Weekly Torah Commentary – Shoftim September 9, 2016

Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

When [the king] is established on his royal throne, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this Torah … It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to be in awe of the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not feel superior to his brethren or turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time in the midst of Israel. (Deut. 17:18-20)

In these verses, the queen of all virtues is highlighted: ‘[he] shall not feel superior to his brethren’. 

Many people have misconceptions about humility. To be humble is not about beating yourself up or letting other people put you down.  It is not low self-esteem, nor is it the opposite of confidence. In fact, only the truly humble person thinks and acts with confidence because he understands his utter dependence on the goodness of God.

Humility is not just a virtue; it is the root of all other virtues.  A lack of humility is at the root of every character defect and failure for it is the ego [pride] that causes us to choose our own way and our own opinion over God’s.

In this regard, we do well to remember Isaiah’s warning:  ‘My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts, says the LORD. And My ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so My ways are higher than your ways and My thoughts, higher than your thoughts.’  Isaiah 55:8-9

The seemingly insignificant events of daily life are the tests of our humility.  It is in the simple things of every day that our humility – or the lack thereof – is demonstrated.  You see, it is not enough to assume a humble countenance before God in times of prayer.  Humility before God is proven in our interactions with our fellowman.  This is why the king of Israel is commanded to keep God’s Word with him at all times and to meditate on it continually.

The ‘Me’ in all of us is a tyrannical, demanding person. It will always want the highest place amidst others and feel indignant or ‘wounded’ if another is preferred over ourselves. Nothing dies harder than our tendency to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. By contrast, the humble person is easily able to rejoice when others are honored and generous in giving praise where praise is rightly due.  He is not jealous nor is he threatened by the achievements and success of another.

Humility is essential to faith. For what is biblical faith?  The utter confidence that there is a God in the heavens who loves and cares for us and has created us with a purpose and a destiny.  Faith is quiet but immovable confidence in His covenant and His goodness. By its very nature, faith demands humility.

Strong intellectual convictions without humility in the heart lead to arrogance and attitudes of superiority.  Did not the prophet Micah remind us: O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and what He requires of you. To do justice, to love righteousness and to walk humbly with your God Micah 6:8

If a king or leader, whom all are taught to honor and respect, is commanded to be humble – “not feel superior to his brethren” – how much more so the rest of us. Moses, the great leader of the Jewish people, was “very humble, more so than anyone on the face of the earth” Num. 12: 3?

We have just entered the Hebrew month of Elul; thirty days of preparation for the great Festival of Trumpets which this year begins at sundown on October 3rd.  Elul is the month of repentance, of pausing to take an internal inventory.  How have we progressed spiritually in the past year? In great measure, the answer to that question is founded on how we have grown in humility – or not.  For it is out of the humble heart that spirituality flourishes.

In Tune with Torah this week = as we search our hearts in preparation for Yom Teruah, the Festival of the Blowing of the Shofar, also called Rosh Hashana, the issue is not so much to analyze each outward deed but to get to the heart of the matter – is the root of my personal behavior self-focused or God-focused?  Self-serving or God-serving? Prideful or humble?

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Re-eh September 2, 2016

 

This week’s jam-packed portion opens with these words: “I set before you a blessing and a curse. The blessing: if you obey the commandments of God…; the curse if you do not … and you follow other gods.”

It continues with rules and laws for the land of Israel primarily oriented towards staying away from idol worship and from embracing the other religions in the land.

The source of the Chosen People concept is found in 14:1-2: “You are a nation consecrated to God your Lord. God has chosen you from all nations on the face of the earth to be His own special nation.”  We have been chosen for responsibility, not privilege — to act morally and to be a “light unto the nations”. As descendants of Abraham through Isaac, we are first and foremost to be a people of Faith in the One True God, the Holy One of Israel.

The Torah states, “For if you shall diligently keep all these commandments which I command you to do them, to love the Lord, your God, to walk in all His ways and to cleave to Him…” (Deuteronomy 11:22). How does one “cleave to the Almighty?”

The Torah tells us that even someone who appears to be highly observant of the commandments and loves God, must show in his behavior and interactions with others that he is an imitator of God (“to walk in all His ways”). Only then can a person be considered as one who cleaves to Him. Emulating God means being compassionate and bestowing kindness on others. As He is merciful so we should be merciful, as He bestows kindness, so we should bestow kindness. One might think that a person who loves God need only devote himself to prayer and Torah study and by this means he will cleave to God. We see from this verse, however, that an essential ingredient in cleaving to God is caring about our fellow man.

