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 – Tzaria-Metzora April 28, 2017

Torah reading: Leviticus 12 – 15

Haftorah reading: II Kings 7:3-20

A little background: What we read about this week takes place during the time when Israel was divided into two kingdoms: the Northern Kingdom of Ephraim/Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.  This is also the time of the long and impressive ministry of the prophet Elisha, the successor to Elijah, who received a double portion of the anointing that had been on his mentor.

At the time of this narrative Israel and Aram (Syria today) were almost continuously at war.  In the previous chapter (chapter six), the king of Aram, Ben Hadad, had laid siege to Samaria, the capitol city of the northern kingdom. That meant no one went into the city and no one came out of the city.  A siege was designed to starve the inhabitants of a city into either surrender or else to reduce them to a state of such weakness as to be unable to put up any resistance when once the wall was breached.

As our passage begins, a very severe famine is driving the people even to cannibalism! Two women approach Joran, an evil king of Israel reigning at that time, one of them complaining that the previous day she and her neighbor had struck an agreement: that day they would eat her son, and the following day the other woman’s son. So they boiled and ate the first woman’s son, but the next day the second woman had hidden her son. When the king hears this, he tore his robe – but not in repentance. He reacts with rage, directing his anger at Elisha. He swears an oath before God to have Elisha’s head cut off.

elijah-mantle-falls-on-elisha

King Joram arrived at Elisha’s house the next morning. Elisha, being a prophet, knew beforehand that the king was coming, and what he intended to do. But instead of a stinging rebuke, Elisha gives the king some interesting news – great news!

Then Elisha said, “Listen to the word of the LORD; thus says the LORD, ‘Tomorrow about this time a measure of fine flour will be sold for a shekel, and two measures of barley for a shekel, in the gate of Samaria.’”  II Kings 7:1

In other words, the famine will be over, and food will once again be plentiful. The very next day grain and flour would be sold at completely normal prices. That would require a miracle, given the desperate situation at hand. But that’s exactly what is being promised. Elisha, the prophet of God, has declared “Thus says the Lord…”

Would God really rescue a rebellious people? Yes, because of His covenant. After all, if God only rescued the deserving, where would that leave you and me?  Mankind would long ago have ceased to exist if God’s mercy depended on our ‘worthiness’. His mercy is an expression of His faithfulness to His own covenant.  It’s a matter of God’s integrity.

One of the king’s officials is skeptical but Elisha assures him that he will see the miracle.

Now there were four leprous men at the entrance of the gate; and they said to one another, “Why do we sit here until we die? “If we say, ‘We will enter the city,’ then the famine is in the city and we will die there; and if we sit here, we die also. Now therefore come, and let us go over to the camp of the Arameans. If they spare us, we will live; and if they kill us, we will but die.”

Leprosy is just about the worst thing that could happen to someone in ancient times. Lepers were complete outcasts from society. These four lepers are sitting outside the gate of the city, and suddenly it dawns on them that they have absolutely nothing to lose! They can’t go inside the city because they’re lepers, and they can’t just sit there and starve to death. They realize they have only one option that doesn’t guarantee death: go out to the army camp and surrender to the Syrians. If the Syrians let them live, they’ll at least be able to eat and stay alive. If the Syrians kill them, they’ll just die a little quicker.

It’s amazing how much clarity you can have when you’re out of options. These four lepers “threw caution to the wind” and took the only logical step left, surrender to the enemy.  Was it a good idea?

They arose at twilight to go to the camp of the Arameans; when they came to the outskirts of the camp of the Arameans, behold, there was no one there. For the Lord had caused the army of the Arameans to hear a sound of chariots and a sound of horses, even the sound of a great army, so that they said to one another, “Behold, the king of Israel has hired against us the kings of the Hittites and the kings of the Egyptians, to come upon us.” Therefore they arose and fled in the twilight, and left their tents and their horses and their donkeys, even the camp just as it was, and fled for their life. vs. 5-7

Well, well, well! God had gotten involved! The Arameans heard such a loud sound that they were sure thousands of horses were approaching.  Yet it wasn’t a real army! God caused them to hear something that wasn’t even there! So, for the sake of a rebellious people who made up the Northern Kingdom, the covenant keeping God of Israel caused trained warriors to run like rabbits so that the deliverance of Israel was completely God’s doing.  And it happened when Israel was hardly deserving of the miracle!

