Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayechi December 29, 2017

Torah reading:  Genesis 47:28 – 50:26

Haftorah reading: I Kings 2: 1-12

Some time later Joseph was told, “Your father is ill.” So he took his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim along with him. When Jacob was told, “Your son Joseph has come to you,” Israel rallied his strength and sat up on the bed. Jacob said to Joseph, “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and there he blessed me and said to me, ‘I am going to make you fruitful and will increase your numbers. I will make you a community of peoples, and I will give this land as an everlasting possession to your descendants after you.’ “Now then, your two sons born to you in Egypt before I came to you here will be reckoned as mine; Ephraim and Manasseh will be mine, just as Reuben and Simeon are mine.”  Genesis 48:1-5

Jacob_Blessing_Ephraim_and_Manasseh_by_Benjamin_West

Reuben and Simeon were Jacob’s first-born sons. They were the ones who by right and by custom should have received a double portion of Jacob’s estate, twice as much as any of their brothers. But now, Jacob adopts Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph’s sons, as his own first-born sons. They will replace Reuben and Simeon as first-born sons and receive their inheritance. This elevates Joseph’s position, as the 11th born son, to an even greater position than the 1st born son. That’s because he, through his first two children, now receives four portions of his father’s estate. Usually, the first-born son receives two portions of the estate and the rest of the children only one, but Joseph gets four portions! Jacob elevates Joseph through this adoption, then he continues.

Any children born to you after them will be yours; in the territory they inherit they will be reckoned under the names of their brothers. As I was returning from Paddan, to my sorrow Rachel died in the land of Canaan while we were still on the way, a little distance from Ephrath. So I buried her there beside the road to Ephrath” (that is, Bethlehem). Gen. 48:6-7

The elevation of Joseph to the status of 1st born, reminds Jacob of Joseph’s mother, Rachel. He still feels the pain of her loss even after all those years; but in the midst of the pain and in the midst of his own terminal condition, he looks to the future with confidence. He adopts two boys as his own and promises them a double portion of his estate even though he has nothing to give them at this time. Jacob is living in a strange land. In fact, he has no land of his own except a small burial plot hundreds of miles away.

Yet he speaks with all the confidence of a promising future for his family.

Why? Because Jacob has found his hope in the promises of God, and that’s where we find our hope as well. If we feel as though we have nothing, if we are dealing with physical or emotional pain, if this year of 2017 has been a struggle, nevertheless, as we face the onset of a new year, we can utterly depend on the promises of God, just as Jacob did. We can look forward to the coming year with an absolute assurance that God will keep His Word. We can face the future with joy in anticipation of all that God has for us in the days ahead.

Jacob spoke to Joseph not out of what he presently possessed but out of the promise of God to him, and to his father, Isaac and to his grandfather, Abraham.

A story is told about a man at the age of 75 who planted a number of very small fruit trees.  His family wondered why he did so as he would likely never live to see the trees mature.  Some years later, after the old man had passed away, his son realized that when he visits the family farm, he has an option: he can either go to the nearby cemetery to mourn over his father’s grave or he can go pick fruit from the trees his father planted and think about the legacy of hope and faith his father left to the family.’

The Bible commands us to teach our children and our grandchildren about our God and the reliability of His promises.

In Tune with Torah this week = we need to ask ourselves: are we ‘planting fruit trees’ or are we complaining about our circumstances? Are we using the days allotted to us to build a spiritual legacy for those to follow or are we wasting time moaning about the present?

Jacob teaches us that the promises of God are irrevocable, unchangeable and more sure than the sun rising in the morning.  Our confidence and faith as we enter 2018 is founded on HIS integrity, not on world conditions.  Therefore we can pray with David, the sweet psalmist of Israel: ‘Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and sustain me with a willing spirit.’ Psalm 51:12

May this new year bring each of us closer to the LORD of Glory than ever before.

