Weekly Torah Commentary – Eikev August 11, 2017

Torah reading:  Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25

Haftorah reading: Isaiah 49:14 – 51:3

Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, who seek the Lord: Look to the rock from which you were hewn and to the quarry from which you were dug.  Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who gave birth to you in pain; when he was but one I called him, then I blessed him and multiplied him.  Isaiah 51:1-2

abraham-father-of-faith

In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, the story of Abraham and his family is covered from chapter 11 through chapter 50, while only two chapters are given to the entire story of creation. What was there in the life of Abraham that distinguished him as such a man that so great a portion of Genesis is devoted to disclosing his life in great detail?

The life story of Abraham begins in Ur of the Chaldeans where Abraham lived in a comfortable home and in pleasant circumstances. Archaeology has disclosed that Ur, located not too far from Babylon, was a prosperous city with lovely homes, beautiful parks and public buildings. Abraham was comfortable and secure in Ur, but it was also a wicked city where pagan sacrifices — including human sacrifices — were continually offered.

According to Genesis 12:1, God directed Abraham to leave Ur, leave his family, and dwell in tents for the rest of his life. Abraham started out with his father and his nephew, Lot, and got as far as Haran. Only when his father died did Abraham move on to the promised land with Lot. At long last he had come to the place of God’s appointment.  Keep in mind that when God instructed Abraham (then Abram) to leave Ur, God didn’t explain exactly where Abraham was going. He simply said, ‘Leave and go…and I’ll show you where to stop!’

From Abraham’s life, we learn and re-learn some much needed lessons. Abraham demonstrated his faith that God would care for him, provide for him and guide him by doing what God told him to do regardless of how bizarre it may have sounded to his family and friends at the time, let alone his wife!  Can you imagine your husband coming home one afternoon and saying, ‘Honey, we’re moving.’  You reply in surprise, ‘Oh? Where are we going?’  Your husband replies, ‘I have no idea.  God just spoke to me today and said we must leave here and He will show us where to settle.’  Seriously?!?!?!?  It’s probably the mercy of God towards Sarah that the scripture doesn’t tell us her first reaction!  To her credit, despite whatever her first reaction was, she followed her husband, trusting his faith in God.

Without knowing where the land was to which he was going, he accepted God’s promise that his descendants would inherit that unknown land.  Keep in mind that at the time he had no descendant and he was already advanced in years.  But Abraham understood something that we moderns too often overlook: When God speaks, our only appropriate response is to obey.  It is not ours to judge what God has said and decide whether or not we agree.  He has spoken? End of story.  Do what He said!

In the materialistic society in which we live, we need a constant reminder that earthly possessions are always temporary, and only that which is eternal abides forever. There is a world to come – an eternal world – which God has prepared for His people that they  may live with Him forever.  Our status in that world has everything to do with the quality of our faith in this one, for the degree to which we choose to love God and obey Him is determined by how genuinely we believe in Him and believe His word to us as found in the pages of Scripture.

Abraham, despite his great faith, had one great frustration. For most of his life he and Sarah, his wife, had no children. How could the promises of many nations coming from him, and of his descendants inheriting the land, be fulfilled if he had no children? According to Genesis 15:1-3, Abraham suggested that his chief servant, Eliezer, be made his heir, but God said, “This man will not be your heir” (Gen. 15:4).

Sarah, being a resourceful woman, suggested to Abraham that he have a child by Hagar, an Egyptian slave that they had brought back with them from Egypt. In those times, this was not an unusual practice if a wife was barren. In due time Ishmael was born, and Abraham’s heart was delighted. But this was not the fulfillment of God’s promise.

When Abraham was already ninety-nine years old and Sarah was ninety, there was really no human basis for hope that Sarah would bear a son. Nevertheless God said, “Sarah, your wife, shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac” (Gen. 17:19).  At that advanced age, Abraham believed what God said over the “evidence” of his and Sarah’s physical status.  How could a 99 year old man with a 90 year old wife believe they could have a child?  Some today might call them crazy!

Yet Abraham’s faith in God convinced him that if God said it would happen, that was good enough for him and he did not allow the physical circumstances to shake his faith in his God.  And so from this one man, as good as dead from a physical viewpoint, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand of the seashore.

