Weekly Torah Commentary – Emor May 13, 2016

Leviticus 21-24

Embedded in this week’s Torah reading are two of the most fundamental commandments. We find them in verse 32 of Leviticus 22:

Do not desecrate My holy name.  I must be sanctified among the Israelites. I am the Lord who made you holy and who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the Lord.’

Lev22-32

The two commands basically tell us that we are 1) not to desecrate God’s Name but instead 2) to sanctify His Name.  What does that mean?

Your name is how you are known to other people.  It is the same with God.  His ‘name’ identifies Him and how people use His Name identifies their perception or lack therof of Who He is.  As those who love Him and revere His Name, it is our responsibility to demonstrate that love and respect in our conduct and our words.  This is what Isaiah meant when he wrote: “You are my witnesses, says God, that I am God” (Isaiah 43:10)

Did you get that?  Our lives and conduct are to witness Who God is!

The God of Israel is the God of all humanity. He created the universe and life itself. He made all of mankind in His image. He cares for all of us: “His tender mercies are on all his works” (Psalm 145:9).

Yet the God of Israel is radically unlike the pagan gods we read about. He is not identical with nature. He created nature. He is not identical with the physical universe. He transcends the universe. He is not capable of being mapped by science: observed, measured, quantified. He is the author of science. How then is He known?

We are God’s ambassadors to the world.  Therefore our behavior either sanctifies God’s Name or desecrates it.  The prophet who never tired of pointing this out was Ezekiel, the man who went into exile to Babylon after the destruction of the First Temple. This is what he hears from God:

I dispersed them among the nations, and they were scattered through the countries; I judged them according to their conduct and their actions. And wherever they went among the nations they profaned my holy name, for it was said of them, “These are the LORD’s people, and yet they had to leave his land.” (Ezekiel 36:19)

When the Jews were defeated and sent into exile, it was not only a tragedy for them. It was a tragedy for God, like a parent would feel when he sees a child of his disgraced and sent to prison.  But when God’s people are faithful to their mission, when they live and lead and inspire others, then God’s name is exalted.

Maimonides described it this way:

If a person has been scrupulous in his conduct, gentle in his conversation, pleasant toward his fellow creatures, affable in manner when receiving, not retorting even when affronted, but showing courtesy to all, even to those who treat him with disdain, conducting his business affairs with integrity … And doing more than his duty in all things, while avoiding extremes and exaggerations – such a person has sanctified God.

God trusted us enough to make us His ambassadors to an often faithless, brutal world. The choice is ours. Will our lives ‘sanctify His Name’, or God forbid, do the opposite? To have done something, even one act in a lifetime, to make someone grateful that there is a God in heaven who inspires people to do good on earth, is perhaps the greatest achievement to which anyone can aspire.

In Tune with Torah this week = how closely does our behavior mirror the faith we profess? Do we take seriously our destiny to be God’s ambassadors to those around us?

Shabbat Shalom!

Please leave a comment below and feel free to share this weekly commentary with others.

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Acharei Mot April 29, 2016

Leviticus 16-18

In this week’s Torah reading, we learn all about the annual Day of Atonement which the God of Israel commanded the Jewish people to observe “as a perpetual ordinance.” The strangest element of the service was the ritual of the two goats – one offered as a sacrifice, the other sent away into the desert “to Azazel.” They were brought before the High Priest, to all intents and purposes indistinguishable from one another; they were chosen to be as similar as possible to one another in size and appearance. Lots were drawn, one bearing the words “To the Lord,” the other, “To Azazel.” The one on which the lot “To the Lord” fell was offered as a sacrifice. Over the other the high priest confessed the sins of the nation, and it was then taken away into the desert hills outside Jerusalem where it plunged to its death.

scapegoat

Sin and guilt offerings were common in ancient Israel, but this particular ceremony was unique. When those offerings were made, confession was made over the animal to be offered as a sacrifice. On the Day of Atonement, however, confession was made over the goat not offered as a sacrifice. Why? And who or what in the world was Azazel?