 

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Matot-Maasei August 5, 2016

Numbers 30 – 36

In this week’s portion, two of the tribes, Reuben and Gad, agree together that the land east of the Jordan is ideally suited as pasture for their large herds and flocks of livestock. They approach Moses and ask permission to settle there rather than cross the Jordan. Initially, Moses is furious at their request.  “Shall your fellow countrymen go to war while you sit here?” he asks. Had they learned nothing from the sin of the spies who, by demoralizing others through their behavior, condemned an entire generation to forty years of wandering in the desert?

Reuben

The Reubenites and Gadites get the point. They protest that they are not trying to exempt themselves from the struggles of their fellow Israelites. They are fully prepared to accompany them into the promised land and fight alongside them to conquer the Land. “We will not return to our homes until every Israelite has received his inheritance.”  After declaring publicly their commitment to participate in taking the Land, Moses grants their request on condition that they fulfill their word. “When the land is then conquered before God you may then return, innocent before God and Israel, and this land will be yours as your permanent property before God.”

The phrase – ‘you will be innocent before God and Israel’ – teaches an important lesson. It is not enough to do what is right in the eyes of God. One must also behave in such a way as to be seen to have done right in the eyes of one’s fellow man. It is incumbent upon us to live in such a way that we are above suspicion, men and women of uncontested integrity.

That sounds great but the reality of life is that at times even when we do conduct ourselves in a manner that we think is above suspicion and full of integrity, we still may find ourselves the object of criticism and judgments from others.  When that happens, how do we handle it?

First of all, those who pass judgment on others say more about themselves than they do about the person they are criticizing.  Remember that!  What we should be doing is finding the best in every person, not emphasizing what we perceive as their weaknesses or failures. (If, however, the criticism is constructive, our response should be one of humility and teachableness.)

Secondly, keep in mind that keeping a clear conscience before God is a much higher priority than being approved of by men.  It takes courage to do right, even if one has to stand alone, but that is the kind of integrity and courage that great men and women throughout the ages have exhibited and we do well to follow in their footsteps.

Reuben and Gad accepted Moses’ criticism and correction.  To their credit they kept their promise and went in to the Land to fight against the enemies of Israel.  But in the end, they returned to the other side of the Jordan.  They stopped short of taking possession of the Land God had promised Israel.  At the very border, instead of looking straight ahead, they looked to the right and to the left and decided to stay.

This is a second deeply significant lesson out of this week’s Torah portion.  When God instructs us, it is not enough to go part of the way, or even 98% of the way.  If we are committed to live by His Word, there is no room for compromise. Go all the way!

After the death of Moses, God spoke to Joshua and said, “Only be strong and very courageous; be careful to do according to all the Torah which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, so that you may have success wherever you go. Joshua 1:7

We are constantly bombarded with more than enough distractions in this world that easily draw our attention ‘to the right and to the left’ of what God has told us in His word.  This week’s Torah portion, as we come to the end of the book of Numbers, closes with these two very significant admonitions.

  1. Let integrity guide your thoughts, words and actions regardless of whether or not anyone understands. Your focus is to please God, not men.
  2. Refuse to be a 98% kind of person.  Go for the gold!  Be radical enough to obey God fully.

In Tune with Torah this week = taking these two principles to heart and checking our own lifestyle.  How are we doing?

Shabbat shalom

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Balak July 22, 2016

Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

In this week’s portion, the Torah introduces a non-Hebrew prophet, Bilam or Balaam, as most English bibles spell his name.  The children of Israel have prevailed over the Amorites and the people of Moab hear about it.  They are therefore fearful so when the Israelites set up camp opposite Moab,  Balak, the king of Moab, sends messengers to the prophet, Bilam.  He has one request of the prophet: come and curse this nation that is camped opposite us.  When they arrive at Bilam’s home, they present their request and the prophet invites them to spend the night so he can hear from God regarding the king’s request.

God’s response is unequivocal.  God said to Bilam, ‘Do not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.’ Num. 22:12  In the morning, Bilam sends the messengers back to the king with the message that God will not allow Bilam to curse Israel.

So far, so good.  Unfortunately the story doesn’t end here.