The supreme test of Abraham’s faith was yet to come. Fiery tests of faith which occur early in life sometimes climax in much greater tests of faith in a time of spiritual maturity. So it was with Abraham.

When Isaac had reached his early teens, God told Abraham to do a strange thing. One day God said to Abraham, “Take now your son, your only son, whom thou lovest, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you” (Gen. 22:2). What an astounding command! Abraham was to take the promised son on whom all the promises of God for the future of Abraham depended, and offer him as a human sacrifice upon an altar on a distant mountain.

Even though Abraham had been accustomed to human sacrifices in his pagan life in Ur, how could this possibly fit into the plan of God? What was to happen to all the promises that depended on Isaac? There is no scriptural record of any wavering. Early the next morning the journey began.

Taking two young men with him, his son Isaac, and wood for the offering, Abraham began the journey that on the third day brought them near to the place of sacrifice. When Isaac asked the searching question, “Behold, the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (Gen. 22:7). Abraham replied, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (Gen. 22:8).

When they came to the place, Abraham apparently had to tell what he was about to do. And Isaac, being a strong young man, had to be willing to be bound on the altar as God had directed Abraham. Just as Abraham took the knife to take the life of his own son, God stayed his hand, and told him to offer instead a ram caught in a thicket nearby.

The incident with Isaac reveals more clearly than any other the maturity of Abraham’s faith. Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death. Abraham had such confidence in God that even this confusing direction did not deter him from his utter confidence in God’s integrity and moral character.  Since God had said that through Isaac, the promised descendants would come.  Abraham considered that to be the final word.

In Tune with Torah this week = Abraham was a man of faith who believed he could live in God’s place, who believed in God’s provision for him in time and eternity, who believed the promise of the son whom God would give him miraculously, and who believed in God’s utter and incomparable integrity.  Now here’s the bottom line: Abraham believed God with this amazing faith because he knew God.It is not enough to know about God; we must, like Abraham, develop a personal relationship with Him by spending time in His presence, pondering His words and internalizing their message so that our lives are impacted.

It behooves us to remember that while Jewish tradition called Moses our ‘Teacher’; it is Abraham who is our ‘father’.  Therefore, Isaiah exhorts us ‘Look to Abraham…’  Judaism began with a man of FAITH, more than four hundred years before the Torah was given.

If we delight in being children of Abraham, than our faith today must stand on the same foundation. Like Abraham, we are called to live by faith in the living God who will accomplish for us in time and eternity all that He has promised in His love and grace.

Shabbat shalom.

 

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Devarim July 28, 2017

Torah reading:  Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22

Haftorah reading:  Isaiah 1: 1-27

The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.  Isaiah 1:1

Isaiah

Someone has called Isaiah the ‘Shakespeare of the biblical writers’ because of his passion and eloquence.  As we will have several Haftorah readings in the next few weeks from Isaiah’s book, let’s take a look at this man – who he was and when he lived.

Who was Isaiah? His ministry spanned the reigns of at least four kings, most likely five – Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah and probably into the reign of Manasseh. This is a period of approximately 40 years, covering the time of the second half of the 8th century B.C. (750-700). The son of Amoz, he exercised his ministry in and around Jerusalem. Some commentators speculate that he was from a well-to-do family with ties to the royal family. He was married and had at least two sons but we are told precious little about his personal and family life.

Isaiah was a contemporary of two other prophets – Micah, who also prophesied in Jerusalem (Judah), and Hosea, who prophesied in the northern kingdom of Israel. There is no mention of Isaiah and Micah knowing each other, although it is impossible to see how they could not have. There is no reference to Micah having access to the kings as Isaiah did, which again indicates that Isaiah had connections not available to Micah.

The times of Isaiah were turbulent, to say the least. King Uzziah, who reigned for fifty two years, led Judah during a period of prosperity not known since the days of Solomon. Jeroboam II reigned in Israel during most of Uzziah’s reign and had similar success. But their deaths were a turning point. By 722 B.C., the northern kingdom of Israel were destroyed by Assyria, its people forever scattered. Judah survived the Assyrian threat, but not before being reduced to a subservient country, impoverished by paying taxes to Assyria.

Uzziah’s son, Jotham served for sixteen years, pretty much in the same vein as his father. Both were described as being faithful to God, although Uzziah for some reason let pride get the best of him and fancied himself as being able to carry out the work of a priest. He entered into the temple area, reserved only for priests, and tried to burn incense on the altar. He was struck with leprosy which resulted in his death.