The word Azazel appears nowhere else in Scripture, and three major theories emerged as to its meaning. According to the Sages and Rashi it means “a steep, rocky or hard place,” in other words a description of its destination. According to Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides, Azazel was the name of a spirit or demon, one of the fallen angels referred to in Genesis 6:2.  The third interpretation is that the word simply means “the goat [ez] that was sent away [azal].” Hence the English word “scapegoat” coined by William Tyndale in his 1530 English translation of the Bible.

But the questions remain. Why was this ritual different from all other sin or guilt offerings? Why two goats rather than one?

The simplest answer is found within the commandment:  “On this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins” (Leviticus 16:30). The routine offerings were for atonement. But on Yom Kippur there was something more: not only atonement but also purification, cleansing of the soul. Let me say it this way: you make ‘atonement’ for an offensive act. But purification is a work within the soul. It is possible to ‘atone’ for something we’ve done without necessarily receiving a soul cleansing if heart repentance does not accompany the act of atonement.

After his adultery with Batsheva, King David cried out in Psalm 51:4,  “Wash me thoroughly of my iniquity and cleanse me of my sin” (Psalm 51: 4).  And further on, “Create in me a clean heart, O God…”  Repentance opens the door to forgiveness but the damage done to our soul when we sin, needs also to be ‘healed’ in a manner of speaking. When the scapegoat was sent away, it symbolically carried all the stains and damage done to the souls of the people when they rebelled against the Lord God; stains that were not physical but mental and emotional.  It is sometimes difficult to get rid of the sense of guilt and/or defilement after we have committed a transgression, even when we know we’ve been forgiven.

The sacrificed goat represented atonement. The goat sent away symbolized the inner cleansing of the moral stain. This brings to mind the the verse that says God casts our sins away from us as far as the east is from the west and He remembers them no more. (see Psalm 103)

Ironically, the scapegoat of Acharei Mot is the precise opposite of what we generally think  ‘scapegoat’ means. Our modern interpretation of “Scapegoating,” means blaming someone else for our troubles. The scapegoat of Yom Kippur existed so that we would do just the opposite: We do not blame others for our fate. We accept responsibility. In the prayer of Yom Kippur, we declare, “because of our sins.”

Those who blame others, defining themselves as victims, are destined to remain victims. Those who accept responsibility mature and grow into the godly men and women God desires to see among His people.

Shabbat Shalom!

Please leave a comment below and pass this on to someone who may be inspired and uplifted by it.

 

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary — EMOR April 25, 2014

EMOR Vayikra/Leviticus 21:1 – 24:3

And you shall count for yourselves from the morrow after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the omer of the wave offering; seven complete Sabbaths shall there be: to the morrow after the seventh Sabbath shall you number fifty days and you shall offer a new meal offering to the Lord. (Leviticus 23:15-16)

We are presently in the process of obeying this commandment as we are in the days of the counting of the Omer, which leads up to the festival of Shavuot, the day of the giving of the Torah.

Why would God, in remembrance of Pesach (Passover), command us to number or count these forty-nine days? The simple answer is that God wants us to realize the exodus out of Egypt was more than just the liberation of the Hebrew slaves. The exodus was directly connected to their arrival at Mount Sinai and to the receiving of the Torah on the fiftieth day.

The Israelites had been weakened physically, emotionally, and spiritually by the Egyptians. The years of backbreaking labor had taken a physical toll on the people. It was hard for them to keep an emotional balance while living in slavery. Understandably, there were emotions of hatred, bitterness, anger, and frustration. Spiritually they had been battered by the paganism of Egypt and their thousands of gods.

Their belief in the One True God had been passed down to them by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and his sons. No doubt, among many of the people, there was a wavering of this belief because of the severity of their conditions.

The word for Egypt in Hebrew is “mitzrayim.” The root meaning of this word is ‘boundaries and limitations’. Thus, in Egypt there was an oppressive and restrictive atmosphere that hung over the Israelites. The Egyptians restrained the Israelites’ freedom of movement and their freedom of expression.

