Weekly Torah Commentary – Korach June 23, 2017

Torah reading:  Numbers 16 – 18

Haftorah reading: I Samuel 11:14 – 12:22

The Torah reading this week narrates the rebellion of Korach and his followers against the leadership of Moses.  In keeping with that account, the Haftorah reflects the same theme albeit in terms of the whole congregation of Israel.  It is especially interesting that it is Samuel, a descendant of Korach, who deals with the present situation in a vastly different manner than his ancestor.

From Israel’s earliest days, God had always provided the nation with a righteous leader – either a prophet or a judge, and it was God’s intent to continue to do so.  He reserved the position of King for Himself and rightly so.  Samuel understood this well and the thought of any ‘king’ over Israel other than the Holy One Himself was totally outside of Samuel’s understanding and thinking.

But the people wanted a king; they wanted to be like the other nations, not unique in their national character.  Samuel the prophet inquired of the LORD who allowed him to anoint Saul as king over Israel.

So all the people went to Gilgal.  There they made Saul king before the LORD in Gilgal; and there they slaughtered feast peace-offerings before the LORD; and there Saul, as well as all the men of Israel, rejoiced exceedingly.  I Sam. 11:15)

Saul

Over and over again, Samuel instructed the people that such a king must be different than the kings of other nations.  He himself must be subservient to God’s laws and be careful to promote God’s honor rather than his own.  He must be a servant to the people, not a master who rules arbitrarily.  He must guide Israel in the ways of the LORD. Saul did well as king for awhile, but the end of his story is tragic.

Samuel continually pleaded, argued and instructed the people to follow the LORD and to live according to His ways, but over and over again, they sought their own will and went astray.

Hidden in this account is a principle that we do well to learn.  Anytime we pursue and actively ‘make happen’ something that is not God’s will for us, tragedy of one sort or another follows.  I am reminded of a verse in the psalms:  He gave them their request but sent a wasting disease with it.  (Psalm 106:15)  When the children of Israel were in the desert, they frequently complained and begged Moses – and God – for what they did not have.  Their complaining was so persistent that at one point, God granted their request for meat by sending quail into the camp.  However, their reaction was not to thank God but to eat gluttonously until they made themselves sick.  It is that picture that I believe the psalmist had in mind when he penned psalm 106.

What does that say to us today?

We do not always know what to ask God for.  Truth be told, we may well pray misguided prayers more often than not.  We find it difficult to really trust that our Father in heaven does know what is best for us.  We have our plans; we have our ideas.  His plan is better every time.

Have you ever prayed and prayed and prayed for something in particular and after a while, God answers but once you have it, you think to yourself, ‘Why did I want this?’  It turns out not to be everything you thought it was going to be?  That is what the psalmist meant when he said, ‘He gave them what they asked for but sent a wasting disease with it.’

God is not unkind or cruel to do so.  He hears your petition and I believe He genuinely tries to get our attention, correct our thinking and steer us in a different direction.  But we are a stubborn people.  We get fixated on what we want and don’t hear that still small voice within saying, ‘Go this way instead.  It’s better.’

So when we don’t listen, He sometimes answers but with the answer comes conditions or results that we didn’t expect.  That’s exactly what happened when Israel demanded a king and it’s exactly what happens to us as well.

In Tune with Torah this week = Think back over your life. Can you think of times you prayed for something in particular and God didn’t give it to you? Later on, did you realize that your Father knew best and you wonder why you ever asked in the first place?  It became so obvious that what you thought you wanted would have ended in disaster.

Perhaps now you’ve been praying a long time for something your heart is set on.  Have you asked the LORD: Is this Your best for me?  If not, please change my heart and re-focus my attention.

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Chayei Sarah November 25, 2016

Torah reading:  Genesis 23:1-25:18

Haftorah reading: I Kings 1: 1-31

In this week’s Haftorah reading, King David is described as ‘advanced in years’, his body showing signs of the years of hardship he had endured.  He was about 70 at this time but seems even older than his years; for David, it wasn’t just the years – it was the mileage. He seemed to live the lives of four or five men in his lifetime.

David’s diminished ability shows that question of David’s successor had to be addressed. King David could not last much longer, and his family history had been marked by treachery and murder. At this point, it was worth wondering if there could be a bloodless transition from David to the next king.

Then Adonijah the son of Haggith exalted himself, saying, “I will be king”; and he prepared for himself chariots and horsemen, and fifty men to run before him.  (I Kings 1:5)

2 Samuel 2: 3-5 describes the sons of David and lists Adonijah as the fourth son. Two of the three sons older than Adonijah were dead by this time (Amnon and Absalom), and we suspect that the other older son (Chileab) either also died or was unfit to rule because he is never mentioned after 2 Samuel 3:3.  As the oldest living son of David, by many customs Adonijah would be considered the heir to the throne. But the throne of Israel was not left only to the rules of hereditary succession; it was God who determined the next king.

