle of the one preparing the way (vs. 3-8), and the heralds announcing the coming of the LORD in accordance with the Word of God (vs. 9-11). Israel was in need of such good news because they were in captivity at the time. The heralds bring the good tidings not to Babylon, but to Zion where the glory of the LORD will reappear when He leads His people like a Shepherd.

The second part of the chapter is an encouragement that God is able to do all this (vs. 12-26). The message of comfort is based on the omnipotence of God (vs. 12-17) and the incomparable nature of God (vs. 18-26). This portion is a passionate appeal from the prophet intended to stir the people’s faith and re-direct their focus away from their captivity to the God who is in the process of restoring them to their ancestral homeland.

The theme of the message of comfort and the hope for the people of God is God’s presence.  Two images are presented. First, He is the sovereign LORD coming with power and His arm rules for Him. Powerful majesty will be the pattern of His dominion as King. He will bring rewards to dispense to His faithful subjects.

The second image is that of the shepherd. “He tends His flock”. The figure of a shepherd was commonly used in the ancient Near East for monarchs; it is the natural figure for any culture with a great deal of animal husbandry.  It signifies the care, leadership, and provisions that the LORD will bring to His people.

The great message of comfort hangs on this point. Look to God. He is coming to establish His kingdom. He will come in power. Without Him the “sheep” are weak and frail; with His presence they find everlasting peace and righteousness.

creation

How do we know God will do this for His people?

In vs. 12-14 He is affirmed as the God of creation.  The Scripture is clear: He spoke and creation came into being. No one gave God any advice, ever! God created everything by His own design and counsel.

In vs. 15-17, God is declared as sovereign over all nations. Governmental leaders, even the best of them, are under His authority whether or not they realize or acknowledge it. In the final end of all things, it is to Him that they will answer for their leadership, its successes and its failures.  The nations exist by the sovereign will of our Father and it is to Him that they primarily owe their allegiance and their respect.  The fact that some nations don’t, nor do they wish to, doesn’t change the reality of God’s supremacy one single bit.

In vs. 18-20, Isaiah goes on to declare with emphasis and passion that there is NO ONE like our God – NO ONE. He is the true and only God. To compare Him to idols is blasphemous. Even the materials for idols comes from God (see Isa. 44). Humans who are weak and frail have made the idols; they look for ways to make idols that will last. No one made God; rather, God created humans. The question in verse 18 then is rhetorical and put there to express that there is no one to whom we may compare the Almighty.  He is totally OTHER.

If God made everything, and if He is sovereign over all nations, and if He is incomparable to anyone or anything, then all creation is under His power. Verse 21 begins this section with four rhetorical questions to remind the people of what they already knew. The repetition is meant to be a rebuke, like hammering a point home:

“Do you not know?

Have you not heard?

Has it not been told you from the beginning?

Have you not understood since the earth was founded?”

They had centuries of time to have these truths sink in, but their weak faith and stubborn hearts had not taken it all to heart.  The distractions and interests of daily life clouded their thinking and removed the reality of God Almighty from their consciousness.

In tune with Torah this week = The people are called to look and contemplate the heavens and see God’s handiwork. It is by His power that the starry hosts were created and keep their order. Creation is meant to be a witness to the sovereignty of God, His existence, His creativity, His superiority over everything created.

Pondering these truths should inspire a fresh humility in our hearts; we, who so easily fall into thinking the the world revolves around us.  No it revolves around Him and it is incumbent upon us to consider His interests even more than our own.  He has made a world and filled it with people that He loves.  How are we responding to that love that He so generously pours out upon us?

Shabbat Shalom!

 

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Mattot-Maasei July 21, 2017

Torah reading:  Numbers 30 – 36

Haftorah reading: Jeremiah 2:  4-28, 3:4, 4: 1-2

Jeremiah begins this reading by recounting the faithfulness of the Israelites to God during the early years in the wilderness. Thus says the LORD, ‘I remember concerning you the devotion of your youth, the love of your betrothals, how you followed Me in the wilderness through a land not sown.  Israel was holy to the LORD.’  Jer. 2: 2-3

But when the Israelites entered the Promised Land, they became a bit too friendly with the locals and began to worship their gods. First they began to make friends with the Canaanites. Then they intermarried with them.  Then they began to worship the Canaanite gods of wood and stone. It was then that God punished them for their faithlessness.

Jeremiah reminded them of God’s faithfulness to them but that they, the Israelites, had abandoned him for these pieces of stone and wood. And so God says:

“For my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me, the spring of living waters,
and cut them out cisterns,
broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (2:13).

To this day, every drop of water in Israel is precious. The Israelites knew what it was to dig cisterns to collect runoff, and they knew what it was to lift buckets of water from the cistern and carry them to their gardens.

God said, “They have forsaken me, the spring of living water”—the mountain spring that flows faithful and pure—the artesian well that provides abundant water. “They have forsaken me…, and cut cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water.”

The issue was idolatry—the chasing after false gods. Jeremiah called God’s people to return to the true God of their fathers.

