Weekly Torah Commentary – Nitzavim September 30, 2016

Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20

“See I have placed before you life and good, and death and evil … I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse; and you shall choose life so that you and your offspring will live.”

chooselife

God has given each of us a clear choice: the ability to choose life and good, or death and evil, and it is this choice that is the very foundation of our spiritual life.   Life and good vs. death and evil. Interesting parallels, don’t you think?

It would appear that the Torah is saying we have two pairs of choices, not just one. We have the right to choose good or evil; we also have the right to choose life or death.

To choose between good and evil is a straightforward commandment. While we face situations and temptations in life that would seek to seduce us away from faithfulness to God because the ‘evil’ seems to hold a greater promise of happiness than the ‘good, we know the right thing is to choose ‘good’. Whether we do or not is our responsibility.

But what about a choice between ‘life’ and ‘death’?  Apart from suicide, none of us chooses death over life.  In fact we have an innate drive for preservation of life.  So what are we to derive from this verse?

The ‘death’ referenced here is not simply a matter of ceasing to breathe.   And, the ‘life’ referenced here is not simply a matter of continuing to breathe!  The Torah is giving us spiritual principles.

Biblically speaking, the true meaning of life is that our time on this earth is a journey towards holiness.  Learning from His Word what He desires of us, developing our character, growing in spirituality is all part of what the Bible means by ‘choose life’. Being alive means directly facing the challenges that life presents and using them to become a better person.

Choosing ‘death’, on the other hand, is that attitude that avoids dealing with challenges, opts to escape difficulties and trials, and leaves spirituality off its radar. Death is the choice of comfort over effort, of a laze life over a life full of challenge and growth.

It is important to note that choosing death is not limited to failure to keep the commandments. Someone can appear to be doing all the right things externally and sitll be ‘dead’ inside. What is frightening is that such a person lives his life on ‘cruise control’ all the while believing he’s just fine. If he never really pushes himself to further develop his personal relationship with God, to make time for prayer, to work at improving his character, it could be said that he’s choosing a living death; the comfortable or lazy option.

Actually what we are discussing could be explained this way as well. Life is a constant struggle between two contradictory forces that pull us in opposite directions. The body wants its pleasurable comforts; the spirit of man hungers for a relationship with God, expressed by a desire to expand and grow. Thus, each person is constantly faced with these conflicting forces pulling him in opposite directions. In this week’s Torah Portion we are told that to succeed in life, must choose life.

This lesson is particularly appropriate as we approach Rosh Hashanah. On these Holy days we are urged to examine ourselves, to take a spiritual inventory of where we are as a person – what is important to us, what are our priorities?

The choice between living an essentially comfortable life (even if it is done in a ‘religious’ way) and striving to fulfill one’s potential in service to our God is an essential element of Rosh Hashanah.

In Tune with Torah this week = this weekend is the perfect time on God’s calendar to set aside some time to evaluate our spiritual life.  Are we consistent in seeking a closer relationship with the LORD, week by week, month by month? What do we struggle with and what steps will we take to overcome those struggles? In what ways is God calling us to deepen our relationship with Him?

Weekly Torah Commentary — Bamidbar June 10, 2016

Bamidbar – Numbers 1:1-4:20

Moses

The book of Bamidbar (‘the desert), listed in English Bibles as ‘Numbers’, is the fourth book of the Torah. As we begin to read it this Shabbat, we find some curious facts. Several events in this book should never have happened, most notably the forty years in the desert.  That was not the original plan!  After Sinai, the next stop for the Children of Israel, just a handful of days later, was intended to be the Promised Land. Yet we learn a timeless lesson: the ‘unplanned’ delay became a ‘school’ for the children of Israel.  Many of the lessons they learned ‘b’midbar’ – in the desert – were crucial to their formation as a holy nation.

Sound familiar?  We all experience delays in life, many of which we find irritating and troubling.  We’re in a hurry to ‘get on with it.’  However, like the children of Israel every delay is a treasure field of opportunity for spiritual, emotional and mental growth.

What additional significance was there for the Hebrews prolonged years in the desert?  Apart from the practical aspects of being prepared to conquer the land, there seems to be a greater design behind God’s decision to extend their sojourn in the desert. Is there something special about the desert that is unique to the process they would undergo?

In the desert, man is exposed, often without shelter. Hot days, cold nights, open spaces and no reliable sources of food or water create a situation of unparalleled vulnerability. It was in this atmosphere that the children of Israel were to learn about complete reliance on God. It was in the desert, as in no other place, that they would understand that all sustenance comes from God Himself.