Ahaz, the next king, was the consummate opportunist, guided by one principle – his own ego. It was during his reign that Assyria conquered Israel; in fact, it was at his invitation! Israel wanted Judah to join them and dethrone Ahaz, in order to place their own puppet king on the throne. Ahaz’s reaction was to entreat the king of Assyria to come to his aid. The result was utter devastation for the northern kingdom of Israel and the submission of the southern kingdom of Judah. Ahaz also used his throne to promote idolatry and even offered his own sons to the fires of false gods.

Hezekiah succeeded his father and clearly was not his “father’s son.”  He followed the Lord, using his throne to bring reform to the country. It was Hezekiah who had the courage to tear down the pagan altars. He also dealt with Assyria, but unlike his father he turned to the Lord for deliverance through the counsel and encouragement of Isaiah.

The highlight of Hezekiah’s and Isaiah’s careers occurred in their response to a siege by Assyria. There were actually two separate threats made against Jerusalem by Sennacherib, king of Assyria. In the first, he sent his general to Jerusalem to order the surrender of the city. Dismayed, Hezekiah turned to the temple to pray and sent a petition to Isaiah to engage in prayer.  Isaiah strengthened the king with an encouraging prophecy that the Assyrian king would turn away due to false reports he would receive. Hezekiah then held steady, and, true to the prophecy, the Assyrian king turned away with his army. Years later Sennacherib would renew threats to Hezekiah, who again turned to God in prayer and received another promising word from Isaiah. That time, the Assyrian army was struck with a plague.  How different from the conniving Ahaz!

All the prophets, to be sure, proclaim the salvation of the Lord, but none can match Isaiah for the sheer grandeur of proclamation regarding God’s salvation.

Steadily and masterfully, the prophet describes and expands an exalted vision of the great act of redemption and restoration for God’s people. He does not merely proclaim these things will take place, but he takes every act and concept to great magnitude.  It is Isaiah who proclaims a salvation and restoration more grand than could have been imagined, culminating a new Jerusalem ‘whose righteousness shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch, who will be a crown of splendor in the LORD’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God.’ (Isaiah 62:1-3).

If we wanted to summarize the theme of Isaiah’s book, it would be this verse:  And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.  Isaiah 40:5

The incomparable glory of God shines through this book as the prophet expounds on the glory, majesty and holiness of the Holy One of Israel.

In Tune With Torah this week =  For Isaiah, true insight into the meaning of life is not merely that there is a God out there who loves us and offers a wonderful plan for us; it is that all things and everyone live for the glory of God. God does not exist for us; we exist for Him. The wonderful news Isaiah declares is that God is most glorified by his work of redemption.

Over the next few weeks, the haftorah readings will be primarily from Isaiah.  Expect to be enlightened and inspired by the visions and prophecies of this amazing servant of God.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Yitro February 17, 2017

Torah reading:  Exodus 18-20

Haftorah reading: Isaiah 6: 1-7:9, 9:5-6

In this week’s Haftorah reading, Isaiah invites us to share his vision of God.

In the year that king Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.  6: 1-4

intimacy_with_god

There are at least seven things about God to notice in these verses.

1. God Is Alive

First, he is alive. Uzziah is dead, but God lives on.  He was the living God at creation. He was the living God when Socrates drank his poison. He was the living God when William Bradford governed Plymouth Colony. He was the living God in 1966 when Thomas Altizer proclaimed him dead and Time magazine published the false news. And he will be alive ten trillion ages from now when all the foolish attempts to deny His reality will have sunk into oblivion.  “In the year that king Uzziah died I saw the Lord.” There is not a single head of state in all the world who will be there in one hundred years. In a brief 110 years this planet will be populated by ten billion brand new people and all four billion of us alive today will have vanished off the earth like Uzziah. But not God. He never had a beginning and therefore depends on nothing for his existence. He always has been and always will be…alive.

2. God Is the Ultimate Authority

Second, he is eternal King. “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne.” No vision of heaven has ever caught a glimpse of God plowing a field, or cutting his grass or shining shoes or filling out reports or loading a truck. Heaven is not coming apart at the seams. God is never at wits’ end. He sits on a throne. All is at peace and He has control.

