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 – Balak July 7, 2017

Torah reading: Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

Haftorah reading: Micah 5:6 – 6:8

This week’s reading in the prophet Micah ends with this verse:

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 with your God?  Micah 6:8

This well known verse is a unique summary of what biblical obedience is all about.  Let’s get something straight from the very beginning.  Obedience according to biblical texts is not about meticulously complying with endless man made rules. It is, rather, an attitude of heart which recognizes the eternal love and compassion of the  Holy One of Israel towards us as our Father and our King (Avinu Malkenu) with the result that we want to honor, magnify and emulate Him.  You shall be holy for I am holy.  (Leviticus 19:2)

Over the centuries ‘holiness’ has been described primarily in terms of outward submission to commandments or instructions.  In all of the major religions of the world, issues such as manner of dress, style of worship, and conformity to doctrine and tradition have created the misconception that ‘holiness’ is measured by outward appearance.  Nothing could be further from the essence of biblical holiness.  Even a modern secular quote agrees: ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’

One of the most outstanding examples in the prophets that illustrates this principle is in I Samuel 16.  After the LORD had torn the kingdom of Israel from Saul because of his disobedience, He told the prophet Samuel to go to the house of Jesse in Bethlehem and anoint a new king from among Jesse’s sons.  Interestingly, the LORD didn’t tell the prophet which son. Jesse had several.

When the first son, Eliab, appeared before Samuel, the prophet looked at him and thought, Surely the LORD’s anointed is before Him. I Sam. 16:6

But the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.’  I Samuel 16:7

Apparently Eliab ‘looked’ like the perfect candidate but he wasn’t.  The ‘appearance’ of religiosity can be deceiving for mankind has a unique tendency to act one way outwardly while thinking just the opposite internally.  This is the definition of hypocrisy!

humility2

God chose the most unlikely of Jesse’s sons – the youngest, David, who was just a teenager at the time…but what a teenager!  David tended his father’s sheep, a lonely and boring task which David transformed into a consistent opportunity for worship.  He sang to the LORD on the hillsides, meditated on God’s Word while the sheep grazed, and wrote the most beautiful songs of praise and worship, the Psalms, which we enjoy to this day.  God called David, ‘a man after my own heart.‘ Wow – imagine such a compliment from the LORD!

 

David wasn’t a perfect man, but he had the qualities of heart that God loved and which Micah speaks about in this week’s haftorah.

First there is justice. Justice is a willingness to stand up for what is right. From justice comes moral integrity, honesty, a holding to God’s values. Those who are just make sure that all people are seen as valuable in God’s eyes, because they make it a point to look at everyone as created in God’s image and likeness.

The second character trait in Micah’s description is mercy.  When we are merciful we respond to hurts in peoples lives, without deepening their wounds. This motivates us to show forgiveness to those who have hurt you and done you wrong, just as God freely forgives you when you repent of your sins and failures. It also means forgiving yourself for past failures.

The third trait is humility. Humility is not about being a ‘doormat’, neither is it weakness, but it is that quality of heart that recognizes God for who He is.  The humble heart then wants to do all that God asks of you, because of who He is. It requires that we obey God even when our desire is to do otherwise. God’s will comes before our own. Humility also thinks of others more than oneself.  It is not haughty or arrogant but looks for and appreciates the good in other people.  It is the polar opposite of someone who is regularly critical, judgmental and harsh towards other people.

We could say it this way: there’s a major difference between perfectionism and excellence.  Perfectionism is concerned with doing things right (outward observance).  Excellence is concerned with doing the right thing (heart motivation).

In Tune with Torah this week = God has not called us to ‘perfectionism’ but to excellence.  We are not here to ‘perform’ before others in order to be applauded by them.  We are here to serve the living God from the depths of our hearts, loving Him, desiring what He desires and being occupied with His interests above our own.

Keep in mind that the fundamental meaning of the word ‘hypocrite’ is ‘an actor’ – someone who pretends to be someone he is not.

Let us walk before God as Micah urges: being just, showing mercy and living humbly.

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