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!

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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 – Vayikra March 31, 2017

Torah reading:  Leviticus 1-5

Haftorah reading: Isaiah 43:21 – 44:23

“This is what the LORD says – Israel’s King and His Redeemer, the LORD Almighty: I am the first and the last; apart from me there is no God” (Isaiah 44:6).

In this passage, the LORD says a number of things about himself to reveal his true nature to His people. What we end up seeing is a multi-faceted God who is many things to his people.

First, God gives his name in the Hebrew, YHVH. That is the most holy name of God, the personal name of the covenant God.

Then he expresses one of his titles, the King of Israel. Above and beyond the great David and the wise Solomon, the real King of Israel is still the LORD God Himself.

Thirdly, the LORD calls himself Redeemer, the One who delivers his people from bondage and sin, gloriously demonstrated in the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt through miraculous signs and wonders.

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Isaiah had employed these names before in speaking of God, but this next one is new.

The LORD Almighty can be translated the ‘YHWH of Armies’ or the ‘LORD of hosts.’ What it means is that our God has at his disposal all armies, earthly and heavenly. God has the resources to carry out anything and everything He desires or decrees.

If we could meditate on those names alone we would wrestle for a lifetime with all that they mean. But there is more.

He says he is the First and the Last. The first and the last…mysterious, inspiring and captivating descriptions.

The LORD is First in that He does not derive His life from anywhere else. He is self-existing and self-sufficient. He is eternally present and the eternal “I AM.”

He is the Last in that He remains at the end of all things supreme and totally fulfilled. He is so complete that no one can add or take away anything from Him. He is the beginning and the end; the Creator and the Judge; the full revelation and the final authority. The LORD says, “…apart from me there is no God.”

What an awesome God! “Who then is like me? Let him proclaim it,” says the LORD. Dumb idols made of rock cannot speak. That is so plain to see…or is it?

What the LORD wanted His people to do was stand as witnesses that there is only One God. “You are my witnesses. Is there any God besides me? No, there is no other Rock; I know not one” (44:8).

Now there we have yet another metaphor for our God – He is the Rock. There is nothing else reliable to rest upon. The Rock is a symbol of refuge, trustworthiness and changeless integrity. Did you know that Moses wrote the first rock song? In Deuteronomy 32 God is called “the Rock” several times and Moses cries out at one point, “For their rock is not like our Rock, as even our enemies concede” (32:31). This hard rock song belts out the fact that God is a great foundation to build on and a matchless Savior. Who is like our God? Other rock songs sing the same tune: “He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken” (Ps 62:6).

Why then were the Jews making images out of rock, wood and other precious items and calling them gods in the time of Isaiah? One reason stands out: people want gods they can control. As Pascal said, “God made man in his own image, and man returned the compliment.”

What are idols? “All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless. Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant, to their own shame” (44:9). Idols are nothing. But those who worship them reverse creation. God turned the chaos in Genesis 1 into his wonderful creation crowning it with the creation of humankind. When people make idols they form gods in their own likeness and turn creation back into chaos.

In Isaiah 44:10-13 we see that idols reflect the frailty of their makers. They create gods out of stone and wood and then build houses for them. How ridiculous. A man sweats and tires himself out creating a god that cannot move, speak or protect himself from the elements. Then he worships this thing. Would the true God need a house or require food? Does he have the same limitations as a man?

To be created in the image of God means that we are His servants; when we try to make God in our image means that we think He is our servant.  Wrong..wrong…triple wrong!

The truth about idols is this: What you can produce by your own intelligence and your own power is no more powerful than you yourself. If you cannot deliver yourself from your difficulty, how do you expect something you have made with your own hands to be able to do it?

What are our idols today? We don’t take a piece of wood and fashion it into our own image and worship it. Idols have different meanings today. An idol is simply this: anything you consider more precious, more important than God. Is there something that controls your life other than God? What drives us further from God? Consider these possible modern day idols or, shall we say, values:

Individualism: This idol has been predominant in our society for a few decades. I do what I want when I want and when I feel like it. My ideas and thoughts and judgments are significant; I will consider what God has to say but ultimately it’s my choice. The result is a lifestyle of your own choosing. Sex before marriage, homosexuality, and adultery are all on the rise because “no one can tell me what to do.” Respect for human life is on the decline because of our “right to choose.”

Wealth: Money drives us and opens up the doors of opportunity and pleasure in our world. But how many of our decisions are based on money as opposed to what God wants? If we have the money do we think we can do anything? Even more important, do we really think the money we have is “ours” alone? Does not the Torah teach us that money is a gift of God and therefore it is His right to direct us how to use the money He entrusts to us?  What controls our investments: Retiring with a nest egg or dying with treasures in heaven?

Entertainment: Do you seek after bring entertained? If it’s not fun then we don’t want to do it. Do you want to learn about God’s Word or do you want to do something more “fun”? We have become “fun addicts” so that if you are not enjoying yourself it’s pointless.  Really? Have you experienced the joyful excitement of learning God’s Word and discovering truth, revelation, wisdom, and guidance in its pages?

Good Deeds: A lot of people still believe that as long as you do good things and live a good life God will welcome you to heaven when you die; God is good so he won’t hold your beliefs against you as long as you are good enough.

