Weekly Torah Commentary – Shelach June 16, 2017

Torah reading:  Numbers 13 -15

Haftorah reading: Joshua 2: 1-24

If you were looking in the Bible for someone scandalous to write about, surely one of the first people you would consider would have to be Rahab. A pagan with a sin-ravaged past; a prostitute, who would go on to become such a hero that this entire chapter of Joshua is focused on her and some 1500 years later she is mentioned in subsequent writings along with Abraham, Moses and David as an example of heroic biblical faith.

As we consider her life, I want you to be encouraged about your own. Maybe you too have made mistakes. Maybe you too have wondered if you could ever overcome the scars of bad decisions. Rahab is about to show us that there is no ‘past’ so terrible that limits the Holy One of Israel from turning a life around and causing that very person to become a person of great significance in His overall plan.

Rahab

There are three things to learn from this week’s Haftorah:

1. First, we see Rahab’s condition spiritually, emotionally, and physically.  Verse 1 explains “she was a prostitute.” V. 15 adds “her house was in the wall.”

The Bible makes no bones about it – Rahab was a prostitute. Not only that, but she lived in the city wall. That’s where the poor and destitute lived. There were two walls that surrounded Jericho separated by a 15 foot gap. The poor built little shanties in that gap. As a result, they were the first to suffer attack from enemies, the first to die in time of war. They were human shields for the rich.

Rahab, in many ways, had never known what it was to have a life. Her poverty and sin had taken its toll. She eked out a meager living by sacrificing her dignity to the vile passions of strangers, never knowing what it was to feel protected, valued and cherished.

But God loved her. He had a plan for this woman victimized by sin. He sent his spies to her house, not simply to secure military information. God intended to show Rahab His unmerited favor. By sending these spies to her, not only did He protect the spies, He saved Rahab and her entire family.

It may well have been the very first time that two men came to her house and didn’t want her ‘services’!  It may have been the very first time that two men came to her house and treated her with respect and kindness.

Reading on we realize that Rahab had heard what God did for the Israelites in the desert.  The word had traveled far and wide and by her reaction and her acknowledgement of ‘the Lord your God’ we recognize that this was a woman whose heart had not become embittered by her difficult life but she had an awe and respect for God.  She said, ‘…for the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and in earth beneath.’  Joshua 2:11b  Catch this – just based on what she had heard that God did for the Israelites, she had come to believe that He was the one and only true God!  She had no first hand experience of His miracles; only hearsay.  But what she heard stirred her heart to faith.

2. After her condition, we see her ‘conversion’.

Even a casual reading of this passage shows that Rahab, who once lived as a prostitute, had turned away from that life and put her faith in the God of Israel. How did that happen?

Verse 9 reveals that she had a righteous fear of the Lord.  Her fear moved her to throw herself upon God’s mercy.

 

The Bible says The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Solomon added, By the fear of the LORD men depart from evil.

 

Is our society in its present condition because people no longer know what it is to  ‘fear the Lord’?  Rahab did – her heart melted at the thought of what would soon happen to her and her family. And that fear motivated her to seek God’s mercy.

So did the facts – in vv. 10 and 11 she acknowledges how God had blessed Israel, empowered them to defeat their enemies, shielded them from harm – and met their needs. She saw how good God was to them and it moved her.  When she considered that the same Israelites were enroute to her city, Jericho, she knew this wasn’t like times before when warring armies made empty threats. These Israelite people had God on their side.

Therefore she was moved to act in Faith. She protected the spies, gave them safe passage, for she believed that God would bless her if she did right by them.  Perhaps at some time in her life she had heard about God’s word to Abraham, ‘I will bless those who bless you; and I will curse those who curse you.’

She obeyed the spies’ directions and placed a scarlet rope in her window as a sign of her obedience, because she believed the Lord.

3. Rahab confessed her faith openly… urgently – and her family followed her to safety! Verse 18 says, “Behold, when we come into the land, you shall tie this scarlet cord in the window through which you let us down, and you shall gather into your house your father and mother, your brothers, and all your father’s household.”

It is not enough to have faith just for yourself. We are called to be ‘a light unto the nations’.  To spread abroad the truth of God’s goodness, His faithfulness and His ever abiding love is our responsibility, not just in words but also by the display of our way of living.

In Tune with Torah this week:

Rahab reminds us that our past sins do NOT have to define us! Regardless of what we have done, once we repent and receive God’s forgiveness we can rise up and impact the destinies of those we love.  If God can make a hero of a harlot, surely, surely He can use you and me!

Shabbat Shalom

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayelech October 7, 2016

Deuteronomy 31

Be strong and courageous; do not be afraid or tremble at them for the LORD your God is the one who goes with you.  He will not fail you nor forsake you.  31:6

A timely message indeed to a world that seemingly has much to fear.  Societal unrest, terrorism, monster storms like the one bearing down this very day on the southeastern part of the United States, conflict among nations – all of these and more can cause ‘men’s hearts to faint’ as the Scripture says elsewhere.