It is by truly caring about others (you shall love your neighbor as yourself) that we show ourselves to be godly.

It is noteworthy that this portion of the Torah is read just before the onset of the Hebrew month of Elul which will begin at sundown tomorrow. Elul, when spelled in Hebrew letters, is the acronym for the words, “I am to my beloved, my beloved is to me” (ani l’dodi v’dodi li) Oftentimes those words will be inscribed on the inside of an engagement ring).

ShofarElul

The month of Elul is a time of heightened spirituality when the Almighty is, as it were, extends grace for repentance in a unique way. It is a time of introspection and preparation for Rosh Hashanah. It is a time to do a spiritual audit and to commit to making whatever changes necessary to deepen your connection with Him. 

In Tune with Torah this week = as we approach the month of Elul, let us take very seriously the admonition to use this coming month as an opportunity to do a true “check up from the neck up” – to examine ourselves and our thought life as it is our thoughts that give birth to our words and our behaviors. How are we doing at loving others as we love ourselves, for example? This is the month to search our own souls and determine to grow in godliness in the new Hebrew year, 5777, which will begin on October 3, 2016.

Shabbat shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Nitzavim September 11, 2015

Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20

This week’s portion is always read in close proximity to Rosh Hashana. Rosh Hashana – the Feast of Trumpets – begins at sundown Sunday evening and continues through sundown on Tuesday.

During this season, teshuva (“return to God”) is the main focus and verses from this week’s reading reflect that.

And it shall come to pass, when all these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you shall return to your heart [while in exile] among all the nations, where the Lord your God has driven you. And you shall return unto the Lord your God, and shall obey his voice according to all that I command you this day, you and your children, with all your heart, and with all your soul…. And you shall return and obey the voice of the Lord, and do all his commandments which I command you this day. And the Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in every work of your hand, in the fruit of your body, and in the fruit of your cattle, and in the fruit of your land, for good; for the Lord will again rejoice over you for good, as he rejoiced over your fathers. If you shall listen to the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes which are written in this book of the Torah, and if you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul. (Deut. 30:1-10)

While the season leading up to the fall Festivals of the Lord has a heavy emphasis on self-examination for purposes of repentance, let us not make the mistake of getting stuck in the past. The priority of repentance is to catapult us into a better tomorrow!
We repent for failures in order to walk more closely with God. This is the message of the Feast of Trumpets.

We are living in critical times. There are many voices in both the Jewish and Christian communities urging us to prepare for the coming of Messiah. Some who hear will scoff; others may dismiss it with a cynical ‘I’ve heard that before’ kind of attitude. The reality is that the appointed festivals detailed in Leviticus are and have always been important signposts on God’s calendar of redemptive history and should not be taken lightly.

Rosh Hashana is the annual reminder that life is a journey and every journey has a destination. One day each of us will stand before the heavenly Throne to give account of what we have done with the gifts and blessings we received during our life on earth.

Life is also a test. The pattern was set with the first two human beings, Adam and Eve. What was the test in the Garden of Eden? It wasn’t about eating a piece of fruit! Rather, in God’s command to refrain from eating the fruit of the Tree of knowledge of good and evil was the implicit question to Adam and Eve: Do you believe that I, Your Creator, have your best interests at heart? Or do you think you know better?

It was fundamentally a test of Faith.

It still is.

Rosh Hashana is a ‘mini’ judgment day, as it were. It is the time to judge ourselves at and ask: Do I really trust God? Am I persuaded that He is what the Scriptures tell me He is – my King, my Father, my Redeemer, my Provider, my Wisdom, my Rock and my Strength? Do I need to repent for leaning on my own limited understanding? The wise King Solomon warned against that when he wrote: Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not to your own understanding. Proverbs 3:5 And the Psalmist declared: It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man. Psalm 118:8

If repentance locks you in the past, you’ve missed the point. Repentance is not an end in itself; it’s the door to a new beginning.

In Tune with Torah this week = Stop looking at your past life and instead focus your sights on where you are going. Keep pressing on to fulfilling the purpose for which the God of Israel put you on this earth.

May you and your family be abundantly blessed during this season of the Lord’s festivals.
May we all draw closer to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in this new year and walk more diligently in His ways.