However, Adonijah violated a basic principle in the Scriptures – that we should let God exalt us and not exalt ourselves.

For exaltation comes neither from the east, Nor from the west nor from the south.
But God is the Judge: He puts down one, and exalts another. (Psalm 75:6-7)

humility

The late John R.W. Stott once said: “Pride is your greatest enemy, humility is your greatest friend.”  His succinct statement about pride and humility goes straight to the heart of what the Bible teaches about the deadly root of our sins and sorrows.

Some would say that pride is the special problem of those who are rich, powerful, successful, famous, or self-righteous. However, pride takes many shapes and forms and affects all of us to some degree for pride is essentially a preoccupation with self – my wants, my ways, my desires, my will.  As a famous Harvard psychologist observed,
Any neurotic is living a life which in some respects is extreme in its self-centeredness…  the very nature of the neurotic disorder is tied to pride.

Pride can be summarized as an attitude of self-sufficiency, self-importance, and self-exaltation in relation to God. Toward others, it can manifest as an attitude of superiority, contempt and/or indifference. However, chances are good that most of us do not see pride in our lives. For while it is easy to see pride in others, it is very difficult to see it in ourselves.

Like Adonijah, we all have a ‘pride problem’ which is why there are multiple verses throughout the Scriptures that urge us to humble ourselves before the LORD for just as pride is the root of all sin, so “humility is the root, mother, nurse, foundation, and bond of all virtue.”  The simplest definition of humility that I know is this one:  Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.

Mother Teresa, the venerable nun who worked among the poorest of the poor in India, wrote in her book, The Joy of Living:

These are the few ways we can practice humility:
To speak as little as possible of one’s self.
To mind one’s own business.
Not to want to manage other people’s affairs.
To avoid curiosity.
To accept contradictions and correction cheerfully.
To pass over the mistakes of others.
To accept insults and injuries.
To accept being slighted, forgotten and disliked.
To be kind and gentle even under provocation.
Never to stand on one’s dignity.
To choose always the hardest.

So how should we think of ourselves?  On the one hand, we are God’s creatures: small, finite, dependent, limited in intelligence and ability but we are also God’s children: created, loved, and redeemed by God’s grace alone and gifted by God with certain unique abilities, resources, and advantages, which are to be used for His glory for whatever we have, we have received from Him.

Adonijah was not content with his state in life; he wanted what was not his to have, for God had already decreed that Solomon, not Adonijah, was to succeed David as the next king of Israel.  His arrogance brought him to an early grave.

Humility is our greatest friend. It increases our hunger for God’s word and opens our hearts to his Spirit. It leads to intimacy with God, who knows the proud from afar, but dwells with him “who is of a contrite and humble spirit” (Isa. 57:15).

Developing the identity, attitude, and conduct of a humble servant of the LORD does not happen over night. It is rather like peeling an onion: you cut away one layer only to find another beneath it. But it grows quietly in our innermost being as we make those choices that enable humility to grow.

In Tune with Torah this week =  a commitment to make those choices, the most important being to consistently seek a closer relationship with God in prayer and in meditation on His Word.  For those who truly know their God will be humble and those who truly know themselves cannot be proud.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayikra March 18, 2016

Leviticus 1 – 5

The third book of the Torah, Leviticus, (Vayikra in Hebrew) begins in an unusual way and reminds us that originally the Torah was not divided up into chapters and books but was one continuous narrative.

lifeofholiness

“And (He) called out to Moshe, and God spoke to him. “  The previous book, Exodus, came to an end rather abruptly and the story continues into the first chapter of Leviticus, a fact lost on some readers who don’t make the fundamental connection between the two books.

Of course, God calling out to man – especially to Moshe – is not an unusual occurrence in the Torah; however, this opening verse is different. For the first time, God calls out from within the completed Tabernacle. When we begin to read Leviticus in the context of the final verses of Exodus, we suddenly realize that this new book is the culmination of the Exodus itself.  The prophet, Jeremiah, actually helps us gain insight:

“Go and proclaim in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus says God: I remember the kindness of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.” (Jeremiah 2:2)

According to Jeremiah, God reminisces about the early days of His relationship with the Jewish People. Having rescued them from Egypt, the ex-slaves follow Moses into the desert, destined for Mt. Sinai.

Initially the experience at Sinai between God and His people strikes us as outstanding, amazing, stupendous. But no sooner is the covenant between them established, turmoil ensues as the Hebrews erect a golden calf and fall into idolatry. Is the relationship with the Almighty over?