Isolation is another aspect of desert living. Life in societies where ideas, customs and behaviors constantly swirl around you has its inevitable effect. It is very difficult to stand apart from your surroundings.  The newly freed slaves at the very birth of their development into a nation needed time alone before encountering the pagan societies of Canaan.  Time in the desert was not just an avoidance scheme; it was a place and time for preparation to become a viable and righteous society. Israel was called to become ‘a light to the nations’.  To do so, they themselves first needed to be enlightened and matured.  This was the purpose of ‘b’midbar’ – in the desert.

Every spiritual seeker sooner or later has a desert experience.  It may not be geographical and often, in fact, it isn’t.  The ‘desert’ of the soul can happen in the busiest city because it’s not an external thing; it’s an inner period of suffering, learning, growing, etc.  But it’s also a gift from God to lead us closer to Him.

This weekend, we have an interesting convergence of days.  Shabbat is on Saturday and as it comes to an end, we immediately transition into the Festival of Shavuot or Pentecost, which is the anniversary of the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.  A few words about that are in order.

The Torah refers to the five books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.  The Torah is a compilation of the historical record from creation to the death of Moses and includes – but is not limited to – the commandments God delivered to Moses at Mt. Sinai; commandments designed to teach the former slaves (and us) how to live out a life of holiness in relationship with the God of Israel. In addition to the commandments, there are multiplied narratives of the experiences of the biblical Patriarchs, the released slaves, wars and conquests, etc.  Therefore, we should understand that the term ‘Law’ in reality should not be used interchangeably with the word Torah. For, ‘the Law’ refers to the commandments within the Torah but the entire Torah is more than laws.

Shavuot is a day when God holds out His hand and invites us to enter into that scary place called relationship – where the goal is closeness to God, not outward traditions and not necessarily practical benefit.  Living in intimacy with God will cost you.  Opportunities arise in all of our lives that seem “too good to pass up” but are they really?  The primary question in choosing which opportunities to accept should be: Will this position or location afford me the opportunity to enhance my spiritual life or will it hinder my spiritual growth?  Am I inclined to accept only because of the significantly higher salary or have I sought the Lord, as David did consistently, for His direction for my life?  Sad testimonies abound detailing the collapse of families, divorces and tragedies that resulted from a misplaced priority of pursuing money and position over family considerations.

Shavuot calls us to review our priorities.  Is my relationship with God my highest priority?  If not, I need to repent.  Are my family relationships intact?  If not, we have some work to do in resolving whatever issues there are that hinder the love, peace and joy that are meant to characterize a godly home.

This Shabbat/Shavuot weekend let us make it a priority to spend quality time in the presence of God – each of us personally – and resolve to deepen our relationship with Him and with those we love.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach Shavuot (may Pentecost joy be yours!)

 

 

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!

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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 — Beshalach January 22, 2016

Exodus 13:17-17:16

In last week’s reading, we reviewed the first seven plagues and their effect on Egypt.  The saga continues into this week’s reading with the last three plagues, culminating in the death of the firstborn of every Egyptian household, from the palace of Pharaoh to the hut of the lowliest Egyptian.  Even the firstborn of the Egyptians’ animals died. But in Goshen, where the Hebrews lived, not one firstborn died because of the obedience of the people to swab the blood of the Passover lamb on their doorposts, as instructed by God through Moses.  This story is re-told in full every Passover.

Studying the passage this year, I was suddenly struck by a thought that had never entered my mind in all the years I’ve been studying the scriptures.  Could it be that in fact there were, in a manner of speaking, eleven plagues? Not just ten, as we commonly think?  Let me explain.

The process of getting Pharaoh to finally agree to release his army of slave laborers, the children of Israel, was a lengthy and painful one for the Egyptian people.  The water turned to blood, their homes were infested with frogs, the very dust turned into swarms and swarms of lice and on and on it continued until the final devastating plague: the death of every firstborn in Egypt.  Finally Pharaoh relented and in fact, commanded Moses to take the people and go.

However, though the children of Israel walked out of Egypt into the desert, Pharaoh still had the option of harassing them.  We see it happen when shortly after their departure, Pharaoh says to his advisers, ‘What have we done, letting all those Israelite slaves get away?’  They decide to take action.

‘So Pharaoh harnessed his chariot and called up his troops.  He took with him 600 of Egypt’s best chariots, along with the rest of the chariots of Egypt, each with its commander.  The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, so he chased after the people of Israel…’  Exodus 14:6-8

Was their freedom to be so short-lived?  Would a brief taste of freedom disintegrate into ever deeper slavery? Were they to be dragged back to Egypt in chains and subjected to harsh punishment?