Shana Tova v’ metuka! (May you have a good and sweet year.)

Shabbat Shalom

Torah Commentary – Rosh Hashana September 24-26, 2015

At sundown this evening, September 24th, Jews around the world will pause; the women will light the holiday candles and the family will gather for a celebratory meal to usher in the new Hebrew year, 5775.

Someone asked, “If Rosh Hashana is the annual day of Judgment, why do we celebrate it?”

The answer is fundamental to a personal relationship with God which is precisely what He desires with all of us.

I liken Rosh Hashana to the corporate “annual review”. Once a year, God conducts an “annual review” of each of us. What have we done with the blessings and challenges that have come our way in the past year? Have we grown from them? Have we learned valuable lessons? Have we progressed in holiness?

Has our lifestyle of the past year shown the kind of promise that will move God to invest even more in us during the year to come? Good question!

The day of judgment, Rosh Hashana, is for our benefit, not for God’s. Through it, our Father in heaven demonstrates that He cares about everything we do and say. We are so important to Him that He, like a father tracking his child’s progress, constantly watches us. He is concerned with our every move. We are the beings endowed with choice and with the responsibility to shape the world into a better place. On Rosh Hashana we are reminded that every little thing we do matters to Him.

Is there any better reason to celebrate the Day of Judgment? We rejoice that our God cares deeply about our actions and our words. We delight in the fact that our lives have significance.

Indifference is the worst type of treatment in any relationship. Ask any marriage therapist and he’ll tell you that as long as a couple is still fighting, there’s still some life in the marriage. It’s when indifference sets in that the end is inevitable. So too, the fact that God personally cares about all of our actions, for good and for bad, means He loves us.

The danger of “religion”is the tendency to substitute a personal relationship with mechanical outward observances. That is not to say that observances are intrinsically wrong – not at all. What’s wrong is when they become the essence of our relationship with the Almighty and little to no attention is paid to developing a personal love relationship with Him. It is out of such a relationship that observances should flow.

Imagine for a moment a wife who keeps the house spotless, cooks delicious meals, does the laundry promptly and cares for the material needs of her children but never – ever – takes an evening or an afternoon to spend time just with her husband, talking with him, sharing with him, listening to him and devoting her energy to deepening their bond. Her “performance” is flawless but I guarantee you that if that is all there is to the marriage, the love that once was there will grow stone cold.

So it is with God. Yes, He desires our obedience to His commandments but not like robots. In fact, the prophets rebuked Israel at times for observing the festivals while their hearts were far from God.
The prophet Isaiah wrote:“This people honors Me with their lips but their heart is far from me.”

As we enter into Rosh Hashana, ask yourself: ‘How is my personal, private relationship with my Father, my King? Do I speak with Him every day in my own words? Do I turn to Him for guidance and wisdom? For understanding and direction? Is He on my mind as I go about my days? Can I truly say that He is my Best Friend as well as my Father, my Redeemer, my King, my Rock and my Fortress?

During the Ten Days of Repentance, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we have a special period of time to zone in on these very questions. What have I done with what God invested in me during the past year? Have I given Him a ‘return’ on investment? Have I grown closer to Him? Have I been kinder to my family?
Have I been a little less selfish than I was the previous year?

My prayer for all of us is that we will understand God’s personal love and care and recognize that His “annual review” (judgment) on Rosh Hashana is a beautiful blessing.

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In Tune with Torah this week = pondering our own spiritual state, repenting as needed and resolving to enter then new Hebrew year with a commitment to serve Him and our fellowman from a pure heart.

As we say in Hebrew: Shana Tova u Metuka – May you have a good and sweet year!

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Weekly Torah Commentary – Nitzavim-Vayelech Sept. 18, 2014

Nitzavim/Vayelech Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30

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.

This key verse in the Torah reading for the last Shabbat before Rosh Hashana emphasizes God’s gift to us of free choice; the ability to choose between life and good or death and evil. Free choice is the fundamental human trait that enables us to serve God effectively.

The choice between good and evil is familiar to us all. Though morality has suffered decline in many contemporary societies, nevertheless, good and evil are fairly well recognized and our choice to do good and avoid evil is evident.

However,in the verse cited above, we are also given the ability to choose between life and death. At first glance that seems a bit strange. Other than those embroiled in terrorist philosophies, who would choose death? Why did God feel it necessary to command us to “choose life…”

When the Torah speaks of ‘death’ we need to understand that it is not referring solely to the state of no longer being alive on this earth. God is warning us against what death represents. Perhaps the easiest way to grasp this concept is to take a closer look at ‘life’.