Moses intercedes, and soon there is regret, repentance, and a restoration of the relationship. Moses ascends the mountain again and returns with the second set of Tablets which include the detailed instructions for building the Tabernacle. And as the construction is completed, the book of Exodus comes to a close.

But the Tabernacle, in and of it self, does not produce what God is ultimately after: intimacy with His people.  And that, my friends, is what Leviticus is truly all about.

Certainly God has spoken to Moses many times, but this is different; now, man has made place for God down on earth, indicating a sense of permanence to this relationship. A home has been built for them to share. Exactly like a marriage, now their relationship requires a commitment of a totally different degree.  Israel must begin to nurture and maintain the love between themselves and God in a consistent, stable and personal relationship. It is a new challenge for the congregation of former slaves and it is a challenge posed to God’s people in every generation.

Just as a magnificent home that welcomes a newlywed couple does not create intimacy and permanence in marriage, neither did the Tabernacle, nor the Temple centuries later; only personal relationship does.  Religious rules and traditions do not create intimacy with the Holy One of Israel; personal relationship with Him does.

The model of marriage plays well to our understanding.  Without personal communication between husband and wife, the marriage weakens and ultimately will fail.  Without you and I spending quality time with God, talking to Him in our own words, sharing our deepest thoughts and desires with Him and learning to listen to that still small voice within our own soul – that voice that answers us when we call upon Him – we may have religion, but we do not have relationship.

There is none so sad as he who thinks that relationship with God is simply a perfunctory habit of man-made rules. Nothing could be further from the truth. God is not looking for robots; He desires hearts that love Him with passion and devotion.

In Tune with Torah this week = Just as ‘He called out to Moses..’, He calls out to us in our own day.  Are we listening? Have we made it a priority to spend personal, intimate time with our God?  Are we consistent in our study of His inspired Word?

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Tetzaveh Feb. 19, 2016

Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

This week’s reading continues with the instructions regarding the Tabernacle.  Last week the focus was on its construction.  This week, instructions are given for what was to happen inside the Tabernacle.  Is this only a historical record of what happened back then? What does this have to do with us today?

Much of the reading is devoted to instructions regarding the priests, Aaron and his sons. ‘Call for your brother, Aaron, and his sons, Nadav And Abihu, Eleazer and Ithamar.  Set them apart from the rest of the people of Israel so they may minister to me and be my priests.’ 28:1  The chapter continues with explicit instructions about the clothing the priests were to wear.

HighPriest

Aaron and his descendants have a permanent calling to serve God as representatives of the people.  Anyone not descended from Aaron is not qualified for that unique service.

However, earlier in Exodus 19:6, God declared to the children of Israel:

And you shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.

What does it mean that God wants us to be ‘a kingdom of priests’?

The call to priesthood is three-fold:  to be set-apart, to share God’s character and to be brought close to His presence.

As a priest serves as an intermediary between God and men, so each of us who are part of the “kingdom of priests” is called by God to 1) understand that we are set apart for His purposes; 2) we are to emulate His character; and 3) we are to do all in our power to get as close to Him as possible.  Only then are we able to share His Word with others by demonstration and expression.  Wherever we find ourselves in this world, our primary destiny is to reflect the character of the Almighty through how we live.  Our words, our actions, our attitudes, our choices are to be governed by the Word of God and when they are, we become that influence over those around us that God created us to be.

Part of being a ‘priest’ was also to stand in the gap for the people. While you and I may not qualify to exercise that responsibility in the same way that Aaron and his sons did in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, nevertheless we are able to step into that role through prayer.  Turning to God on behalf of others is part of the duty of a ‘kingdom of priests.’

Our world is facing challenges and dangers from many directions.  Thousands are suffering in various and sundry ways – diseases, famines, natural disasters.  Others are struggling with unemployment, homelessness, depression.  The list goes on.  Are we touched with the pain of others? Or are we so wrapped up in ourselves that we pay no attention to the suffering and the persecuted?

Compassion is defined as ‘sympathetic concern for the sufferings and misfortunes of others.’ Whether you are able to give any practical assistance to someone in need or in pain is not the only issue.  Sometimes we can; sometimes we can’t.  But what we can always do is be the ‘priest’ and at the very least, lift them in prayer to our heavenly Father. We can follow the example of Abraham, who seeing the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah and being told that God was going to destroy the city, cried out in prayer for mercy.  “If You find fifty righteous, will You spare the city?” He asked the Lord.   How many times Moses went to God on behalf of the people when they sinned, when they rebelled, when they complained and he interceded on their behalf before God?