The throne is his right to rule the world. What utter folly it is to act as though we had any rights at all to call God into question!

Few things are more humbling than the truth that God is utterly authoritative. He is the Supreme Court, the Legislature, and the Chief Executive, all in One.

3. God Is Omnipotent

Third, God is omnipotent. The throne of his authority is not one among many. It is high and lifted up. “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and lifted up.” That God’s throne is higher than every other throne signifies God’s superior power to exercise his authority. No opposing authority can nullify the decrees of God. What he purposes, he accomplishes. “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose” (Isaiah 46:10).  Indifference to his omnipotence simply means we haven’t seen it for what it is. The sovereign authority of the living God is a refuge full of joy and power for those who keep his covenant.

4. God Is Majestic

Fourth, God is resplendent. “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.” You have seen pictures of brides whose dresses are gathered around them covering the steps and the platform. What would the meaning be if the train filled the aisles and covered the seats and the choir loft, woven all of one piece? That God’s robe fills the entire heavenly temple means that he is a God of incomparable splendor. The fullness of God’s splendor shows itself in a thousand ways.

5. God Is Reverenced

Fifth, God is reverenced. “Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.” No one knows what these strange six-winged creatures with feet and eyes and intelligence are. They never appear again in the Bible — at least not under the name seraphim. They are hardly chubby babies! According to verse 4, when one of them speaks, the foundations of the temple shake.

The point is this: not even they can look upon the Lord nor do they feel worthy even to leave their feet exposed in His presence. Great and good as they are, untainted by human sin, they revere their Maker in great humility. An angel terrifies a man with his brilliance and power. But angels themselves hide in holy fear and reverence from the splendor of God. How much more will we shudder and quake in his presence!

6. God Is Holy

Sixth, God is holy. R“And one called to another, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!’

Every effort to define the holiness of God ultimately winds up by saying: God is holy means God is God. For example: the root meaning of holy is probably to separate. A holy thing is separated from common (we would say secular) use. Earthly things and persons are holy as they are distinct from the world and devoted to God. The Bible speaks of holy ground (Exodus 3:5), holy assemblies (Exodus 12:16), holy sabbaths (Exodus 16:23), a holy nation (Exodus 19:6); holy garments (Exodus 28:2), a holy city (Nehemiah 11:1), holy promises (Psalm 105:42), etc. Almost anything can become holy if it is separated from the common and devoted to God.

But notice what happens when this definition is applied to God himself. From what can you separate God to make him holy? The very god-ness of God means that he is separate from all that is not God. There is an infinite qualitative difference between Creator and creature. God is one of a kind. In a class by himself. In that sense he is utterly holy. But saying so, you have actually  said no more than that He is Almighty, Everlasting God.

What then is His holiness?

1 Samuel 2:2, “There is none holy like the Lord, there is none besides thee.”

Isaiah 40:25, “To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One.”

Hosea 11:9, “I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst.”

In the end God is holy because He is God and not man. His holiness is His utterly unique divine essence. His holiness is what He is as God which no one else is or ever will be.  “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Habakkuk 2:20).

7. God Is Glorious

God is glorious. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory.” The glory of God is the manifestation of his holiness. God’s holiness is the incomparable perfection of his divine nature; his glory is the display of that holiness. “God is glorious” means: God’s holiness has gone public. His glory is the open revelation of the secret of his holiness. In Leviticus 10:3 God says, “I will show myself holy among those who are near me, and before all the people I will be glorified.” When God shows himself to be holy, what we see is glory.

When the Seraphim say, “The whole earth is full of his glory,” it is because from the heights of heaven you can see the end of the world. From down here the view of the glory of God is limited. Someday, God will blow and turn away every competing glory and make his holiness known in awesome splendor to every humble creature. But there is no need to wait. Job, Isaiah, David and and so many others have humbled themselves to go hard after the Holy God and have developed an intimacy with His majesty. To you who have yet to feel it, I hold out this promise from God, who is ever alive, authoritative, omnipotent, resplendent, revered, holy, and glorious: “You will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me (go hard after me) with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:12–13).