Balak sends another contingent of messengers, more distinguished than the last, promising honor to Bilam if he will agree to curse the Israelite nation.  One would think that Bilam would stand on his previous answer and send them back to the king.  He does make a ‘religious’ reply: ‘Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything either small or great, contrary to the command of the Lord, my God.’ Num. 22:18 Nevertheless, he invites this group also to spend the night so he can see ‘what else the Lord may speak to me.’  A dangerous move – God had already spoken to him but Bilam is hoping for a different answer the second time around.

Have you ever known someone who goes for counseling but instead of following the advice first given, they go to a second person or even a third, until they hear what they want to hear? In Bilam’s behavior we see a clear example of a very human trait: We see what we want to see and we hear what we want to hear.

God came to Bilam that night and said to him, ‘If the men have come to call you, rise up and go with them; but only the word which I speak shall you say.’  Num. 22:20  God essentially says ‘Go ahead. Do what you want to do, but you may not say anything I haven’t said!’  Bilam heard what he wanted to hear, saddled his donkey and went on his way. How many times have we acted like Bilam? Knowing what God wants us to do yet choosing to do what we want to do.

God was not pleased and sent an angel to impede Bilam’s journey. The donkey saw the angel and three times stopped moving ahead.  Bilam, not seeing the angel, beat the donkey in anger and frustration at which point, God opened the donkey’s mouth:

Bilam

‘What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?’  Bilam replied, ‘Because you have embarrassed me. If there was a sword in my hand, I would have killed you by now.’ The donkey replied, ‘Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden all of your life to this day? Have I ever done this to you before?’  Bilam replied, ‘No.’  (vs. 28-30)

Then the Lord opened Bilam’s eyes and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way.

It seems to me that when Bilam’s donkey started talking, the prophet should have seen immediately that it was time to repent!  To be fair, he did say, ‘I have sinned,’ but look at the rest of the sentence: ‘I did not know that you were standing in the way against me.  Now then, if it is displeasing to you, I’ll turn back.’

Take a good look at those words. He’s still hedging. It’s what he didn’t say that counts.

He didn’t say, ‘Lord, my God I have sinned.  Please forgive me.  I will turn back immediately.’

It’s one thing to admit, ‘I have sinned’ but that’s not necessarily repentance.  Just to acknowledge one’s failure without asking forgiveness and taking steps to correct one’s failure is only third of the process.  In addition, he offers something of a rationalization, ‘I didn’t know you were standing there’ he says to the angel, ‘and now if you’re really displeased, then I’ll turn back.’  IF you’re REALLY displeased??? Seriously!

Bilam is STILL not submitting in his heart to what God told him the first time he asked for direction.  Do you see that?

Not a one of us can throw stones at the prophet for we have done the same thing. Every failure – no matter what form it takes – is choosing what we want over what God wants.  We see what we want to see and we hear what we want to hear.  God’s desire is that we see as He sees, hear what He says and embrace His will in ready obedience.

Bilam did go to Balak but he was utterly unable to curse the Hebrew nation.  Instead he blessed them, not just once but three times.  In the course of his blessing, he uttered words that have resounded through the generations:

God is not a man that He should lie, nor a son of man that He should repent.  Has He said and will He not do it? Or has He spoken and will He not make it good?  Numbers 23:19

With these words, Bilam – a gentile prophet – declared to the world the integrity of the Lord God, His faithfulness to keep His word and to fulfill every promise He has made.

Our faith is built on nothing less than God’s incomparable faithfulness.  We believe Him because He is Who He says He is and His Word will never return to him void, without accomplishing that for which it was spoken. For the revelation of these words, we thank Bilam and we learn as well that God uses even the imperfect to deliver His message.

In Tune with Torah this week = Let us each ask our Father in heaven to grant us grace to see with His eyes and hear with the ears of disciples that we may live a life of loving obedience to whatever He directs us to do.  Key Word: ‘whatever’

Shabbat Shalom

If you enjoy these weekly commentaries, tell your friends about In Tune with Torah.

And do leave a comment below.  It’s always great to hear from you.

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Vaiera October 30, 2015

Genesis 18-22

“Take your son, your only son, the one you love – Isaac – and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” This is one of the most famous events in Torah and also one of the most enigmatic.