God’s love and faithfulness are far greater than we realize.  He is faithful because He is Who He is, even when we are not faithful or obedient. That’s called Mercy.

When these lepers came to the outskirts of the camp, they entered one tent and ate and drank, and carried from there silver and gold and clothes, and went and hid them; and they returned and entered another tent and carried from there also, and went and hid them. Then they said to one another, “We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news, but we are keeping silent; if we wait until morning light, punishment will overtake us. Now therefore come, let us go and tell the king’s household.”

The biggest “losers” turn out to be the biggest winners! While initially acting on impulse to eat, drink, grab the gold and silver, the lepers are stricken by their consciences. “We may be outcasts in Israel, but our people Israel are dying at this very moment, and we’ve found food; we’ve made a discovery that will save our people – how can we keep this good news to ourselves?”

So they came and called to the gatekeepers of the city, and they told them, saying, “We came to the camp of the Arameans, and behold, there was no one there, nor the voice of man, only the horses tied and the donkeys tied, and the tents just as they were.” The gatekeepers called and told it within the king’s household. vs. 10-11

The lepers had to call to the watchmen from outside the gates to announce the good news as they were not allowed in the city.  I am impressed by their selflessness. Other lepers may have collected as much silver and gold as they could and thought “I’m taking care of me – I couldn’t care less about the rest of that bunch.”

An integral part of growing in spirituality is learning to be selfless, instead of selfish. We are called to care about others, not just ourselves.  We are part of God’s larger family, not islands adrift in a troubled world.

Then the king arose in the night and said to his servants, “I will tell you now what the Arameans have done to us. They know that we are hungry; therefore they have gone from the camp to hide themselves in the field, saying, ‘When they come out of the city, we will capture them alive and get into the city.’” vs. 12

The king was not a godly, believing man; he assumed the worst. Never mind that Elisha had promised just a day earlier that the very next day God would provide food in abundance. It’s happening, just as promised, but the king isn’t making the connection.

Prideful cynicism can be deadly.  Every moment King Joram delayed, people in the city of Samaria were dying. Thankfully, at least one of the servants in his court had the presence of mind to offer a wise suggestion.

One of his servants said, “Please, let some men take five of the horses which remain, which are left in the city. Behold, they will be in any case like all the multitude of Israel who are left in it; behold, they will be in any case like all the multitude of Israel who have already perished, so let us send and see.” They took therefore two chariots with horses, and the king sent after the army of the Arameans, saying, “Go and see.”  They went after them to the Jordan, and behold, all the way was full of clothes and equipment which the Arameans had thrown away in their haste. Then the messengers returned and told the king. So the people went out and plundered the camp of the Arameans. Then a measure of fine flour was sold for a shekel and two measures of barley for a shekel, according to the word of the LORD.  Verses 13-16

So the messengers go and sure enough, there were all the clothes and equipment left behind by the Arameans. They reported back to the king that Israel was indeed delivered according to the word of the Lord through the prophet, Elisha.

In Tune with Torah this week = Giving praise to God at all times in every kind of situation is always the right thing to do for we never know when God is at work without our knowledge, causing all things to work for our good like He did for Israel.  Let us choose to be devoted and full of faith like Elisha, rather than skeptical like the evil king.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Shemot January 20, 2017

Torah reading:  Exodus 1:1-6:1

Haftorah reading: Isaiah 27: 6-28:13, 29:22-23

Woe to the crown of pride, to the drunkards of Ephraim, whose glorious beauty is a fading flower which is at the head of the verdant valleys, to those who are overcome with wine! Behold, the Lord has a mighty and strong one, like a tempest of hail and a destroying storm, like a flood of mighty waters overflowing, who will bring them down to the earth with His hand. The crown of pride, the drunkards of Ephraim, will be trampled underfoot; and the glorious beauty is a fading flower which is at the head of the verdant valley, like the first fruit before the summer, which an observer sees; he eats it up while it is still in his hand. Isaiah 28: 1-4

The prophet addresses the northern kingdom which was known as the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Ephraim.  This is the kingdom that was established in the territory given to Ephraim when Joshua divided the nation after they entered the Promised Land.  It was to this geographical location that the ten tribes moved when they rebelled against Judah who was located in Jerusalem and its environs.  Rather quickly the northern kingdom demonstrated their rebellion by changing times and seasons, changing instructions given in the Torah to suit their own preferences and eventually were conquered after only 70 years and dispersed among the nations.

