Weekly Torah Commentary – Chukat June 30, 2017

Torah reading:  Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

Haftorah reading: Judges 11: 1-33

All of us have flaws and failures. There are those who are crippled by them, others can rise above them and continue to live with confidence. But all of us have them.

Flaws are the imperfections – the weaknesses we are born with, bad experiences we had, unfortunate backgrounds we come from. These are not what we would have chosen.  We have no choice. They are not under our control.

Failures are the mistakes we made in life. We chose them wrongly and foolishly. We struggle and we suffer, because we made wrong decisions. But remember this, flaws and failures in life don’t define us, ultimately. We need not stay as victims of the past, nor victims of our flaws and failures.

That’s what we can learn from Jephthah, the judge in Judges 11.  Let’s look at this story in three ways: his flaw – his unfavorable past, then his failure, the unfortunate vow he made, and lastly his faith, his simple yet unflinching faith in God.

His past is something Jephthah cannot change. His birth. His background. He is an illegitimate child. Born to a prostitute. His father sinned and he was the result. Although his father Gilead brought him home, he wasn’t really a part of the family. Gilead’s wife and her sons rejected him. They said, “You are not going to get any inheritance in our family.” (11:2)  And this was likely said because their father Gilead has died. No one is left to defend him. No one in the family can now speak out for him. So the sons drove Jephthah away. Jephthah is an outcast, not just to the family, but also to the society as well.

According to Mosaic Law, Deut 23:2 “No one born of a forbidden marriage nor any of his descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, even down to the tenth generation.” So Jephthat is a despised man. That explains why he ended up with a “group of adventurers” (worthless crooks and villains). He became a gang-leader, hanging around with fellow outcasts.

This is his unfavorable past, something he cannot change, something beyond his control. But that doesn’t define him. Our past doesn’t define us. We may be affected by it and influenced by it, we cannot ignore it, but it does not define WHO we are. But if we hold on to the past, if we believe in the past, if we are hindered by our past, then our faith is not in God. Our faith is in “FATE”.  We are then believing in a “force” over our lives that is greater than God.

God does not take away the past, undo the past, ignore the past; He REDEEMS the past. In fact, He makes use of our past and make something new out of it. God uses our past to prepare us, refine us, teach us, and mold us into who we are today if we will have more faith in Him than in our ‘past’.

Look what happened to Jephthah. After some time, the elders of Gilead come looking for him. The Ammonites made war on Israel and the elders wanted him to lead the fight.

Judges 11:7 Jephthah asks: “Didn’t you hate me and drive me from my father’s house? Why do you come to me now, when you’re in trouble?” They have no answer. Judges 11:8 “The elders of Gilead said to him, “Nevertheless, we are turning to you now; come with us to fight the Ammonites, and you will be our head over all who live in Gilead.”

Jephthah sought confirmation. Judges 11:11 “So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them. And he repeated all his words before the LORD in Mizpah.”

Then Jephthah made a foolish mistake. As he prepares for the fight, he made a rash vow to God that was uncalled for and unnecessary.  He must have thought he needed to bribe God in order to receive His help but it was a violation of the Mosaic Law.

Deut. 23:21-23 “If you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not be slow to pay it, for the LORD your God will certainly demand it of you and you will be guilty of sin. But if you refrain from making a vow, you will not be guilty. Whatever your lips utter you must be sure to do, because you made your vow freely to the LORD your God with your own mouth.”

He vowed that whatever came out of his house, he would offer as a burnt offering. His only daughter came out dancing with joy when he returned triumphant from the battle.

Jephthah

Jephthah kept his promise to God! He offered his daughter to the Lord. Some says literally as a burnt offering, while others say she was dedicated to God (not going to marry but dedicating her life to serving God). I believe that latter meaning is more acceptable, because (1) human sacrifice is an abomination to the Lord and prohibited in the Law, (2) the daughter says she will never marry (not die), and the text ends with Jephthah “did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin.” (11:39)

But this is not what defines him. His unflinching faith in God does.

His faith in God was evident at home. Look at his daughter’s response:

Judges 11:36 “My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the LORD. Do to me just as you promised, now that the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites.”

It was not a simple thing. Jephthah had no other children and for his only daughter not to be married, it would mean the end of his family line.  And for her to agree with her father and willingly accept her fate is noteworthy.

Jephthah’s FAITH in God is what defines the man. And it’s our FAITH in God that defines us. God can and will redeem our past, use our flaws, and teach us through our failures.

