Weekly Torah Commentary – Chaya Sarah November 10, 2017

Torah reading: Genesis 23:1-25:18

Haftorah reading:  I Kings: 1-31

Moses writes, “Now Sarah lived one hundred and twenty-seven years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. Sarah died in Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan; and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.”  Genesis 23:1-2

As commentators over the centuries have noted, Sarah is the only woman in the Bible whose age at the time of her death is revealed. At 127 she is no young woman. But the death of Sarah would have seemed untimely because of her apparent youthfulness. Even at the age of ninety she was a woman attractive enough to catch the eye of King Abimelech (20:1-2). Was she the original Mrs. Oil of Olay? Her youthfulness and beauty would have certainly concealed the fact that death was coming upon her.

Abraham mourned and wept, meaning that in addition to the crying he went through the traditional mourning customs of his day: tearing clothes, cutting his beard, spreading dust on his head, and spending the seven days of mourning which have been traditional in the Middle East from the most ancient times. We read in Genesis 50 that when Jacob died and was buried in Hebron, his family mourned him for another 7 days. This tradition is still followed today in Jewish homes around the world.

Sarahdies

Genesis 23:2 is the first record of a man’s tears in the Bible. It is fitting that it should be a husband weeping and mourning over the death of his loyal wife of 60 years. It is remarkable that this is the only time we are ever told that Abraham wept. He had been through so many bitter disappointments and heartaches in his life: He was disappointed when Lot left him (13:5-12). He was heartbroken when he sent Ishmael away (21:9-14). He was devastated when he had to offer Isaac (22:1-10). But the only time the Scriptures reveal that he wept was when Sarah died. This reveals the depth of his grief and love for this woman.

The death of a loved one has always been a time to think about eternal realities. Ecclesiastes 7:2 says, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, because that is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart.” In light of this eventuality, two of the most profound and beneficial questions I think we can ask ourselves are:

(1) How do you want to be remembered at your funeral?

(2) What steps do you need to take for that to happen?

Abraham recognized and believed that God’s promises are still in the future. Sarah’s death may well have reminded him that there were still others of God’s promises for him to receive.  He could also have been reminded that his death may not be very far away for he was older than Sarah.

This could have been be a deeply trying moment for Abraham’s faith. Yet the scripture demonstrates that he continued to believe faithfully for the future and act accordingly, despite many difficulties. He expected God to fulfill every one of His promises whether he lived to see them all come to pass or not.

In this way, Abraham serves as an example to every generation since. We must have  faith for the future; we must have a confidence in God that goes beyond even this life for the fulfillment of His promises.  This is the faith that waits expectantly for the coming of Messiah.

In 23:3-6, Moses writes, “Then Abraham rose from before his dead, and spoke to the sons of Heth, saying, ‘I am a stranger and a sojourner among you; give me a burial site among you that I may bury my dead out of my sight.’ The sons of Heth answered Abraham, saying to him, ‘Hear us, my lord, you are a mighty prince among us; bury your dead in the choicest of our graves; none of us will refuse you his grave for burying your dead.’” Abraham’ first words are “I am a stranger and a sojourner among you” (cf. Lev 25:23; 1 Chron 29:14-15; Ps 39:12).

Abraham refers to himself as a ‘stranger’ and a ‘sojourner’ because he realized that Canaan was not his final home. He was living for his future home beyond the grave in the world to come. Eternal life in the presence of God was a reality that dictated how he lived – by faith.  The prophet Habakkuk echoed Abraham’s guiding principle when he wrote: The just shall live by faith. (Habakkuk 2:4)

Notice that the sons of Heth call Abraham “a mighty prince among us.” Apparently, Abraham’s influence counted for something.

How do you want to be remembered?

In Tune with Torah this week =  Are you so caught up with your life here and now that you don’t live with eternity in view? Our goal in this life is not to build up a sizable estate, but to live our life as a pilgrim on the way to our true home, the world which is to come.

Does your life influence others towards God? Or are you on a spiritual auto-pilot?