As the children of Israel left Egypt, they were freed from their oppressive constraints. They now had to shed their emotional baggage as well to prepare for the monumental experience of receiving the Torah. This meant that negative emotions; such as, hatred, bitterness, anger, and frustration had to be replaced with the positive emotions of love, compassion, benevolence, harmony, and humility, to name a few.

We know the rest of the story. The Israelites did make it to Mount Sinai and they did receive the Torah; however, it was not without some major bumps along the way. There were complaints over water, food, and a major complaint over the whereabouts of Moses, which led to the golden calf incident. As a result, not everyone that left Egypt was standing at Mount Sinai on the fiftieth day.

What about us today, how can we apply the counting of the Omer to our lives?

We also have negative emotions that affect us through our surroundings. Today, our work load has been increased, prices of goods and commodities have risen, taxes have risen, and our overall ability to enjoy life has been diminished. Also, cultural norms have seeped into our lives with humanistic thought and behavior; slowly turning us away from God’s commandments to a morally bankrupt set of principles and practices.

What about the nation in which you live? And I live? Is our nation restricting our freedom of movement and restricting our freedom of expression? Our rights to travel, relocate, and voice our grievances with our national leaders were denied in Egypt prior to the exodus. What’s happening today?

Additionally, how would we judge our nation concerning its level of spiritual righteousness or spiritual impurity? Is our nation doing well or is it sinking close to the level of God’s judgment?

Because of the conditions surrounding us, the counting of the Omer takes on a new importance. It allows us personally to spend these forty-nine days exchanging our negative emotions for positive ones. The end result will be that we will arrive at a higher spiritual level, which will allow us to receive and understand the Torah in a greater way. Thus, we will let a greater light of Torah shine forth to the people around us, to our community, to our nation, and ultimately the world.

In Tune with Torah this week = this is the time to take inventory of our emotional life and determine whether or not we need to exchange irritability for patience, frustration for trusting prayer, fear for faith and stress for quiet confidence in our God.

Shabbat Shalom!

Portions of this week’s commentary were taken from an article found on THYME FOR THE SOUL magazine.

Weekly Torah Commentary — Tzav March 14, 2014

TZAV Leviticus/Vayikra 6 – 8

In this week’s Torah commentary we read God’s command to Moses that the fire on the Sacrificial Altar must never be extinguished or allowed to go out.

“The fire shall ever be burning upon the altar; it shall never go out.” (Leviticus 6:6)

We learn in Torah that God dwells in the hearts of those who love Him and keep His commandments and that His visible dwelling in the Tabernacle in the wilderness was a sign to Israel of His desire to live through them; that the nation would be a living tabernacle of His presence in the world.

We also know that everything in Torah has a message for us today, even those areas where it may seem difficult to find the relevance; areas like the sacrifices. This week’s Torah portion, as did last week’s, gives us yet another insight into the connection between the Tabernacle of old and ourselves.
The verse quoted above, states that the fire kindled on the Sacrificial Altar was to burn continually and was never to go out. If God dwells in your heart and in mine – and He does – then it follows that the fire of love for Him must be continually alive and burning within us as well.

Because the Sacrificial Altar was in the outer courtyard of the Tabernacle, the nation could see the smoke ascending to the heavens at all times. It was not a hidden fire by any means! Neither is our fire meant to be hidden! The fire of the ardent love of God in our hearts must be seen in an outward and open manner. How? By our behavior, by our demeanor, by our words, by our actions and reactions; in other words, by our daily life activities and decisions. Others should be able to know that we love our God.

How do we keep the love aflame?

First and foremost, the fire of love for God will not burn brightly in the person who spends little time in His presence. It is not enough to simply participate in ‘formal prayer’ or ‘book prayer’. Certainly ritual has its place, but it is not enough. The Torah says clearly that God wants us to know Him and to walk in His ways.

I ask you – how well would you ‘know’ your spouse if all you ever did was exchange formulated words each day, taken from a book someone else put together for your use?

It is difficult, if not impossible, to develop a burning love for God without spending regular time in ‘personal prayer’ – by that I mean, speaking to God in your own words, meditating on passages from the Torah, the Psalms, the Prophets, and listening for what He described to Elijah as ‘the still, small voice within.’