By this time, seven days after they left Egypt, the Hebrews were camped by the shores of the sea. Terrified as they saw Pharaoh’s vast army approaching from the distance, the people cried and Moses prayed. At God’s instruction, Moses extended his staff over the waters and God made a way through the sea for His people.

Pharaoh and his army plunged after them, galloping into the sea as the last of the Israelites climbed up on the opposite shore. Moses lifted his staff again and the text relates that all of Egypt’s army was destroyed, its chariots, its armor and its soldiers. Is it any wonder that the people burst forth into a song of praise as they witnessed the victory of God on their behalf?  This, I propose, could be considered the 11th plague.

The mighty Hand of God had purchased their redemption in Egypt, but at the Red Sea that redemption was secured.  Not only were they free men, but the very oppressor who had enslaved them was now stripped of his ability to inflict any further harm upon them or to drag them back into slavery again.  No wonder Miriam led the women in a song of celebration as they danced for joy.

Devoted to God and His Torah, we seek to live our life within the parameters of His will. Yet in this life we encounter “harassment” in the form of trials, disappointments, setbacks and outright temptations.  We may be out of Egypt but we stand by the sea of this world pursued by an old ‘master’ every bit as real as Pharaoh of old.

Yet we have this precious hope: at the coming of the Messiah, the redeemed of the Lord will no longer have to struggle with the harassment of a former ‘master’.

In Tune with Torah this week = earlier generations had a keen sense of anticipation regarding the appearance of the promised Messiah.  Maimonides said, ‘Though the Messiah tarry, I will await him every day.’ Have we in this generation become so entangled in the pursuits of this life that our desire for His appearing is dulled?  Do we really want him to come?  Does the reality of eternal life in the presence of God impact the way we live? Are we eager to see the final ‘securing’ of our Redemption?

Shabbat Shalom

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Weekly Torah Commentary – Bo Jan. 15, 2015

Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

The time had come.

The Hebrew slaves were on the brink of release. Moses, their leader, gathered them together. They fell silent, anticipating what he was about to say.

What would he speak about at this monumental juncture? He could have spoken about many things. He might have talked about liberty, the breaking of their chains, and the end of slavery. He might have talked about the destination to which they were about to travel, the “land flowing with milk and honey”. Or he might have chosen a more somber theme: the journey that lay ahead, the dangers they would face on their long road to freedom. Any one of these would have been the speech of a great leader at an historic moment in the destiny of Israel.

Yet…Moses did none of these things. Instead he spoke about children, about the distant future, about the duty to pass on to generations yet unborn the profound experience of the Exodus. Three times in this week’s Torah portion he turns to the theme:

And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say … (Exodus 12:26-27)

And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt’ (Exodus 13:8)

And when, in time to come, your child asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him… (Exodus 13:14)

About to gain their freedom, the Israelites were challenged to become godly parents. Moses urged them to become a nation of educators who would invest their energy in making sure that successive generations knew what God had done for His people.  This in part is what made Moses not just a great leader, but a unique one.

In this admonition of Moses to the people, we learn that freedom is won and maintained, not on the battlefield, nor in the political arena, nor in the courts, national or international, but in the home.  You see, to defend a country you need an army. But to defend a free society you need strong families. You need parents that are not too busy to teach their children by word and example the ideals of godly living.  You need homes and schools that work together to, as King Solomon wrote in the Proverbs, ‘train up a child in the way that he should go.’

Children are a precious gift of God.  With the gift comes great responsibility.  That child is not yours; he or she is on loan from heaven, sent to this earth and into your care with a divine purpose and destiny, the greatest of which is the opportunity to get to know God and to love Him and live by His Word.

Not everyone is a parent, but we all have opportunities to influence the young. One of the greatest things we can do is listen when a child or teenager wants to speak.  Listen long enough to really hear what they are trying to say, avoiding impetuous responses before hearing the whole story.

To this day, every year at Passover, Jewish parents tell the Exodus story again to their children and grandchildren, lest we forget that slaves become free men only by the Hand of God.  Slavery as an institution has been greatly diminished but what about spiritual slavery? Are we ‘enslaved’ to careers, to negative behaviors, to greed or selfishness?  What do our children see?

In Tune with Torah this week = asking ourselves, ‘What do I model before others? Are my children and/or grandchildren knowledgeable about the God of Israel because I’ve taken the time to talk with them about Him and His Torah?  And more importantly, can they see by my lifestyle that God is first and foremost in my life?

Shabbat Shalom

PS. Several new subscribers have joined our online Bible Study this week, posted on our sister site.  If you’d like to check it out, go to: Coffee and Commentary

 

 

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