At first glance it seems like a horrific ‘test’ and how could God ask such a thing of Abraham? Did He not miraculously give him this beloved son?

And why did God need to ‘test’ Abraham at all? Doesn’t God know the human heart better than we know ourselves?

Traditional interpretations and commentaries on this passage abound. Let’s take a bit of a different look at it.

Historically we know that child sacrifice was not rare in the ancient world. It was sadly commonplace among the pagan societies. It is looked upon with horror throughout the Bible. How, then, could Abraham be commanded to do what his descendants were commanded NOT to do?

Abraham was chosen to be a father. “For I have chosen him so that he will instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.”

To understand the binding of Isaac we have to understand something about the world of that time. Before cities and civilizations, the fundamental unit was the family. Each family had its own gods which usually included the spirits of dead ancestors. The authority of the father was absolute over his wife and children. As long as the father lived, the children were ‘property’ rather than persons in their own right. When the father died, the authority went to the firstborn son – whether he was righteous or not.

The Torah directly opposes this worldview. It includes no sacrifices to dead ancestors and communicating with the dead is explicitly forbidden. And succession does not automatically pass to the firstborn as it did with the pagans; not to Ishmael but to Isaac; not to Esau but to Jacob; not to Reuben but to Levi for the priesthood.

The entire story of Isaac is a direct contradiction to the prevailing thought of the time that children are ‘property’. Consider: Isaac’s birth is a miracle, as was Samuel’s some centuries later. When her son is born Hannah says, “I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord.” This passage is parallel to the message from an angel telling Abraham to refrain from killing his son: “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from Me your son, your only son” (the statement appears twice, in Gen. 22:12 and 16).

The test was not whether Abraham would literally sacrifice his son but whether he would surrender Isaac completely to God, whether Abraham would relinquish ‘ownership’ over the son he had longed for and recognize that Isaac is an individual with his own life to lead, his own calling and relationship with God to pursue.

What God was doing when he asked Abraham to offer up his son was not requesting a child sacrifice. He wanted to change the worldview and establish a non-negotiable law that children are not the ‘property’ of their parents but a blessing from Hashem to be nurtured, taught and led to fulfill their unique calling and destiny according to the will of God.

Is this not why three of the four matriarchs were able to have children only by divine intervention? God wanted us to know that children are a gift from Him, not simply a biological accident or event.

It’s very interesting to note that at the birth of the very first human being, Cain, Eve says, “With the help of the Lord, I have acquired a man.” It’s clearer in the Hebrew than in the English translation. What she was really saying was ‘I have purchased with my effort and pain a child for myself.’ That child became the first murderer. Not a very good ending to that story!

The Torah presents the birth of the individual as the central figure in the moral life. Because children – all children – belong to God, parenthood is not ownership but guardianship. Abraham, called to be not only a parent to his son, but to become the ‘Father of many nations’, had to learn by means of an event he would never forget that as much as he loved Isaac, he did not own him. He was to teach his son the ways of God but also give him space to develop a personal relationship with God and fulfill his calling and destiny without any ‘micromanagement’ from Abraham.

The Torah underscores the truth that the integrity of each of us as an individual moral agent in our own right with the capacity and opportunity to develop a personal relationship with God Himself is paramount.

In Tune with Torah this week = if you are a parent, how are you handling the choices and decisions your children make which may not be what you would desire for them? Are you allowing them the space to be individuals? Even at the cost of watching them struggle through circumstances you think you could have prevented? That child of yours has a path of his or her own; it’s not yours, it’s different. Abraham teaches us to celebrate the differences, always keep in mind that your child is God’s first, and you are God’s
‘nanny’ for a few years. The binding of Isaac was in fact a test of UN-binding. Would Abraham let Isaac go – to pursue his own calling?

Weekly Torah Commentary — Beresheit October 9, 2015

Genesis/Beresheit 1:1 – 6:8

The most important single creation described in the opening chapters of Genesis is the creation of the first human being. While various schools of thought in philosophy and science have their opinions about the nature of man, it is most helpful to see what the Creator Himself had to say.