In Tune with Torah this week = the greatest achievement of any human on the face of the earth is to experience intimacy with the Lord of glory, the Almighty, the Holy One of Israel.  Intimacy with God comes through the same path as intimacy with your spouse, or a best friend.  It requires time in His presence, meditating on His greatness and goodness and humbling ourselves before His incomparable mercy and graciousness.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Shemot January 20, 2017

Torah reading:  Exodus 1:1-6:1

Haftorah reading: Isaiah 27: 6-28:13, 29:22-23

Woe to the crown of pride, to the drunkards of Ephraim, whose glorious beauty is a fading flower which is at the head of the verdant valleys, to those who are overcome with wine! Behold, the Lord has a mighty and strong one, like a tempest of hail and a destroying storm, like a flood of mighty waters overflowing, who will bring them down to the earth with His hand. The crown of pride, the drunkards of Ephraim, will be trampled underfoot; and the glorious beauty is a fading flower which is at the head of the verdant valley, like the first fruit before the summer, which an observer sees; he eats it up while it is still in his hand. Isaiah 28: 1-4

The prophet addresses the northern kingdom which was known as the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Ephraim.  This is the kingdom that was established in the territory given to Ephraim when Joshua divided the nation after they entered the Promised Land.  It was to this geographical location that the ten tribes moved when they rebelled against Judah who was located in Jerusalem and its environs.  Rather quickly the northern kingdom demonstrated their rebellion by changing times and seasons, changing instructions given in the Torah to suit their own preferences and eventually were conquered after only 70 years and dispersed among the nations.

A fundamental root of their rebellion is identified in the opening words: Woe to the crown of pride…

John R.W. Stott, a remarkably humble man of great abilities and accomplishments is credited with this succinct statement about pride and humility. It goes straight to the heart of what the Bible teaches about the deadly root of our sins and sorrows. Stott said: “Pride is your greatest enemy, humility is your greatest friend.”

We haven’t heard much lately about this topic, have we? What throughout history has been recognized as the deadliest of vices is now almost celebrated as a virtue in our present society. Pride and arrogance are conspicuous among the rich, the powerful, the successful, the famous, and celebrities of all sorts, and sadly, even some religious leaders. And it is also alive and well in ordinary people, including each of us. Yet few of us realize how dangerous it is to our souls and how greatly it hinders our intimacy with God and love for others.

Humility, on the other hand, is often seen as weakness, and few of us know much about it or pursue it. For the good of our souls, however, we need to gain a clearer understanding of both pride and humility and how to renounce the one and embrace the other.

Pride first appears in the Bible in Genesis 3, where we see the devil, that “proud spirit” as some have described him, using pride as the avenue by which to seduce our first parents. Taking the form of a serpent, his approach was simple yet deadly. First, he arrogantly contradicted what God had said to Eve about eating the forbidden fruit and charged God with lying. This shocking rejection of God’s word introduced Eve to the hitherto unknown possibility of unbelief and stirred up doubt in her mind about the reliability of God. In the next breath, the devil drew her into deeper deception by contending that God’s reason for lying was to keep her from enjoying all the blessings of her state. His goal was to undermine Eve’s faith and cause her to question God’s truthfulness.

As Eve in her now confused and deceived state of mind considered the possibilities, her desire to become ‘Godlike’ grew stronger. The forbidden fruit became more attractive. Desire increased, bringing with it the inclination to rationalize and thereby erode any inclination of her will to resist the temptation being offered.

Finally, weakened by unbelief, enticed by pride, and ensnared by self-deception, she disobeyed God’s command. In just a few clever and devious words, the devil was able to use ego to bring about Eve’s downfall and plunge the human race into spiritual ruin. This ancient but all-too-familiar process confronts each of us daily.

Temptation to choose self over God is a daily issue.  Self-indulgence, self-pity, self-aggrandizement, self-will, taking oneself too seriously and thinking more of oneself than we ought to think are all symptoms of a pride in the heart that is displeasing to our God. The prophet Micah put it this way:  He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly before your God?  Micah 6:8

Pride can manifest itself in many ways, spiritual pride being the worst of them all. To consider yourself better than others because of your race, nationality, talents, achievements or religious affiliation is obnoxious to God.  What do any of us have that we have not received as a gift from our heavenly Father?  Even those things that we call ‘our’ achievements could never have come about without God’s sustaining and enabling grace being operative in our lives.  None of us is guaranteed ‘tomorrow’ – sudden and untimely deaths are a common occurrence of which we are all aware.