A fundamental root of their rebellion is identified in the opening words: Woe to the crown of pride…

John R.W. Stott, a remarkably humble man of great abilities and accomplishments is credited with this succinct statement about pride and humility. It goes straight to the heart of what the Bible teaches about the deadly root of our sins and sorrows. Stott said: “Pride is your greatest enemy, humility is your greatest friend.”

We haven’t heard much lately about this topic, have we? What throughout history has been recognized as the deadliest of vices is now almost celebrated as a virtue in our present society. Pride and arrogance are conspicuous among the rich, the powerful, the successful, the famous, and celebrities of all sorts, and sadly, even some religious leaders. And it is also alive and well in ordinary people, including each of us. Yet few of us realize how dangerous it is to our souls and how greatly it hinders our intimacy with God and love for others.

Humility, on the other hand, is often seen as weakness, and few of us know much about it or pursue it. For the good of our souls, however, we need to gain a clearer understanding of both pride and humility and how to renounce the one and embrace the other.

Pride first appears in the Bible in Genesis 3, where we see the devil, that “proud spirit” as some have described him, using pride as the avenue by which to seduce our first parents. Taking the form of a serpent, his approach was simple yet deadly. First, he arrogantly contradicted what God had said to Eve about eating the forbidden fruit and charged God with lying. This shocking rejection of God’s word introduced Eve to the hitherto unknown possibility of unbelief and stirred up doubt in her mind about the reliability of God. In the next breath, the devil drew her into deeper deception by contending that God’s reason for lying was to keep her from enjoying all the blessings of her state. His goal was to undermine Eve’s faith and cause her to question God’s truthfulness.

As Eve in her now confused and deceived state of mind considered the possibilities, her desire to become ‘Godlike’ grew stronger. The forbidden fruit became more attractive. Desire increased, bringing with it the inclination to rationalize and thereby erode any inclination of her will to resist the temptation being offered.

Finally, weakened by unbelief, enticed by pride, and ensnared by self-deception, she disobeyed God’s command. In just a few clever and devious words, the devil was able to use ego to bring about Eve’s downfall and plunge the human race into spiritual ruin. This ancient but all-too-familiar process confronts each of us daily.

Temptation to choose self over God is a daily issue.  Self-indulgence, self-pity, self-aggrandizement, self-will, taking oneself too seriously and thinking more of oneself than we ought to think are all symptoms of a pride in the heart that is displeasing to our God. The prophet Micah put it this way:  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 before your God?  Micah 6:8

Pride can manifest itself in many ways, spiritual pride being the worst of them all. To consider yourself better than others because of your race, nationality, talents, achievements or religious affiliation is obnoxious to God.  What do any of us have that we have not received as a gift from our heavenly Father?  Even those things that we call ‘our’ achievements could never have come about without God’s sustaining and enabling grace being operative in our lives.  None of us is guaranteed ‘tomorrow’ – sudden and untimely deaths are a common occurrence of which we are all aware.

It behooves us to recognize that apart from the LORD’s blessing upon our lives, we would be sorry creatures indeed.  Understanding how much He has blessed us should inspire continual gratitude to Him through thick and thin.  David, a man who endured many difficult trials, understood this principle and so he wrote: I will bless the LORD at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth.  Psalm 43:1

Humility is called the queen of all virtues.  Solomon wrote:

By humility and the fear of the LORD are riches, and honor, and life. Prov. 22:4

Better to be of an humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud. Prov. 16:19

A man’s pride shall bring him low: but honor shall come to the humble in spirit.  Prov. 29:23

Let’s be very clear about this issue.  A parent may be rightfully proud of their child for choosing to do right and/or succeeding academically, for example, through discipline and hard work. There is a kind of ‘pride’ that is acceptable in appropriate situations; a pride that focuses on the success of others, rather than oneself.