Yet the word to us this week is ‘Be strong and courageous…’  What is courage?

courage

Courage is grace under pressure.

Karl Barth wrote that Courage is fear that has said its prayers.

Someone else has said that Courage is doing what you are afraid to do; that there is no courage unless there is something to be afraid of.

There are many examples of courage exercised in the Bible:  Moses before the Pharaoh,
David as he faced down Goliath, Abigail as she saved the entire household of Nabal
and Esther when she went before the king to save the Jews, to name just a few.

Courage always starts on the inside, in our inner man. We learn His instructions and commit to living by them, regardless of others’ opinions, knowing He has promised to be with us and never leave us. He goes with us into every difficult situation in life.  Is He is for us – and He is – who can be against us?

Courage takes a stand and makes things right.  If we submit to peer pressure and follow the crowd, we lower ourselves to their level.  By standing firmly on our convictions, we invite them to a higher standard.  Even if 20 million people believe in an irrational idea, it’s still irrational!  Numbers do not give credibility to the idea. Only the truth and righteousness found in God’s word gives credibility to any idea. Simply swimming with the tide leaves you nowhere. If you believe in something that’s good, honest and bright — stand up for it 100%. We are to be God’s change agents in this world.

Courage is contagious, have you noticed?  It’s something like a wildfire.  Once it starts to spread, there isn’t much you can do to stop it.  One act of courage and change an entire nation.  Again, think of Esther whose one act of courage saved the Jewish people from extinction.

Courage is the product of a person following God.  Courage will take you beyond your self-imposed limitations.  Courage is knowing that when I walk with God and obey Him, the very worst that could happen cannot really hurt me.  Courage stretches you beyond where you are now.  It takes you to a higher level in life and enables you to serve God to the best of your ability and reach the potential He planted in you when He created you.

Courage is strength in the face of pain or grief.  It is bravery, fearlessness, boldness, audacity and daring, empowered by the grace of God.

Joshua certainly needed courage to assume the leadership of the children of Israel upon the death of Moses.  Imagine what that must have been like.  Moses has been in charge for forty years; Moses has seen God on the mountain top; Moses heard their problems and found solutions and so much more.  Imagine how you would feel being called to follow a leader like Moses!  Is it any wonder that Moses said to Joshua more than once, ‘Be strong and courageous.  The Lord will be with you as He was with me.’

In Tune with Torah this week = is there a person, a situation, a problem that you are reluctant to face, to deal with though you know you need to?  The word of the Lord to us this week is ‘Be strong and very courageous for the Lord your God is with you.’

Shabbat Shalom

 

Weekly Torah Commentary — Chukat July 15, 2016

Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

The first thing we need to understand is that between vs. 22 of Numbers 19 and vs. 1 of Numbers 20, thirty-eight years have passed!  The congregation of the sons of Israel who arrived at the wilderness of Zin ‘in the first month’ are, by and large, the children of the generation that came out of Egypt.  You may remember that God had decreed that generation would die in the wilderness because of the sin of the Golden Calf and their children would go into the Land.

This new generation set up camp in Kadesh and Miriam died there and was buried.  Immediately afterward we read:

“There was no water for the congregation and they assembled themselves against Moses and Aaron. The people thus contended with Moses and spoke, saying, ‘If only we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! Why have you brought the Lord’s assembly into this wilderness for us to die here?  Why have you made us come up from Egypt to bring us into this wretched place? It is not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates; nor is there any water to drink.’

This generation grew up knowing  that they were destined to enter the Land.  They watched over the years as one after another of the elder generation passed away.  By this time there were few of the elderly left and Moses was now almost 120 years old.  It is a very different situation from the time when this generation’s parents had complained about a lack of water.

In Exodus 17: 1-7 a similar complaint was brought to Moses: ‘Give us water to drink’.  Moses turned to the Lord Who instructed him to strike the rock and water would flow out.  He did – and it did.

All these years later, the children present the same complaint but with a slightly different inference. What they are really saying is ‘Moses, why did you bring us out here? Why have we settled here in Kadesh? We’re supposed to be going into the Land.  Look, the older generation is just about gone. Get us out of this desert now.  We don’t want to wait anymore!’

Moses and Aaron fell on their faces at the entrance to the Tabernacle.  The Lord spoke to Moses, commanding him to take his rod – the staff he had used at so many critical junctures of the journey – and in the presence of the people, to speak to the rock and water would flow.

MosesRock

So Moses and Aaron gathered the people.  With the staff in his hand, Moses addressed the people: ‘Listen now, you rebels! shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?’  Then he struck the rock twice and water flowed.

But God was not happy with Moses. He said, ‘Because you have not believed Me, to sanctify Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the Land which I have given them.’  Key word: ‘believed’

Many have suggested that Moses’ punishment was due to his outburst of anger and/or because he disobeyed by striking the rock instead of speaking to it.  is there anything else here we need to discover?