It behooves us to recognize that apart from the LORD’s blessing upon our lives, we would be sorry creatures indeed.  Understanding how much He has blessed us should inspire continual gratitude to Him through thick and thin.  David, a man who endured many difficult trials, understood this principle and so he wrote: I will bless the LORD at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth.  Psalm 43:1

Humility is called the queen of all virtues.  Solomon wrote:

By humility and the fear of the LORD are riches, and honor, and life. Prov. 22:4

Better to be of an humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud. Prov. 16:19

A man’s pride shall bring him low: but honor shall come to the humble in spirit.  Prov. 29:23

Let’s be very clear about this issue.  A parent may be rightfully proud of their child for choosing to do right and/or succeeding academically, for example, through discipline and hard work. There is a kind of ‘pride’ that is acceptable in appropriate situations; a pride that focuses on the success of others, rather than oneself.

However, a pride that focuses on oneself, even in one’s own eyes, is reprehensible and must be avoided. That is the kind of pride that the LORD abhors.  It is undisciplined ego.

In Tune with Torah this week: if you go on and read the rest of the haftorah portion, you quickly learn that the pride of the Ephraimites brought their downfall.  That is the sure result of pride: downfall of one type or another.  May the only ‘crown’ we seek to wear be the crown of Humility.

This Shabbat let us examine our own hearts and humble ourselves before our God, acknowledging His goodness and kindness to us and thanking Him sincerely for all He has done for us.

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Beresheit October 27, 2016

Torah reading this week:  Genesis 1:1 – 6:8

Haftorah reading:  Isaiah 42:5 – 43:10

For three weeks we will be reading portions from the book of Isaiah as companion readings to the weekly Torah.  In this section that is partnered with Genesis 1-6, the reading begins with the verse:

Thus says the Lord God who created the heavens and stretched the out, Who spread out the earth and its offspring, Who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it.  Isaiah 42:5

This verse clearly refers back to the account of creation and establishes the rationale for the arrangement of the Haftorah readings in the yearly cycle.  Each section was chosen by its ability to mirror a principle or truth which the Torah reading holds forth from week to week.

fearnot

Chapter 40 of Isaiah begins the second half of the book of Isaiah and it is from this second half that the readings for this week and the next two weeks are taken.   In Chapters 1 to 39, God warned his people about judgement for their national sins. At that time, Assyria was the enemy and Isaiah himself lived through the events of this period.

In Chapters 40 to 66, God promises comfort to his people. (The word ‘comfort’ appears 13 times.) In these chapters, Babylon rather than Assyria is the enemy. God’s people have been exiled to Babylon because of their unfaithfulness to God. What Isaiah describes in this second half of the book he will not live to see for the events occur two hundred years later.

In Chapters 40 and 41, Isaiah reminds the people that God rules over nations and over history.  He reminds the people that sin has consequences and that false gods have no power.  He also assures His own people of His abiding love and care for them.

I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness, I will also hold you by the hand and watch over you….I am the Lord, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another nor My praise to graven images.  42:6,8

The prophet cries to Israel to sing a new song to the Lord – to praise Him unreservedly.

Tell the whole world to sing a new song to the Lord. Tell those who sail the seas to join in the song. And tell those who live in distant places to join in too. Let people who live in the deserts and in the cities sing aloud to praise God. Let the people in Kedar praise him. Let the inhabitants of the city called Sela shout for joy from the tops of the mountains.  Let the inhabitants of distant nations praise the Lord. Let them give him great honor.  42:10-12

From its earliest days, Israel was taught to praise the Lord, to worship Him as the one and only true God of heaven and earth.  That truth is foundational to all of the Scriptures and is encapsulated in the well know words of Deuteronomy: 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 mind and with all your strength.

The revelation of God as One Supreme Being was first recognized by Abraham who spread that truth far and wide and passed it on to his descendants ‘that the world might know…’

Yet despite all their miraculous history, Israel had not learned as a nation to walk in the righteousness they were called to and God raised up Isaiah to warn them as a loving father does his children.  The spiritual blindness of the people, their disobedience to His instructions would bring discipline in the form of exile from their Land; yet, even in the stern warning there was a promise of future redemption.