However, a pride that focuses on oneself, even in one’s own eyes, is reprehensible and must be avoided. That is the kind of pride that the LORD abhors.  It is undisciplined ego.

In Tune with Torah this week: if you go on and read the rest of the haftorah portion, you quickly learn that the pride of the Ephraimites brought their downfall.  That is the sure result of pride: downfall of one type or another.  May the only ‘crown’ we seek to wear be the crown of Humility.

This Shabbat let us examine our own hearts and humble ourselves before our God, acknowledging His goodness and kindness to us and thanking Him sincerely for all He has done for us.

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Ki Tisa March 6, 2015

Exodus 30:11-34:35

This week’s Torah reading gives us a poignant study in contrasts.  As Moses stands before the God of Israel on top of the mountain, about to receive the Torah in the most spiritual, stratospheric experience of his life, at the foot of the same mountain, the children of Israel fall into rank rebellion and deplorable behavior: they erect a golden calf, an idol.

If it happened today, news media would capture on a split screen for all to see: the severe disparity between what is happening above and what is happening below. Perhaps in such a presentation, the message would arrest our attention to a life changing degree.

What we are looking it is a demonstration of the worst infidelity imaginable. Consider the general reaction when we hear that a husband takes up a mistress while his wife is pregnant with their first child; or a wife is carrying on with a lover while her husband is negotiating a mortgage for the home of her dreams.  What we watch in this week’s Torah portion is the heartbreaking contrast between commitment and infidelity, utter selflessness versus rank selfishness, eternal perspective versus immediate gratification.

How could such a thing happen? What about all the miracles they had so recently experienced?

Consider a key principle that is too often forgotten: Sin happens when we forget about eternity; when we lose our consciousness that life is about much more than what we see, hear and touch in this physical world. Sin is enabled when we allow this earthly life to cloud the reality of heaven, of the world to come, of the blessings God has already poured into our life, of the sobering reality of accountability for everyone of our words and actions.  When our life has ‘descended’ to the valley of physicality in which we no longer ‘look to the mountain’, we succumb to the identical sin of the children of Israel.  We build our own golden calfs – they take the form of the love of money or jealousies or abiding hatred towards someone else, or immorality.  The list could go on.

When Moses disappeared into the cloud on top of Mount Sinai, the proverbial ‘when the cat’s away, the mouse will play’ took over.  Their leader was not there to rebuke them and they did what their untamed nature dictated.

However, even as they sin, an incredible scene unfolds on the mountaintop. Hearing from God that the people have rebelled, Moses assumes the role of defense attorney for an impossibly guilt client.  His defense of the children of Israel stuns us.  We would except him to be disgusted and revolted. Yet with brave conviction, he pleads their case before God. Moses is convinced that within these rebels, there is potential for greatness. Moses argues with God that there will yet be a day when they have a powerful and intimate relationship with Him.

God hears his prayer.

Thus we learn: At the very moment that the children of Israel had turned away from God and sinned, what was simultaneously happening on the mountaintop would save them from destruction.  Moses interceded; God heard; the sinners are forgiven and then turned back to their God.  The people have forgotten and rejected the God of Israel but the God of Israel has not forgotten or rejected the former slaves He is now shaping into a nation for His purposes. Their memory may be short, but His is not; their faith in Him may be sorely limited but His faith in their potential is unlimited.

If we, for one moment, reflected on this split-screen scene when tempted to sin, perhaps the absurdity of living this life without the consciousness of eternity would keep us from failing.  There is no such thing as being ‘so heavenly minded you’re not earthly good’ as some have claimed.  To be truly heavenly minded is to live each day keenly aware that this life is, as it says in Pirchei Avot, “a lobby for the world to come.” Therefore, it behooves us to keep our destination in mind while making the journey.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Korach June 7, 2013

According to ancient sources, Korach, the central figure as this week’s reading begins, was a very wealthy man. While still in Egypt, he had discovered one fo the three warehouses where Joseph had accumulated treasures for Pharaoh during the seven years of plenty. Korach’s wealth had bred arrogance and a haughty self-confidence. He was not content with financial power; he wanted political power as well.