Notice that God did not rebuke Moses for not ‘obeying’ Him but for not ‘believing’ Him. It was Moses’ faith – or lack thereof – that God faulted him for.

Moses had always used the rod in the working of miracles. But here, God was changing the strategy. God said , ‘Speak’ -use your voice, Moses.  It was a test, one that Moses had faced before.

We remember a much earlier time when God was also annoyed with Moses.  In Exodus 4: 10-14, Moses protests God’s call on his life saying ‘Please, Lord, I’ve never been eloquent, neither recently nor in time past, nor since You have spoken to Your servant to Your servant; for I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.’  The Lord said to him, ‘Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes him mute or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I the Lord?  Now then go and I, even I, will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to say.’  But Moses said, ‘Please Lord now end the message by whomever You will.’  Then the anger of the Lord burned against Moses.

Moses was comfortable using the rod.  He was not comfortable using his voice.  But that’s what God told him to do.  He didn’t believe God could use his voice to perform a miracle.  (God had ‘never done that before’ – where have you heard that before?) Moses’ lack of faith in this instance had profound consequences, particularly as it was the second time in his life that he resisted using the spoken word when God commanded him to do so.

In Tune with Torah this week = The Bible teaches us that FAITH is what pleases God.  How many times have we felt prompted to do an act of kindness, to perform a godly task, to reach out to someone in need but we rationalized it away and didn’t do it?  The natural fruit of Faith is Obedience.  When we disobey the Lord, there is always a connection to our faith.  This week, let us learn from Moses that when God asks us to do something, He also gives us the grace and the ability to do it.  Let us be quick to obey, thereby demonstrating the authenticity of our Faith!

Shabbat Shalom

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Weekly Torah Commentary – Shelach May 31, 2013

This week’s parsha has one of the more familiar of the Torah events: the foray of the twelve spies into Canaan.
Those who have studied Torah for years are familiar with the traditional interpretations of this story. The Spies go into Canaan, return with an enormous branch of large, luscious grapes, but in giving their report, they discourage the children of Israel through instilling fear that Israel will be unable to prevail against the ‘giants’ living there. Their famous declaration is well known: ‘We are like grasshoppers before them and so are we in their eyes.’ This is a common interpretation.

A casual investigation of their claim proves that the assumption of the spies was entirely incorrect. Later when Joshua enters Jericho, Rahab tells him that her people were “terrified” of the Israelites for they knew that God was with them. We also read in Shemot that the Moabites, the chiefs of Edom and the Canaanites were all trembling in fear of the Israelites. (Shemot/Exodus 15:15-16)

By drawing the assumption they did, the Spies engage in such a common human failure. We’ve all done the same. Based on subjective feelings we have, we assume that other people think this way or that, or have this or that perception of us, of our children, of our activities, etc. Virtually 99% of the time, we are completely wrong in those assumptions. As a psychiatrist friend of ours once said, “Other people don’t think about you anywhere near as much as you think about yourself!” Creating mental assumptions of what other people are thinking is always a dangerous undertaking. Better we take the advice of the Sages and apply ourselves to think positively, ascribe good intentions to others and free our minds from the tedious and wearying task of trying to figure out what other people are thinking. A great waste of time especially since we are wrong in our “assumptions” most of the time!

Speaking of good intentions – the Baal Shem Tov offered an entirely different insight into the behavior of the Spies. He proposed that the spies were not actually afraid of failure; they were afraid of success. Why?

In the Baal Shem Tov’s thinking, the Spies realized the implications of taking the Land. It would bring great responsibility to create a workable society, plant crops, harvest them, run an economy, maintain a welfare system and defend a country. They compared those implications with the present state of the children of Israel who enjoyed a particularly unique relationship with Hashem. They were closer to God than any generation since Gan Eden. They had the visible presence of God in their midst, they lived by daily miracles. All of that would disappear once they entered the Land. You can almost hear one of the Spies saying to the others, “Do you really think the people are ready for such an enormous undertaking? What if the task of conquering and building a nation distracts us from our relationship with Hashem? That would be terrible.”

Though well intentioned perhaps, says the Baal Shem Tov, the Spies nevertheless missed the whole point that THIS – conquering and settling the Land and building a godly society – is in fact exactly what the Torah is all about! The Torah is a blueprint for the construction of a wholesome and efficient society precisely because God chose Israel to make His presence visible in the world and that means Israel must live “IN” the world. Torah is not about a monastic retreat but about engagement with the world in order to make it better.

The Spies may not have wanted to “contaminate” the Israelites by bringing them into contact with the world, yet as we read in Avot 2:2 “Torah study without an occupation will in the end fail and lead to sin.” We are not to fear the world; we are called to enter it and transform it.

The intent of the Spies may seem noble but it is fundamentally irresponsible, says the Baal Shem Tov.

In Tune with Torah this week = to meditate on how each of us individually and the Jewish people as a nation can so live so that one day, the nations of the world will be able to say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” Dev. 4:6