Life in the Torah is much more than breathing; life is a journey, a process of growing into a spiritually mature person, developing moral character and becoming a viable ‘ambassador’ of God’s presence in the world. He created us in His image and His likeness; life is about growing into that very image and likeness so that people would learn what God is like by knowing you.

Being spiritually alive is about taking responsibility; facing challenges and problems and through them becoming better rather than bitter. That being the case, we can deduce that ‘choosing death’ is related to irresponsibility, laziness in dealing with issues, rejecting discipline and hard work and failing to mature. To live ‘spiritually dead’ is to choose comfort over effort, an easy life over a life full of challenge and growth.

We must also realize that choosing ‘death’ also impacts the way we serve God. Obeying His commandments and statutes mechanically or routinely without seeking an ever more intimate relationship with Him quickly degenerates into ‘dead’ religion. The greatest commandment is this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your resources.” Every action, every good deed, every choice to obey God’s Word becomes powerless if not flowing from a heart of devoted love for the God of heaven.

This message is particularly appropriate as we approach Rosh Hashanah in the coming week. On these Holy days we are not only judged on our words, deeds and choices during the past year, we also face an evaluation on who we are as individuals.

It is possible to live an essentially lazy, comfortable life in a ‘religious’ way; following rules, traditions and customs on the outside without a flow of love pouring out of the heart. As we approach Rosh Hashana, the call to our souls is for an authentic spiritual connection that teaches us how to live from a position of overflowing grateful love towards God day by day.

In Tune with Torah this week = on this last Shabbat before Rosh Hashana, it behooves us all to seriously examine ourselves, not with endless questions and lists but with one simple thought: am I closer to God now than I was last year at this time? Am I following Him more nearly than I was last year?

Shabbat Shalom to all of you.

If you’re looking for a Rosh Hashana gift for a friend or family member, allow me to recommend the volume entitled IN TUNE WITH TORAH, a collection of past year’s commentaries on the Torah.

Click here:

Rosh Hashana 5774 Begins at sundown, September 4, 2013

As we approach the beginning of a new Hebrew year, 5774, I wanted to wish all of you “L’Shana Tova u’Metuka” – A good and a sweet year.

I also wanted to share with you the following intriguing facts related to the year we are about to enter. Several authorities believe this is more than just interesting, but deserves some prayerful and thoughtful consideration. What might the God of Israel be wanting His people to understand about this New Year? Read and ponder.

CURIOUS FACTS ABOUT THIS ROSH HASHANA 5774

1) the last time Rosh Hashanah began as early as September 5th was 1899.

2) The last time Rosh Hashanah fell on September 5th
a) an 8.3 earthquake shook Yakatut bay, Alaska,
b) the Great Blizzard of 1899 pounded South Florida with snow,
c) Queens and Staten Island became part of New York City,
d) the Bronx Zoo opened,
e) voting machines were okay’d for US federal elections,
f) the paperclip and Bayer aspirin were patented,
g) fighting in Afghanistan continued to rage (then it was the British but sadly some things never change).

3) The Jewish calendar works on a 19 year cycle adding a 13th month (Adar 2) in years 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 17 and 19. This is year 17 of that cycle and represents the longest possible year in the Jewish calendar: 385 days. The Jewish calendar is based primarily on the lunar cycle, and makes these adjustments in order to keep the holidays in sync with with solar seasons.

This keeps Passover in the spring and Sukkot in the fall. While it is not uncommon for the calendar to add a month during these leap years or for the holidays to be “early” or “late”, what is different this year is the extreme “earliness” in relation to the secular calendar.

4)It will be another 76 years (2089) until Rosh Hashanah comes this early again, in the Jewish counting 5850.

5) This year the first night of Hanukkah and the American Thanksgiving holiday are on the same day! This is the first time that this has happened since President Lincoln originally established Thanksgiving in 1863 and it is also the last time it will happen until the year 79,811; in other words, after this year, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving Day won’t overlap for another 77,798 years!

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What is the likelihood of this many different facts converging in this new year about to begin?

We’d love to hear back from you. Share your musings about it by writing us or leaving a comment below.

May you all be abundantly blessed in this new – and longest – year on the Hebrew calendar!

L’Shana Tova