Some would say that God does not speak to us today. I vehemently disagree. He is speaking to us all the time. The question is: are we listening? Perhaps the bigger question is: have we learned HOW to recognize His voice in the midst of daily life?

Just as Shabbat goes out this week, the festival of Purim begins, commemorating the time when Queen Esther saved the Jewish people from destruction through prayer, fasting and approaching the King personally to present her request. She is a model of exactly what we have been discussing. Nowhere in the book of Esther do we read that she resorted to formula prayers. She prayer in her own words, crying out to God for the deliverance of her people from the decree of death. In turn, God showed her exactly what she was to do to participate in the deliverance He would grant in answer to her prayers.

Let us like Esther, learn to take every petition, every concern, every desire to Him in prayer.

In Tune with Torah this week = renewing our commitment – or making a new one – to spend at least ten minutes each day, hopefully more, conversing with God in our own words; talking with Him as with a best friend, for in fact, there is not better Friend than Him. And taking time to sit quietly, learning to listen to His still, small voice within us.

Shabbat Shalom and Purim Sameach

Weekly Torah Commentary — Shemini April 6, 2013

SHEMINI, Leviticus 9:1-11:47

The “eighth day” with which SHEMINI begins refers to the first day of the month of Nissan, one year after the Exodus from Egypt. On this day the final inauguration of the Tabernacle took place following seven days of consecration of Aaron and his sons for service as priests. During the previous seven days, Moses had erected the Sanctuary in order to conduct the priestly consecration rituals, only to dismantle the Sanctuary afterwards. However, on the Eighth Day — the first of Nissan — the Sanctuary was left standing. On that day as well, Aaron and his sons fully assumed the role of priests forever after.

In calling this the “eighth” day, the Torah alludes to the fact that, with the inauguration of the Sanctuary, the Israelites reached a new height of spirituality and relationship with Hashem. They embraced the reality that life is more than bodily needs and desires, which bind us to this earth. In order to embrace and achieve the destiny for which we were created, we must reach higher than the natural realm.

So unique and powerful was the day when the Tabernacle was inaugurated that the Torah speaks of it in several portions in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. Yet this auspicious day was horribly marred by the death of the two older sons of Aaron. How to explain such a tragedy? As far as this world is concerned, death is the end: how can it be good?

Intimacy with G-d comes at a price — a price which is often paid in some form or other of pain. Pain is a teacher, at times, a harsh one. But pain is also a friend for when properly handled it takes us to heights we would reach no other way.

The manifestation of G-d’s visible presence in this world, such as was seen at the Tabernacle, could not but come at a great price. The price was paid by Aaron precisely because his was the pivotal role in the Sanctuary project. Aaron wore garments of glory and splendor. He received the choicest share of the priestly gifts and portions. But the glory was all G-d’s.

The temptation to use the wealth of this world for selfish purposes has caused the fall of more than one leader. Aaron is on the very edge. He has all the glory, he wears the wealth of the world on his very person. In order to keep him from going out of his mind with pride, he is struck with a terrible blow, the loss of two of his children. The sudden pain numbs him and at the same time demonstrates his true greatness. He utters no complaint; he does not rail against the Almighty; he does not rend his garments. He remains in the Sanctuary. We read, “And Aaron remained silent.”

There is a verse in Psalm 65 that reads, “To You, silence is praise.” There are times in our relationship with Hashem that exuberant praise is appropriate; there are equally times when SILENCE is the praise dearest to His heart and most appropriate response from ours. In this world, all is not as it appears more often than we notice. To truly understand the ways of Hashem, we must penetrate beyond the surface of daily life. His Torah, the Tree of Life, will teach us what we need to know about every area of life. Aaron’s astounding reaction to the death of his sons underlies this truth.

In Tune with Torah this week = may we, like Moshe, like Aaron, find the spiritual strength to take our destiny in our hands and rise to our true mission: “And you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy…” (Lev. 11:44).

Shabbat Shalom