 But now, thus says the Lord, your Creator, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel.  Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are Mine!  43:1

This is the promise that to this day the people of God can rely on with absolute faith for as it says in another place in scripture, God is not a man that He should lie…

From before creation, God, who is love, had a plan which issued from His very being; a plan to create not only a physical earth and heavens but a people who would come to know Him, to learn from Him, to listen to Him and to live according to His ways.  As He is all knowing, it was not hidden from Him that many among mankind would rebel against His ways, and refuse to walk according to His commandments.  But His dream of a people who would fellowship with Him was not minimized by the reality that some would refuse His love.  Rather, His vision was towards those who would respond with hearts of faith and of love and seek to know Him, follow Him and live out their days in His presence and according to His Word.

Here is the wonderful truth: if you believe in Him, love Him and have dedicated yourself to living according to His ways, He was thinking of you – YES, YOU! – before creation.  That in itself is an amazing truth that boggles the mind.  But it’s true – absolutely true – and should elicit from all of us a ‘new song’ of praise and thanksgiving for His abundant goodness and love.

For we have all failed Him during our journey of seeking to walk in His ways.  Yet His promise of redemption can never fail us for unlike us, He is eternally, irrevocably, immutably faithful. What He has said, He will do. And when God sets out to do something, no power in the universe can stop Him!

He knows you by name and has provided eternal redemption because of  His love.

Should we not be moved to love such an awesome God in return? To lay aside anything and everything that would hinder us from walking according to His ways and His Word?

This week’s Haftorah urges us to remember and appreciate the wonders of creation, the glory of the Creator and our precious opportunity to show our gratitude by living in obedience to the One Who has so loved us.

Shabbat shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Shoftim September 9, 2016

Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

When [the king] is established on his royal throne, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this Torah … It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to be in awe of the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not feel superior to his brethren or turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time in the midst of Israel. (Deut. 17:18-20)

In these verses, the queen of all virtues is highlighted: ‘[he] shall not feel superior to his brethren’. 

Many people have misconceptions about humility. To be humble is not about beating yourself up or letting other people put you down.  It is not low self-esteem, nor is it the opposite of confidence. In fact, only the truly humble person thinks and acts with confidence because he understands his utter dependence on the goodness of God.

Humility is not just a virtue; it is the root of all other virtues.  A lack of humility is at the root of every character defect and failure for it is the ego [pride] that causes us to choose our own way and our own opinion over God’s.

In this regard, we do well to remember Isaiah’s warning:  ‘My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts, says the LORD. And My ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so My ways are higher than your ways and My thoughts, higher than your thoughts.’  Isaiah 55:8-9

The seemingly insignificant events of daily life are the tests of our humility.  It is in the simple things of every day that our humility – or the lack thereof – is demonstrated.  You see, it is not enough to assume a humble countenance before God in times of prayer.  Humility before God is proven in our interactions with our fellowman.  This is why the king of Israel is commanded to keep God’s Word with him at all times and to meditate on it continually.

The ‘Me’ in all of us is a tyrannical, demanding person. It will always want the highest place amidst others and feel indignant or ‘wounded’ if another is preferred over ourselves. Nothing dies harder than our tendency to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. By contrast, the humble person is easily able to rejoice when others are honored and generous in giving praise where praise is rightly due.  He is not jealous nor is he threatened by the achievements and success of another.

Humility is essential to faith. For what is biblical faith?  The utter confidence that there is a God in the heavens who loves and cares for us and has created us with a purpose and a destiny.  Faith is quiet but immovable confidence in His covenant and His goodness. By its very nature, faith demands humility.

Strong intellectual convictions without humility in the heart lead to arrogance and attitudes of superiority.  Did not the prophet Micah remind us: O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and what He requires of you. To do justice, to love righteousness and to walk humbly with your God Micah 6:8

If a king or leader, whom all are taught to honor and respect, is commanded to be humble – “not feel superior to his brethren” – how much more so the rest of us. Moses, the great leader of the Jewish people, was “very humble, more so than anyone on the face of the earth” Num. 12: 3?

We have just entered the Hebrew month of Elul; thirty days of preparation for the great Festival of Trumpets which this year begins at sundown on October 3rd.  Elul is the month of repentance, of pausing to take an internal inventory.  How have we progressed spiritually in the past year? In great measure, the answer to that question is founded on how we have grown in humility – or not.  For it is out of the humble heart that spirituality flourishes.