Maimonides, writing about the nature of man, says this:

Every human being has control over himself. If he wants to push himself towards the right path and become a tzaddik (holy man) he is able to do so. If he wants to go down the wrong path and be a rasha (evil man) he is able to do so. This is what the Torah writes: Behold man has become like the Unique One among us knowing good and bad: and now, lest he put forth his hand and take from the Tree of Life and eat and live forever. (Genesis 3:22)

In other words, not even God can interfere directly with man’s freedom of action. To do so, He would have to program man’s mind in which case man is no longer a free agent. Or,
God would have to forcibly restrain man from surrendering to temptation which would also nullify man’s free will.

There’s no getting around it, my friends. The gift of free will – or free choice – is at once wonderful but also sobering. We ARE responsible for our decisions and choices by God’s own design. Nullifying man’s free will amounts to destroying him, because the ability to determine our own choices is not one of the facets of man; it is our very essence.

According to the Word of God, man’s free will is what sets him apart from the rest of creation. To be human is to be free to make up your own mind and implement your decisions. A restriction on human freedom is a negation of humanity itself.

With the gift comes personal responsibility. With personal responsibility comes the choice to live with integrity – or not. There was a time not so long ago that a man’s word was considered his bond. Legal contracts were sealed with a handshake and it was unthinkable that such an agreement would ever be broken. Unfortunately in more recent times, this is not always the case. Hence the reams of paper used in printing complicated, confusing and lengthy laws, contracts and affidavits that few people read in their entirety – to their own peril at times!

Our world needs a revival of integrity – a return to the practice that “yes” means “yes” and “no” means “no”; a return to the principle that if someone gives you their word, you can trust it will be fulfilled.

One of the great attributes of the Holy One of Israel is that His Word is unshakeable, inviolable, unstoppable and guaranteed. God – so to speak – is a “Man of His Word”.
Are we? Did He not say, ‘Be holy as I am holy’?

In Tune with Torah this week = The power of speech gives expression to our decisions and choices. How are we doing at keeping our word? At refraining from careless and thoughtless speech? From negative and critical speech? Do our words reflect righteousness and holiness, as His Words do? And – do we take responsibility for our choices, rather than blame others?

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 – Feast of Tabernacles Oct. 8-15, 2014

SuccotThe Festival of Sukkot or Tabernacles is the last of the yearly festivals commanded in the book of Leviticus. Coming as it does right after Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, it seems redundant to some, even anticlimactic. However,it is a beautiful and inspirational festival.

Some believe that it was the Festival of Sukkot that inspired the Puritans of Massachusetts to celebrate their Thanksgiving Day. While giving thanks is a fitting conclusion to a succession of sacred days, Sukkot is much more than just a biblical “Thanksgiving.”

One of the readings during Succot is the book of Ecclesiastes in which the wise King Solomon speaks to us about the changing nature of life and eternal values. We are reminded that our condition is always precarious even when we think we dwell in security and safety. Yet through reading his book, we are reminded of a central issue in Succot: the temporariness of our earthly existence.

When we see what has happened to the world’s economy in a few short months, we might consider that we actually do ‘live’ in a sukkah. Anyone who has ever experienced a hurricane up close understands how a solid house can suddenly feel like a sukkah. When our trust-in our relationships, our work, our health-is shaken, we see that we really do ‘live’ in temporary dwellings on this earth. We can’t depend on the outer walls; our security and our stability is in God alone.

Since that’s the case, we are reminded each year during Succot of a valuable lesson about life. Strong faith is not a luxury but a necessity. Faith is a decision against chaos. It gives us the strength that comes from the inside, not from the outside.

Sukkot reminds us that what really matters in life is what will follow us into eternity: those words and actions which have eternal value; which have contributed to the betterment of our family and friends; which have inspired others to walk with God, to choose righteousness, to seek integrity, humility and holiness.

Succot is all about renewing in us the awareness of the destiny for which we were created: to be a living ‘Tabernacle’ or ‘Sukkah’ of His presence as we make our way through life’s joys and sorrows.