Are you stuck in a spiritual rut, doing what you’ve been doing for years but not demonstrating in your daily life that God is alive to you, that you are passionate about Him and seek His presence?

There is an old saying that people will drive from all over to see a fire burn. The same is true in regard to our congregational and personal lives: If we are allowing God to work in our lives, people will drive from all over to see someone on fire for God.

Why shouldn’t it be you?

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayeira November 3, 2017

Torah reading:  Genesis 18:1 – 22:24

Haftorah reading: 2 Kings 4: 1-37

This week’s Torah reading has a profound message for us right now in November 2017.  Across the world we see turmoil and chaos increasing at an alarming rate. Scandals, hate speech, racism and other factors consume the news media and become the topic of heated – sometimes vicious – exchanges on social media.

Abrahamintercedes

While we may admire Abraham’s hospitality in this week’s reading, I think there is something else that displays a high degree of spirituality and maturity in the Patriarch. The brilliance of Abraham’s character is seen in his intercession with the Lord for the sparing of the righteous in Sodom.

The Lord and the two angels made their way down toward Sodom, escorted part way by Abraham. It would seem that the Lord turned to the two angels as He asked, almost rhetorically,

… Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? For I have chosen him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; in order that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him” (Genesis 18:17b-19) .

The intimacy of the relationship between God and Abraham served as the motivation for God’s disclosure of His purposes for Sodom. Further, the Abrahamic Covenant provided the foundation on which that relationship was based. In verse 19 the necessity for Abraham’s faith to be communicated and continued by his offspring is stressed.

In contrast to the faithfulness of Abraham’s descendants is the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah.

And the Lord said, ‘The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave. I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know’ (Genesis 18:20-21).

Verses 20 and 21 dramatically portray the sin of Sodom and the righteous response of a holy God to it. The sin of the city is so great that it virtually cries out to heaven for retribution. God’s personal interest and focused attention is depicted as ‘going down’ to deal with it. God is not ‘going down’ to learn the facts, but to take personal interest in them and to invade the situation. So it is that Abraham discerned that God was about to destroy the city, although it was not stated specifically.

The two angels went on toward Sodom, leaving the LORD and Abraham alone, overlooking the city (19:27,28). While speaking reverently, Abraham manifested a boldness with God never seen before.

And Abraham came near and said, ‘Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt Thou indeed sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from Thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from Thee! Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?’ (Genesis 18:23-25).

Abraham’s appeal is based on the justice of God.  He recognizes the evil in the city but his thoughts turn to the possibility of righteous people in the midst of it. Certainly he was concerned for his nephew, Lot and Lot’s family, but at the same time, Abraham also understood God’s mercy and his appeal may well expose his hope that if the city were spared because of the few righteous, perhaps the wicked might yet come to faith in God.

Abraham boldly asserts that it is against God’s nature to treat the righteous and the wicked in the same way.  Therefore, if a sufficient number of righteous could be found in Sodom, there is every reason for God to spare the city from destruction.

The LORD entertains Abraham’s plea and the bargaining begins.  How many righteous will it take?

God agreed to spare the city if 50 righteous could be found (verse 26). Abraham must have doubted that such a number could be found, and so he began to plead for a lower figure.

And Abraham answered and said, ‘Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord, although I am but dust and ashes. Suppose the fifty righteous are lacking five, wilt Thou destroy the whole city because of five?’ And He said, ‘I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there’ (Genesis 18:27-28).

From here, Abraham was encouraged to attempt to further reduce the minimum number of righteous required to spare Sodom. First it was 40, then 30, then 20, and finally 10. We almost sigh with relief here, for one might fear that God would lose His patience with Abraham. Personally, I believe the heart of God was warmed by Abraham’s compassion and zeal. This was no selfish petition, but intercession for others.

Why, then, did Abraham stop with ten? Why would he not have gone on to five or even one? Some may think that he did not dare to press God farther. Perhaps so, but I do not believe that Abraham would have ceased until he were confident that Lot and his family were safe from the wrath of God.