In Tune with Torah this week = as we search our hearts in preparation for Yom Teruah, the Festival of the Blowing of the Shofar, also called Rosh Hashana, the issue is not so much to analyze each outward deed but to get to the heart of the matter – is the root of my personal behavior self-focused or God-focused?  Self-serving or God-serving? Prideful or humble?

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Eikev August 26, 2016

Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25

You shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.  He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of God.  Deuteronomy 8:2-3

To humble and to test – those are key words in this week’s Torah reading.

Humility is vastly underrated and misunderstood in our contemporary society.  A quick Google search of “improving confidence” came up with 9,580,000 results. Another search for “improving humility” only got 499,000 results. That speaks volumes.

Pride first appears in the Bible in Genesis 3, where the serpent, in a simple but deadly approach, uses pride as the avenue by which to seduce our first parents.  He arrogantly contradicted what God had said to Eve about eating the forbidden fruit and charged God with lying. For the first time since she was created, Eve was introduced to the possibility of unbelief.  By challenging what God had said, he aroused doubt in her mind about the integrity of God Himself.  Seeing that she paused to consider his words, the serpent drew her into deeper deception by suggesting that God’s reason for ‘lying’ was to keep her from enjoying all the possibilities inherent in being Godlike.

The  inclination to exalt ourselves and our opinions above our true state as God’s creatures lies at the heart of pride. Confusion produced deception and Eve began to look at the forbidden fruit in a new light. From there it was an easy step to rationalization and the erosion of her will to resist the serpent’s seduction.  Weakened by doubt, seduced by pride, she opted for ‘independence’ and disobeyed God’s single command to her and Adam.

It was a test which she failed miserably with long lasting consequences.

We often fail to understand why God tests us. Most of the time tests come, not because of sin, but because of opportunity.  God is looking to bless us but like a good Father, He looks for evidence that we are ready to handle whatever advancement He is wanting to give us. So the test is administered, much like a student who has been diligent in his studies is required to pass a test at the end of each course. How utterly foolish would it be for a college student to spend months in a particular course of study and to refuse to be tested at the end of it?

Life is God’s University of Holiness.  As we make this journey through the days He allots to each of us, there are ‘tests’ along the way.  They are carefully designed by our Father in heaven to be stepping-stones to a higher spiritual level, to a deeper relationship with Him.  Each ‘test’ is uniquely crafted to address an attitude, an opinion or a pattern of behavior that is detrimental to our growth towards the ideal He set before us:  ‘You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy.’ Leviticus 19:2  Each test is an opportunity to be reminded that we are not as ‘in control’ as we sometimes think; that there is a God in the heavens and He alone is Supreme and we are privileged to be His children.

There is no holiness without humility; there is no humility without testing.

Learning to handle the testings that come our way is at once simple but at the same time complex.  The way was succinctly summarized by the prophet Isaiah:

You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is fixed on You, because he trusts in You.  Isaiah 26:3  How often is our mind ‘fixed’ more on worry and anxiety than on Him?

All of us have met people who seem to be pillars of inner serenity when faced with heart-wrenching tragedy.  We admire them and marvel at what we consider their ‘strength’. More often than not, what we call their ‘strength’, is rather the evidence of their deep faith, a faith established in a humble spirit that acknowledges at all times the goodness of God and the righteousness of His ways, regardless of what is happening around them. These are the kind of people that inspire the rest of us.

The same prophet, Isaiah, also wrote:  For thus says the high and exalted One Who lives forever, whose name is Holy, “I dwell on a high and holy place, and also with the contrite and lowly of spirit in order to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the contrite Isaiah 57:15

To paraphrase, God dwells in the heaven of heavens and also with those who are of a humble spirit.

In Tune with Torah this week = tests are a part of life.  We cannot escape them. The issue is how we react to them.  Do we get angry or resentful towards God when difficult situations arise?  As if to say ‘how dare God allow this to happen to me‘?  That is the response of an ugly pride, of an attitude that thinks more highly of oneself than one should.  We did not create ourselves and we live ‘by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God’.  My life – your life – day by day depends on Him.  Let us be thankful for the gift of each day and walk through this life the way the prophet Micah instructed us: He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?  Micah 6:8

Shabbat Shalom