That is the duty of a priest.  That is the duty of a kingdom of priests.

In Tune with Torah this week = think about your prayers of the past week, the past month.  Were they primarily focused on you, your family, your needs, your concerns? If so, don’t beat yourself up about it – most of us would probably be in the same boat with you.

But don’t justify it either.  Our hearts need to be expanded so our prayers will be more inclusive of others beyond our immediate circle.  God’s compassion never fails, His mercies are new every morning.  Aren’t we all thankful for that!! We need to be more like Him and cultivate compassionate hearts towards others.

Weekly Torah Commentary — Shemot January 1, 2016

Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

In this week’s Torah reading we have the longest private conversation between God and an individual. It takes God 39 long verses (from Exodus 3:1 to 4:17) to persuade Moses to embrace the mission to which God is calling him; namely, to deliver the Hebrews from slavery.  In a wide-ranging conversation,  God patiently responds to Moses’ many objections and questions before Moses finally submits to his life’s purpose.

We could discuss many aspects of the conversation but for the sake of brevity, let’s just look at the objection raised by Moses in 4:1.

Moses responded and said, But they will not believe me and they will not heed my voice, for they will say, “God did not appear to you.”

Maimonedes explained in one of his writings that the Jewish people do not believe in Moses because of the miracles he performed, but rather because of Mt. Sinai and what happened there.  We will read later in Exodus 19:9:

Behold! I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people will hear Me speaking to you, so that they will believe in you forever, God says to Moses.

Before this, the Israelites had their doubts about Moses, particularly when Pharaoh increased their hardships after Moses requested their deliverance.

Moses understood that those who believe in someone simply because of miracles will sooner or later entertain suspicions and doubts which is why he said, “They will not believe me…”  Therefore God reassured him ahead of time that when the people stood at the foot of the mountain and heard God’s voice speak to Moses their faith would be permanent.

We tend to think that because we cannot ‘prove’ God’s existence, that is why some refuse to believe in Him.  ‘If only God would do a miracle I could see, some say, then I will believe.’  Not so! The Hebrew slaves saw many miracles in the process of the plagues poured out on Egypt and still they doubted.

What we may not appreciate – but I believe Moses did – is that there is a significant difference between believing in God (that He exists) and believing in the instructions and messages contained in His Torah and the Prophets.

To believe in God is ‘harmless’ in a manner of speaking. One can believe that He exists as an abstract philosophical thought that makes no impact on one’s life.

It is the revelations in the Torah and the Divine messages delivered by the prophets that put a demand on us. It is the Word of God that informs us that God has a profound interest in us and cares enough to communicate how we can enjoy a productive and fulfilling life: by embracing and following His instructions.

To put it simply, it is not so much the fact that God exists that stirs up immense opposition but the messages and instructions He has given.

Imagine for a moment living through the Ten Plagues, the splitting of the sea, the falling of manna from the sky, the spring of water flowing out of the rock — one couldn’t possibly ask for clearer ‘proof’ of God’s existence and presence.  So in the face of the miracles, the people believed but the rest of the book of Exodus gives eloquent testimony to how quickly the impression made by miracles fades away in the memory of the beholder.

God knows us better than we know ourselves.  Though we may think we’d ‘believe’ if we saw miracles, God knows we’d be no better than the Israelites who saw plenty and still doubted and rebelled.

Moses led the entire Jewish people to meet God, to know that it is possible for human beings to experience Divine communication, and to accept and live by God’s commandments.  Faith, not sight, was to be the hallmark of the seed of Abraham for all generations to come.

This brings us to the crux of the issue. Knowledge of God is not scientific nor academic in nature. Knowledge of God is based on relationship with Him.  The God of Israel loves me and watches over me. He has a plan and a purpose for my life and is intimately interested in my achieving the destiny for which He created me. To accept this and respond to Him like Moses did I must be able to relate to Him personally.  I must be able to get to know Him as I would get to know a person. The only way to get to know people is to spend time with them.  That, my friends, is the essence of what prayer is supposed to be all about – spending time with God, speaking to Him and listening for His response.

In Tune with Torah this week = Blessed are those who have met and spent time with godly men and women.  You don’t have to ask if they pray, if they are intimate with God, it’s obvious by the kind of people they are.

As we enter into 2016, a time when people typically make new resolutions (which few end up keeping), perhaps all we should ask ourselves is: “What can I do this year, how can I change my schedule so that spending time with God is my highest priority?   Instead of identifying someone else who is inspiring, how about YOU become the inspiration for others in 2016?
Shabbat Shalom.  May it be a year of spiritual growth for each of us.
To review a message about 2016, check out our other blog at this link: Coffee & Commentary

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