In Tune with Torah this week = Jephthah teaches us to live free of our failures, our past and and our flaws.  To recognize that anything and everything that has happened in our lives contributes to our spiritual growth if we will seek the LORD in the midst of it is a desirable and worthy attitude to cultivate.  God is not about making us ‘happy’ but making us ‘holy’.  True happiness is found in knowing Him and growing into the mature son and daughter of a Heavenly Father.

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

 

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Nasso June 2, 2017

Torah reading: Numbers 4:21-7:89

Haftorah reading: Judges 13:2-25

This week’s Haftorah reading tells the story of the birth of Samson, the prophet of the Lord.  Though the text tells us only the name of Samson’s father, Manoah, we find Samson’s mother listed in I Chronicles 4:3 by the name of Hatzlelponi, a descendant of Perez of the tribe of Judah.

At that time the Philistines were oppressing the tribes of Dan and Judah.  The people wanted nothing to do with confronting the Philistines and were allowing themselves to be intimidated by their enemy.  God was not pleased with their attitude and chose a plan of deliverance which began with a startling revelation to a woman who longed to conceive a child.  As the story unfolds her perceptive qualities will stand in sharp contrast to her husband’s more passive character.

An angel of the Lord appears to the woman announcing the arrival of a son and invites her to participate in the lifestyle which her son will adopt for he will be a Nazarite.  She is to observe the Nazarite dietary rules during her pregnancy and never cut the child’s hair.  The angel tells her: ‘He shall be the first to deliver Israel from the Philistines.’ Judges 13:5)

Knowing her husband well, Hatzlelponi reports the visitation to Manoah but purposely leaves out those elements that she knows he will object to; namely, a confrontation with the Philistines.  She also refrains from telling Manoah that the boy’s hair is never to be cut.  Her desire to see God’s plan come to fruition includes protecting the boy from his father’s objections!

Manoah declares that he wants to be included for he was not present when the angel appeared to his wife. The angel returns but appears to Hatzlelponi in the field.  It is only after she hurries to find her husband that Manoah finally encounters the angel.  It becomes quickly apparent that Manoah is far more interested in finding out the name of the angel, than learning about God’s plan for the people of Dan and Judah.  He persists in asking until the angel says his name is ‘unknowable’.  He refuses their offer of food and commands the couple instead to present an offering to the Lord.  As they do, the angel ascends to heaven in the fire of the offering.  Seeing this they fall on their faces on the ground.  Manoah is terrified and expects to die.  His wife – if you’ll allow me a modern rendition – tells him, ‘You’re not going to die.  I’ve seen the angel before and I’m still here!’

Samson1

So what do we learn from this event?

Samson’s mother is revealed as a woman who accepts the mission God gave her and is devoted to fulfilling it just as it was revealed to her.  God’s desire becomes her desire.  She is a ‘chosen woman’ as is evident from the visitation of the angel of the Lord, not just once but twice.  In her response, she echoes what her ancestors said at Sinai:  ‘We will do and we will hear.’  They committed themselves to obey God’s commandments before they heard what they were.  In other words, they declared their faith in Him.  Hatzlelponi does the same thing.  Though she was given certain details, she certainly wasn’t told everything about the life of the son she would bear.

The story of Hatzlelponi is that of a woman who embodies the spirit of willful obedience that was present at Sinai (before the sin of the Golden Calf) in contrast to her husband who haggles with the angel as if he were a merchant in the marketplace.

She also demonstrates kindness and wisdom in the way she deals with her husband’s doubt.  She does not berate him but calms him with the words: ‘had the Lord meant to take our lives, He would not have accepted the burnt offering..’  (Judges 13:23)

In the Hebrew, there is further evidence of her connection with the God of Israel: the deliberate inclusion of the Hebrew letter ‘heh’ at the beginning of her name.  That is the same letter that was added to Abram to change it to Abraham and to Sarai, to change her name to Sarah.  It is not evident in English but in the Hebrew spelling it’s immediately noticeable.  It is the favored letter indicating a connection with the Holy One and is consistently used in the names of those who are called, chosen and appointed for a specific task.

There is something else unique about her name for it is related to the name given to Joseph when he was made Prime Minister of Egypt, Tzaphenath-paneah. (Gen. 41:45)  Both names come from the same root which means ‘to conceal’ or ‘to encode’.

God took an everyday woman, concealed in her womb a child who would grow up to deliver Israel from the Philistines, and didn’t even have her name mentioned in the context of this amazing event.

Too often we can wrongly think that only the “famous” or the “well-known” can do something significant for God.  Not true!