What does this have to do with us today?  It has everything to do with us today. What is idolatry, after all, but putting something else in God’s place; giving greater value to something earthly than to the Holy One of Israel Himself?  Whatever is more important to us than God Himself and our relationship with Him is an idol – plain and simple!

Chaplain (Major General) Kermit Johnson, a former Army Chief of Chaplains used to warn chaplains about something that he called SAM, the destroyer. When a chaplain left the Army in disgrace, it was usually because of SAM. He could have said that SAM constitutes our idolatry. What is SAM? SAM stands for sex, alcohol and money.

It should not surprise us that sex would be one of the idols—one of the things that we love more than God. Sex is the goddess of the century. It pervades our media and our entertainment and presents a total perversion of what God intended it to be.  Our modern culture deludes us by promising us without consequences, making the morals of our parents and grandparents obsolete.

But sex without rules has not lived up to its promise and in many ways has been the near-ruin of the family in country after country.

Alcohol is another one of the destroyers—another idol— alcohol and drugs.  For an alcoholic or drug addict, nothing is more important than their fix! The next fix is more important than God, family or life itself. Those who are recovering alcoholics or who have been delivered from drug addiction know very well how destructive—and idolatrous—alcohol and drugs really are.

And it should come as no surprise that money is one of our modern idols—one of the things that we love more than God. Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest men in America, said, “The amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry.”

The Bible tells us that the love of money is the root of all evil.  Money itself is not condemned nor the possession of money but the love of money.  When our decisions are based more on money than on God’s will and His ways, that’s when money becomes an idol and a destroyer of individuals and families.

But SAM—Sex, Alcohol and Money—is only part of our idolatry. This may surprise you but it has been suggested that Health is the most modern idolatry.  Ellen Goodman, a Newsweek columnist, penned some thought-provoking words on our health fetish. She said:

“The old taboos were religious. Ours are medical.
Our ancestors talked about risks to the soul,
and we talk about risks to our bodies.…
Our focus on these matters is religious in its intensity.”

Are there not people today whose whole lives revolve around their cholesterol count? Health is important and yes, we are responsible to take care of our physical bodies but when it becomes an obsession, ‘health’ becomes another idol. When we care more about the health of the body and too little about the health of the soul, our physical health has become an idol.

At what point does anything become idolatry?  When we put something other than God on God’s throne.  And know this: there’s a certain characteristic of idols that never fails: idols will betray us.  When we put our faith in anything more than we put our faith in God, sooner or later, that ‘idol’ will fail us.  For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. Deuteronomy 4:24

In Tune with Torah this week =  God’s people are His ‘cherished possession.’  He does not take it lightly when we consider anything in our lives as more important than Him.  He is jealous over us with a righteous jealousy for after all, He is our Creator and Father! Jeremiah called the people of Israel to love God and to put Him in first place in their lives. The greatest commandment is this: Hear, O Israel, the LORD is God; the LORD is one.  You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your possessions. Deuteronomy 6:4-5

 

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 — Shemot December 19, 2013

Exodus/Shemot 1:1 – 6:1

This week’s Torah portion, the first in the Book of Exodus, tells the story of the enslavement – and the beginning of the liberation – of the Jews in Egypt. At the time, the Jewish community had strayed from the path of the Patriarchs yet some aspects of tradition remained intact. The Jews persisted in their language, their names and in their mode of dress. Yet, curiously, it appears that Moses – the ‘savior’ – seems to be lacking in these same areas.

Moses was born into a family from the tribe of Levi. At that time there was an edict that all newborn males be thrown into the Nile River. Moses was found as a baby by the daughter of Pharaoh who adopted him and named him; thus Moses was not his Hebrew name.

And the child grew, and was brought to the daughter of Pharaoh, he became a son to her, she named him Moses, and she said (explained) “for from the water he was drawn out.” [Exodus 2:10]

When the daughter of Pharaoh named Moses what was she trying to communicate?

In order to understand the depth of her action, we must first understand who this woman was, and, for that matter who her father was. In the Book of Ezekiel the following passage appears:

Speak and communicate, thus says God, “Behold I am against you Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the great crocodile that crouches in the midst of the streams who says the (Nile) River is mine, for I created it.” [Ezekiel 29:3]

Pharaoh believed that he was god of the Nile, that he created the Nile. This insight allows us to understand why the children were thrown into the Nile. When the midwives refused to kill the newborn males, Pharaoh suggested that they throw the babies into the water instead. In effect he said, “cast the children into the Nile, and the god of the Nile shall decide who will live and who will die”, as if the midwives would not be performing the act of murder.

This will also give us insight into the first plague — “blood.” Turning the Nile into blood was an act of war, perceived by the Egyptians as if someone had stabbed their god.

Not only did Pharaoh think that he was god of the Nile, but he named his daughter Bitya, “daughter of god.” This was the woman who saved, and named, Moses. Her father was “god of the Nile” she was daughter of “god”, and she pulled a son out of the Nile, and named him Moses. Therefore, Bitya, in naming Moses, was making a claim which had theological meaning as well as political implications. She was claiming that the Nile had given birth to her son.