That, my friends, is the creed of the secular philanthropist, not the faith system God has commanded His people to live by.  The prophet Habbakuk said it succintly: The righteous shall live by faith. (Hab. 2:4)  This is not to minimize good deeds such as kindness, compassion, integrity, caring for the poor and the widow and so on.  But it IS to say that good deeds for the sake of good deeds is not enough.  For it is FAITH that pleases God.  Abraham, long before the Ten Commandments were given, was considered righteous in God’s sight because of his FAITH, not for the ‘good deeds’ he had done.

Only the God who saves is worthy of praise! Isaiah returns to the truth about God in v. 21 and points out that there is one thing only God can really do: Save us!

“Remember these things, O Jacob, for you are my servant, O Israel. I have made you, you are my servant; O Israel, I will not forget you” (44:21).

We see the basis for God’s faithfulness in saving his people: He made us. Man does not make God; God makes man. It’s so simple even a child knows this. Because he has made us for this grand purpose of worship he will not forget us. He wants us to love Him because He first loved us.

One of the greatest things He has done for us is that He has forgiven us. There is no perfect man on the face of the earth.  All have sinned, all have fallen short of the high calling of God. But He says: “I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you” (44:22). Think of the darkest, cloudiest day that you can remember. God has swept away those clouds with His powerful arm and revealed blue skies and golden, sun-drenched fields. That is the imagery Isaiah uses to paint the removal of sin. To take advantage of this great forgiveness all a person has to do is return to the LORD with humble hearts and repent of their wandering ways. Cry out to the LORD and he will save you with his abundant forgiveness.

Then we will see the glory of the LORD in all of creation. “Sing for joy, O heavens, for the LORD has done this; shout aloud, O earth beneath. Burst into song, you mountains, you forests and all your trees, for the LORD has redeemed Jacob, he displays his glory in Israel” (44:23).

In Tune with Torah this week = taking time to meditate on Isaiah 44 is a vehicle for renewing your love, your faith and your humility before such a loving and awesome God.  He is for you; He has prepared a way for you to have an intimate, personal relationship with Him. Let not the idols of man pull you away from the greatest relationship every offered to man: a relationship with the God of Israel, the Holy One, your Redeemer.

Weekly Torah Commentary — Passover & the Omer April 10, 2015

As we are coming to the end of this year’s Passover celebration, the regular reading of the Torah portions is not resumed until next week.  So, let’s look at a relevant topic in which the Jewish people are involved at present.

From the second day of Passover, we are commanded to “count the omer.” 

You shall count for yourselves — from the day after the Shabbat, from the day when you bring the Omer of the waving — seven Shabbats, they shall be complete. Until the day after the seventh sabbath you shall count, fifty days… -Leviticus 23:15-16

You shall count for yourselves seven weeks, from when the sickle is first put to the standing crop shall you begin counting seven weeks. Then you will observe the Festival of Shavu’ot for the LORD, your God. -Deuteronomy 16:9-10

So what is this all about?

We are counting the days between the first day of Passover – when the Exodus from Egypt took place – to the festival of Shavuot or Pentecost, when the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai. The practice is designed to remind us that the deliverance from Egypt had as its great purpose to lead the former slaves to a life-changing encounter with God Himself on Mt. Sinai, where they were gifted with His instructions for achieving a life of holiness. Counting the omer is a means to keep forefront in our mind the truth that the redemption from Egypt was not only about ‘going out’. More importantly, it was about ‘coming in’ to an intimate relationship with God Himself.

As there is no Temple today where an omer of grain can be waved before the God of Israel, as we count each day and recite a blessing that accompanies the counting, our anticipation increases, much as a bride counts the days until her wedding. A love for and desire to receive the Word of the Living God is stirred within us as we anticipate Shavuot.

It is a period of inner reflection. How much do I love the Word of God? How often do I read it? Meditate on it? If I review my activities over the past month, the past three months, the past six months, did I spend more time reading other books, newspapers and magazines than I devoted to thoughtful reading of the Scriptures?

Psalm 119 is full of exhortations towards reading and meditating on God’s Word. For example, “Deal bountifully with Your servant that I may live and keep Your Word. Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from your Torah. I am a stranger in the earth; do not hide Your commandments from me.”

And, “Oh, how I love Your Torah! It is my meditation all day long. Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies.”

And again, “Your Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light to my path.”

And one of my favorites: “Those who love Your Word have great peace, and nothing causes them to stumble.”

Indeed, taking Psalm 119 as a guide for prayer and meditation would keep one going for several weeks, even months.

What countless ills in our modern society stem from a marginalizing of God’s Word in our society? How many personal and family issues could be resolved in a godly way by each individual applying the teachings of Scripture in humility and faithfulness?

Counting the Omer is a season of weeks in which we are called to remember that though heaven and earth pass away, the revelation of the Living God, His inestimable Words of truth and light, will never, ever pass away.

In Tune with Torah this week = take a fresh look at the Scriptures, approaching them as if you were receiving this gift for the very first time. Ask God to open your mind to His revelation, to grant you understanding and the accompanying grace to put into practice all that you learn from these sacred pages.

Shabbat Shalom