In addition, Korach was a relative of Moses, both of them being from the tribe of Levi.

As this week’s parsha opens, Korach, along with Dathan, Abiram and On, descendants of Reuben, all stood together against Moses (Bamidbar/Numbers 16:1-3). Korach was the obvious leader and in essence, he challenged not only the leadership of Moses, but his divinely appointed mission and even the Torah itself.

But Korach is not honest in his accusations. He used flattery of the masses to mask his jealousy of Moses.
“All the people are holy,” he declared. In other words, ‘Why should you have authority over all of us? We can hear for ourselves what Hashem wants? Who do you think you are? I’m also a Levite. Why shouldn’t all of us have the same privileges that you have? It’s just not right!’ He made it appear as if he wanted the entire people to have a voice in what would be done and what wouldn’t be done (democracy). In truth, however, Korach wanted all the power for himself.

The Midrash tells us that during this confrontation, Korach challenged even the mitzvot. For example, Korach asked Moses,’If a tent is filled with holy books (scrolls), does it still need a mezzuzzah?’ Moses replied that most certainly it did according to the Torah. Korach laughed mockingly and said, ‘What benefit are a few words carved on the tent pole compared to several scrolls within the house? It’s nonsense!’

Korach analyzed the mitzvot as if he were dealing with man-made laws. He rejected the principle that Torah is from Hashem and while we seek to understand as much as we can and study its words continuously, we also accept that it is not necessary to understand, but to do. Korach forgot what Israel said at Sinai: “We will do, and we will hear.” Instead he was submitting the commandments of the Torah to his own human evaluation – an exceedingly dangerous thing to do.

The bottom line principle is this: It is essential to know WHAT Hashem said; it is even more essential to accept THAT He said it! What Hashem gave us in the Torah should indeed be read, discussed, analyzed and applied, NOT for argument or human judgement, but for the purpose of our individual and national spiritual growth. Visit any Beit Midrash (house of study) in Israel or abroad, and you will witness lively and often loud discussions and debates about the Torah and its message. But the discussions are not geared towards accepting or rejecting Torah; they are for the purpose of digging deeper into its true meaning.

That is where Korach went wrong, driven as he was by jealousy.

We know the end of the story: Korach, Dathan and Abiram and their families along with all their possessions were destroyed completely because they arrogantly rebelled against Hashem’s purpose for Israel and His divinely appointed leader.

But did you notice that one of the four men mentioned at the beginning is missing from the judgement? On, the son of Peleth, descendant of Reuven, was listed as a leader of the rebellion in the opening verse. However, afterwards he is never mentioned again. There is no indication that he and his family were destroyed. Where did he go?

After Korach’s confrontation with Moses, we read that Moses fell on his face. As was his habit, he sought wisdom from Hashem. In the very next verse, he declares to Korach and his companions that “In the morning Hashem will show Who is His servant…” It could be that Moses hoped that overnight these men would come to their senses and repent.

The Midrash informs us that when On returned home that evening after the confrontation, his wife pleaded with him to remove himself from Korach, Dathan and Abiram. She reasoned with him, saying, “Do you really think that Korach cares anything about you? If he succeeds in seizing power, he’ll forget all about you. Can’t you see that all he really wants is power for himself? Don’t be deceived; don’t endanger us because of foolish promises that Korach will never keep. He is not a man to be trusted.” With these words and more, On’s wife succeeded in talking sense into her husband’s mind and he did not return with Korach the following morning.

Mishle/Proverbs 14:1 A wise woman builds up her house but a foolish woman destroys it with her own hands.

Korach’s wife is described as an arrogant and manipulative woman. She encouraged Korach in his rebellion.
She paid with her life and that of her children.

On’s wife turned her husband toward Hashem and His ways; toward righteousness, repentance and integrity.
They lived.

At least two of the sons of Korach also had a change of heart overnight and removed themselves from their father’s rebellion. We know that because in the book of Psalms, written much later, we find psalms written by “the sons of Korach.”

In Tune with Torah this week = 1) We study Torah to grow spiritually, not to pass judgement on its commandments; 2) ladies, be a force for spiritual good for your husband and your children at all times.
The rewards of both of these principles are eternal.

Shabbat Shalom