Application:

The Lord has a plan for every individual’s life.  No one is an accident and no one is unimportant. Our responsibility is to seek Him and find out what His plan is for us, then set about walking it out with all our energy and determination.

What we need to understand is that whatever our destiny, it is important to God and therefore it is not up to us to judge its value.  If God calls you important, you are important.  He did not call any of us to be ‘human doings’ but ‘human beings’.  Your life, whatever form it takes, is what matters the most, not your career.  It’s our daily lives with all the opportunities to choose loving kindness as opposed to irritability, integrity as opposed to deceitfulness, etc., that will leave a legacy of godliness to our children and our grandchildren.

People will remember you for the kind of person you are, far more than for the job you did.

Shabbat Shalom!

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Beshalach Feb. 10, 2017

Torah reading: Exodus 13:17-17:16

Haftorah reading: Judges 4:4 – 5:31

Someone has said there are only three kinds of people in the world—those who watch things happen, those who make things happen, and those who scratch their heads and ask, “Hey, what’s happening?” The ability to make things happen is the gift of leadership.

deborah

In Judges 4–5, two godly female leaders perform legendary exploits for God. These two are willing to risk life and limb for God’s purposes. They are women of courage. In this account, our author reveals that God intervenes when we act with courageous faith. Chapter 4  focuses on Deborah’s victory (4:1–16), and on Jael’s victory (4:17–24). Chapter 5 is a victory song by Deborah.

“Then the sons of Israel again did evil in the sight of the LORD, after Ehud died.”

After Ehud gutted the “fat calf” Eglon (3:20–22), God gave His people eighty years of peace. This is the longest period of peace recorded in the Book of Judges. But once Ehud dies, the people return to their evil. This verse tells us something about sin. It is difficult to be creative in sin. Mankind simply does the same thing over again.

Today, you may have a stronghold of anger in your life and you express it to vent your frustrations. However, when the dust settles you feel awful inside and you can’t take your words back. Or perhaps it’s gossip or overeating or jealousy. All of these sins follow the cyclical pattern of sin in the Book of Judges. They are repetitious, monotonous, and destructive.

In 4:2–3, Israel’s rebellion requires God to act. “And the LORD sold them [Israel] into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan,who reigned in Hazor; and the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-hagoyim. The sons of Israel cried to the LORD; for he had nine hundred iron chariots, and he oppressed the sons of Israel severely for twenty years.”

God loves His idolatrous people enough to discipline them with idolaters. He lovingly preys on their insecurities by raising up Jabin and Sisera along with their nine hundred iron chariots who rule over Israel for twenty long years.

“Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the sons of Israel came up to her for judgment.”

God raises up a courageous woman named Deborah to be Israel’s judge. Deborah’s name means “honeybee” for she does what most marks a bee. She stings the enemy, and she brings sweet refreshment to her people. Deborah is also called “the wife of Lappidoth,” which means “woman of torches.” This is quite apropos since she will shortly light a fire under Barak and demonstrate true leadership.

Deborah “sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali, and said to him, ‘Behold, the LORD, the God of Israel, has commanded,‘Go and march to Mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand men from the sons of Naphtali and from the sons of Zebulun. I will draw out to you Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his many troops to the river Kishon, and I will give him into your hand.’” (4:4-6)

Deborah is not telling Barak anything that he does not already know. She calls Barak to Bethel to remind him of the truth that he already possesses. God has been speaking to Barak. His home was Kedesh-naphtali. “Kedesh” means sanctuary. Evidently there was a holy site there in Naphtali, and there may have been a very small glimmer of truth and light there. In any case, Barak knows the truth. He knows that he should be a man of faith. He knows that God can deliver Israel, but he is impotent, powerless, and afraid to act. Deborah is calling him to go back to what he knows is true, and to act on it.

“Then Barak said to her, ‘If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.’” (4:8)  Initially, it seems like Barak is the ultimate coward.  It appears that Barak wants Deborah to accompany him so that he can be assured of God’s presence. He also likely wants the prophetess with him so that he can consult with her as he has need. While this sounds somewhat reasonable, the problem is God’s will has already been revealed to Barak, and he is reluctant to act on the command he has received. Though the will of God is clear, Barak puts a condition on obeying God.

It’s all too easy to be passive like Barak when we receive God’s commands. We can often lack faith when God has called us to lead but when we move forward in faith, God will always intervene. He always has a perfect plan for us to follow. In the case of Barak, God chose the leader of His army, the place for the battle, and the plan for His army to follow. God also guaranteed the victory. Similarly, we know that “God’s commandments are God’s enablements” and that we should obey His will in spite of circumstances, feelings, or consequences.