Of course, she knew rationally, that one of the Hebrews had in fact given birth to Moses, but we must recall that casting the children into the Nile was not seen as murder, but rather as some type of judgment.

Moses emerged from the Nile alive, which had profound theological significance for Bitya. He was therefore declared “son of the Nile.” She is obviously positioning him to become the next Pharaoh, or at least to take his place among the pantheon of Egyptian gods. Therefore we see that not only does Moses have an Egyptian name, but his name is steeped with idolatrous connotations. How ironic that the savior of the Jews should be seen as a god by the Egyptians.

This insight also gives us a greater appreciation of Moses, for we now understand what is was like for him to leave the palace to “seek out his brothers.”

When Moses interceded and killed the Egyptian, he was in effect rejecting the entire way of life that was laid out for him. By killing the Egyptian, Moses forfeited his role in Egyptian society; he would no longer be seen as a god, but only as a Jew, and his chances of one day ascending the throne disappeared.
This self-sacrifice was the first step toward assuming the mantle of leadership of the Jews, though at the time Moses had no such idea.

The Jews also retained a different language, Hebrew, but here, too, Moses seems lacking. The Torah tells us that Moses had difficulty with speech: I am not an eloquent man … but I am slow of speech, and slow of tongue. [Exodus 4:10]

Moses also dressed in the manner of the Eyptians for when Moses escapes Egypt and makes his way to Midian, he is described as Ish Mitzri, an “Egyptian man” because of his manner of dress.

Later, Moses describes himself as v’ani oral sfataim — “I whose lips are uncircumcised.” [Exodus 6:12 and 6:30] If we take the literal meaning, it emerges that Moses does not feel that he has the right to represent the people because his tongue is uncircumcised. In other words, Moses is too Egyptian to represent the Jews.

If, indeed, the Jews are saved because they retained these three practices, then Moses seems an unlikely savior. Why is Moses chosen?

As we saw by Moses’ response to the oppression of his fellow Jew, he certainly did possess leadership qualities.

The model of leadership in the Jewish tradition is not the individual who is willing to subjugate others, rather the individual who is willing to sacrifice for others.

Despite his upbringing, Moses rejected his role in Egyptian society, as well as the culture and beliefs of Egypt. This is evidenced by the fact that after leaving Egypt, we are told:

“And Moses was the shepherd of his father in laws flock” [Exodus 3:1]

This seemingly innocent statement has great significance, if we recall that when Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt, Joseph warned them that they must delicately inform Pharaoh of their occupation:

“For every shepherd is considered an abomination in Egypt.” [Genesis 46:34]

Moses become a shepherd, the most detestable occupation in the value system of Egypt. It was then that God revealed himself to Moses for the first time, at the “Burning Bush.” The rejection of Egyptian life is what apparently allowed the Divine Revelation.

We can begin to understand why Moses deserved to be leader: He possessed incredible spiritual integrity.

From where did Moses take the strength to change his life? What inspired Moses to begin a spiritual quest, an odyssey which would take him from heir to the Egyptian throne to freedom-fighter for the disenfranchised slaves? From lowly shepherd to vanquisher of the Egyptian empire?

Moses embodied the chesed, “kindness” of Abraham, the gevurah, “strength” of Isaac, and emet, “truth” of Jacob. Moses was the most modest of men and became the finest leader and teacher that our people have had.

These aspects of Moses’ character became evident in his reaction to the beating of the Jewish slave. Moses felt kindness toward the victim.He displayed strength by holding back personal considerations and involving himself in the altercation. And finally Moses showed that he embodied truth by immediately discerning which side was right.

Moses certainly deserved his leadership role, but another question arises: Why did God choose a Jew brought up in the palace as the leader?

Evidently, in order for the exodus to take place precisely a person like Moses was needed.

A powerful lesson about the nature of the exodus can be learned from this. Had God desired for the Jews to leave Egypt, He surely could have simply “willed” it. Why go through the entire process of plagues and negotiations with Pharaoh?

The purpose would seem to be twofold — it was necessary both for the Jews and for the Egyptians.

After spending all these years in Egypt, the beliefs of the Egyptians would have made inroads into the Jewish mentality. What better way to show the bankruptcy of the Egyptian belief system than having one of the Egyptian “gods” revealed as a Jew? For the Jews this would eradicate any underlying belief in Egyptian mythology.

On the other hand, the message was also important for the Egyptians; they too needed to know that their religion was false. What better teacher than Moses, the ultimate “insider”? At one point he had dressed like them, talked like them, and they were even prepared to worship him.

This theme of educating the Egyptians is highlighted later in the book of Shemot where we are told that one day all the nations of the world will recognize the one true God.

The redemption of Egypt, which serves as a prototype for the final redemption, not merely illustrates the removal of the Jews from this foreign land, but it serves as a powerful challenge to the greatest civilization in the world at that time.

When the final redemption comes, it will be the greatest event in the history of the world. It will not affect the Jewish people alone, but every nation of the world.

In Tune with Torah this week = as we hope and look forward to the ultimate redemption, may we learn from Moses the power of humility, faith, kindness and integrity.

Shabbat Shalom