As we know from chapter 19 Abraham’s hopes exceeded reality. This would have resulted in tragedy were it not for a great divine truth: God’s grace always exceeds our expectations.

In the final analysis there were only three righteous in Sodom, Lot and his two daughters. Some might well question the righteousness of the daughters from their actions in the next chapter. However, God did comply with Abraham’s petition. While He did not spare the city of Sodom, He did spare Lot and his daughters.

In Tune with Torah this week = in our day, nation after nation across the world is in turmoil.  Scandals, riots, violence and chaos are regular items in the daily media.  In the midst of a broken society, what are the children of Abraham to do?

Abraham, our father, is our example.

You will notice that Abraham did not spend precious time denouncing the wickedness of  Sodom.  It was obvious enough and needed no further commentary.  Abraham turned to the only One who held out any hope for a remedy.

Never underestimate the power of prayer.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Lech Lecha November 1, 2014

Breishit/Genesis 12 – 17

The opening words of this week’s reading are among the more well known Torah verses. They describe God’s call to Abram to leave his native land and to travel to a Land that the Lord will show him. God gives to Abram a powerful promise which includes these remarkable words: I will bless those who bless you and I will curse those who curse you. And in you, all the families of the earth will be blessed.

Torah records that Abram took his wife, Sarai and his nephew Lot, along with all their accumulated possessions and began the trek to his new home.

Abram passed through the land as far as the site of Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. Now the Canaanite was then in the land. The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your descendants I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD who had appeared to him. Then he proceeded from there to the mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the LORD and called upon the name of the LORD.

Abram has now arrived in the promised Land and experiences the first visitation from God WITHIN the Land. What is His reaction? To build an altar to the Lord; in other words, to erect a permanent monument to His first encounter with the Almighty inside the borders of Canaan.

Abram moved on from there a bit and pitched his tent. Now he wasn’t just camping! His tent was his home, albeit a rather impermanent, unstable ‘home’ from our perspective. But in that day and culture, it was indeed ‘home’. The tent would have been large and well decorated. We’ve already seen that Abram and Sarai brought their possessions with them and we know that Abram was a rich man, so it’s safe to assume that this tent was luxurious by the standards of that day. All that being said, however, it was still a tent!

Note the word: ‘pitched’ One cannot ‘build’ a tent; one can only ‘pitch’ a tent. Easy up, easy down!

So what happened next? Did they just camp out, chill out and revel in the fact that they’d arrived at the Land of Promise? Not exactly!

A simple geography check lets us know that Abram pitched his tent between two hills. On the first stood the altar he had already built; after pitching his tent, he then built a second altar opposite the first one on a second elevated area to honor the Lord who had called him and brought him thus far.

Altars built of stone are considered permanent; they are designed to be lasting testimonials to a miracle, or a promise, or a covenant. Large stone altars can still be seen today in Israel that date back thousands of years.

As Abram sought to follow God’s call on his life, he did something that inspires us to this day. He ‘built’ altars and ‘pitched’ tents. What does that mean?

He gave permanent and lasting value to that which honored God and would continue to do so after he was gone – altars. He ascribed temporary value to that which had temporary existence – tents.

How often have we in our own lives ‘built’ tents and ‘pitched’ altars instead? Just the opposite of what he did!

We invest great effort and finances in that which has only a temporary existence – the things of our earthly lifespan; and too little effort and finances in that which is eternal – our spiritual life and growth. Father Abraham would certainly chide us about our priorities!

In Tune with Torah this week = a priority check is in order. A psychologist friend once told me that we can discern what our heart is most attached to but tracking our thoughts. How often do thoughts of God, eternity, words of Torah, development of virtues, etc. occupy our mind? Or, to be honest, do we spend too much of our waking hours consumed with worry and anxiety over our bank accounts, our future, the house we want to buy, the car we prefer to drive, and all the other multitudinous physical possessions that often become more of a burden than a blessing? The question to ask ourselves this weekend is this one: What is my heart attached to the most? This life or eternal life to come?

Shabbat Shalom