Deborah replies in 4:9–10: ‘I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the honor shall not be yours on the journey that you are about to take, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hands of a woman.’ Then Deborah arose and went with Barak to Kedesh. Barak called Zebulun and Naphtali together to Kedesh, and ten thousand men went up with him; Deborah also went up with him.” This is a beautiful response from Deborah. She does not ridicule Barak or “call him out” by questioning his manhood. She doesn’t nag, command, or insist. Nor does she attempt to manipulate him. Instead, she merely reminds him of his responsibility before God.

The contrast between Deborah and Barak suggests that God raises up a woman to lead Israel because the Israelite men were cowards and declined leadership. Barak, though a gifted warrior, is tainted by his lack of faith and shamed for it. The honor of killing the enemy commander in battle will go to a woman. Who will be the woman who gets the honor?

“‘Arise! For this is the day in which the LORD has given Sisera into your hands; behold, the LORD has gone out before you.’ So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand men following him,” Deborah says to Barak. Like an ancient Joan of Arc, Deborah calls the people to battle, leading them out of idolatry and restoring their dignity as God’s chosen ones.

Not once, but twice, Deborah informs Barak that it is the Lord who is going to bring victory. It is not Deborah, Barak, or Israel; it is the Lord who will win this battle!  Chapter 5 tells us that at just the right moment, the Lord allowed the Kishon River to flood and completely disable the enemy so that Israel could slay them. Sisera’s legendary iron chariots become mired in the muck and mud. Barak’s infantry charges down from Mount Tabor and absolutely destroys the Canaanites.

The battle plan God had given Barak made little sense, militarily speaking. Chariots were very effective on the plains, but they were of little or no value in the mountains. God ordered Barak to muster his troops on Mount Tabor, and then to lead them down from the mountain and onto the plains. This is precisely where the chariots had the advantage and could do the most damage.  The Canaanites depended upon their nine hundred chariots. The Israelites chose to trust in God’s promise.  Throughout the Book of Judges, God uses weak and foolish people and methods. God intervenes when we act with courageous faith.

In chapter 4: 17-24, Barak’s fearfulness is contrasted with Jael’s faithfulness.

“Now Sisera fled away on foot to the tent of Yael the wife of Heber the Kenite, for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite.” 4:11

In 4:18, “Yael went out to meet Sisera, and said to him, ‘Turn aside, my master, turn aside to me! Do not be afraid.’ And he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. He said to her, ‘Please give me a little water to drink, for I am thirsty.’ So she opened a bottle of milk and gave him a drink; then she covered him.” Yael offers Sisera hospitality. She invites him into her tent and tells him not to fear. Like Deborah, the mother of Israel, Yael treats Sisera like a little boy. She covers him with a rug, gives him milk to drink, and tucks him into bed because he has had a long, hard day.

Before he drifts off to sleep, Sisera says to Jael, “‘Stand in the doorway of the tent, and it shall be if anyone comes and inquires of you, and says, ‘Is there anyone here?’ that you shall say, ‘No.’ But Yael, Heber’s wife, took a tent peg and seized a hammer in her hand, and went secretly to him and drove the peg into his temple,and it went through into the ground; for he was sound asleep and exhausted. So he died. And behold, as Barak pursued Sisera, Yael came out to meet him and said to him, ‘Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.’ And he entered with her, and behold Sisera was lying dead with the tent peg in his temple.” This lady is a courageous warrior!  By the standards of ancient warfare, she is a hero. She decisively and courageously helped God’s people at a critical moment in history. The glory did, indeed, go to a woman and not to Barak.

The defeat of Sisera and his army was a turning point in history because it put the Israelites on the offensive and the Canaanites on the defensive. This victory not only eliminated some of Jabin’s top warriors, but it deprived him of his greatest weapons—his nine hundred iron-rimmed chariots. The spoils of this victory would also have provided armor and weapons for many Israelite soldiers.  God brought all this to pass through the obedience of two women.

God intervenes when we act with courageous faith.

Application:

Perhaps you are facing a decision at this time; or some type of challenge to your faith.  Perhaps an ‘enemy’ is harassing you, be it financial pressure, illness or an emotional trial. The message of this week’s Haftorah is clear: Courageous faith is the path to victory.  To do as David did and say ‘I will bless the LORD at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth’, is the first step: acknowledging your faith and dependence on God. The second step is being humble enough to receive advice and support from others in your time of need.  A faithful friend is a gift from God.  As Deborah did for Barak, they will do for you.

Shabbat Shalom