Weekly Torah Commentary — Bamidbar & Shavuot May 22, 2015

Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

This week we begin a new book of the Torah, the Book of Numbers, so-called because of the extensive census taken of the children of Israel. However, in Hebrew it is known as Bamidbar, which literally means “in the desert.”

Commentaries abound on the spiritual meaning of the desert and ‘desert experiences’ in spirituality. In the Torah, one figure stands out as the powerful example of such experiences.

We find a man with an advanced knowledge of science, literature, and military tactics living on the backside of the desert with his father-in-law, raising a couple of boys and watching over a flock of sheep that did not even belong to him.

Moses entered the desert at the age of forty and didn’t leave until he was eighty. So during the span of life most people consider as the most productive years, Moses tended sheep as an unknown, humbled servant. The first forty years he was nursed by his mother and educated in the courts of Pharaoh. The second forty years he spent in the desert working for his father-in-law while being taught by God and the final forty years he fulfilled his life’s purpose: to lead the children of Israel out of slavery.

One commentator made the insightful remark: Moses spent his first forty years thinking he was somebody; spent his next forty years finding out he was a nobody and his final forty years discovering what God can do with a nobody.”

The proverbial ‘desert experience’ is discussed in many spiritual writings and Torah commentaries, but at its heart is this simple message: the desert is the place of encounter with the living God.

Sometimes God has to take us through a barren wilderness experience places to teach us what we need to learn. He set the pattern with the children of Israel. Your wilderness may not be a literal desert but a time of loneliness or inner doubt; it may be a period of new challenge, a struggle with unknowns, the trauma of an unexpected tragedy which plunges you into a depression or prolonged self-pity. Each desert experience is tailor made for the individual whom God desires to prune, as the gardener does a tree in order that it may become more fruitful.

When faced with our own ‘wilderness’ we can react in three ways. 1) “What did I ever do to deserve this? I don’t need it!” My spouse may need it, my sister may need it, my neighbor may need it, but I certainly do not!” (A little humility needed perhaps???)

2) “I’m tired of it.” No matter how long we may have been in a desert experience it always seems too long. But if it’s less than Moses’ forty years, count yourself blessed when you feel like saying, “I’m tired of dealing with this person, this situation, this circumstance. I’ve had it! I’m done!” (Have you noticed that God is never ‘done’ when you are???)

3) The response that God is waiting to hear is: “Here I am. What do you want me to learn?”

Principle – God never does anything without a purpose. God put Moses through a forty year course in the wilderness so he would know how to lead a whole nation through a similar wilderness.

But you may ask: Why does God lead us through desert places at all? Is it really necessary?

Moses himself tells us that it is in order that God can humble us, and test us, that the true condition of our heart might be revealed. It is not so that God can know us, He already does; it so that we can know ourselves. In Deuteronomy 8:2 says, “And you shall remember that the LORD your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.”

Our ‘desert’ seasons impart life lessons we can learn nowhere else. In the desert, God taught Moses how to deal with past failures and painful memories. As Moses marched off into the desert Moses may have believed that God could not, would not ever use him again. God used those years to teach Moses how to forgive himself. Can you imagine what the 40 years guiding the whole nation of Israel through the wilderness would have been like if Moses had not learn to first forgive himself so that could forgive others?

Another very important lesson that God taught Moses in the “School of the Desert” was how to handle monotony, how to wait on God and not give up. You see, frustrating as it may seem to me and to you, God is not at all concerned with our concept of time! He has no obligation to conform to our timetable; it is we who must conform to His!

In Tune with Torah this week = If you find yourself in “God’s School of the Desert” don’t despair. God has some things that He wants you to learn so that you can become the person He sees you can be. The ‘desert’ is the place to put the past in the past and move on; the place to stop running from one dead end to another and to wait until God leads you out.

This Sunday we celebrate the Festival of Shavuot or Pentecost. The ultimate purpose of leading the children of Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness was that they should arrive at Mt. Sinai to experience the singularly profound moment of God’s descent on the mountain to deliver to them through Moses the Torah of life.

This weekend is an especially important time to renew our love for and re-dedicate ourselves to the study of God’s Word. May we all experience a fresh outpouring of His Divine Presence as we remember the events of Shavuot/Pentecost!

Shabbat Shalom

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

Weekly Torah Commentary — Bamidbar May 23, 2014

BAMIDBAR/NUMBERS 1:1 – 4:20

This week we begin reading the fourth book of the Torah. Numbers” is the name by which the fourth of the Five Books of Moses is commonly called in English Bibles, but in the Hebrew original it is known as Bamidbar, or “In the Wilderness.” Of particular interest is the fact that this is the Torah portion always precedes the Festival of Shavuot, the celebration of the giving of the Torah. Why is that?

We know that Israel is called to be a ‘light to the nations’; we are called to ‘be holy as I am holy, says the Lord’, Consequently, Shavuot is not just a celebration of an historical event, not just a remembrance of that awesome day when God Himself descended on Mt. Sinai and gave us His Torah. As great as that is, Shavuot is more than that.

God could have chosen to give the Torah to Avraham. He didn’t. He could have given it to Jacob and his twelve sons. He didn’t. He could have given it in the holy city of Jerusalem. He didn’t. He chose the wilderness, the desert, as the suitable place for this awesome event.

THe desert is a no-man’s land. It is ownerless and barren. Just as a desert is empty and desolate, so does each of us need to know that we are but an “empty vessel.” Humility is an essential character if we are to successfully absorb the divine wisdom in the words of Torah – and those of the prophets as well.

As long as we are full of ourselves and our preconceived notions, we will not be able to integrate the essence and spirit of the Torah into our hearts and lives. Even when we think we know a good deal about the sacred writings, the truth is, as the old proverb describes, “the older I get, the less I know” or as one of the Sages wrote, “as much as you know, you are still an undeveloped wilderness.”

Another reason we can consider to answer the question, Why did God give the Torah in the desert?, is that an ownerless wilderness is open to anyone. No person or group of people has a monopoly on Torah. It belongs to each and every single Jew, not just the rabbis or the yeshivah students, or the religiously observant. “The Torah that Moses commanded us is the heritage of the entire Congregation of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4). Add to that, the multitudes of descendants of Jewish ancestry that in our day are making their way home; those described in the prophet Ezekiel, as the ‘house of Israel’ are being reunited with the ‘house of Judah’ though they have lived as Gentiles because of past generations’ assimilation under persecution. It is an astonishing and inspiring phenomenon as we today witness, for example, literally thousands of descendants of the generation of the Inquisition in Spain, Portugal and France, re-connecting to that holy spark of their ancestors and returning to the Torah, for the Torah is also theirs.

While we acknowledge that there is much hard work ahead of us if we are to acquire the Torah and make it ours, we also know that with diligence and effort we can succeed. Some of Judaism’s finest Torah scholars throughout the generations have emerged from the simple, ordinary folks; shepherds, tailors, cobblers and the like.

Now, while this holy Torah, given in the wilderness, is available to all, it is those who embrace it with love, who let go of preconceived notions and attitudes, and the inclination to ‘pick and choose’ among the commandments, who progressively discover a living relationship with the God of Israel, the joy of which is un-equalled by any other relationship or experience. Rightly did David cry out, “In Your presence is fulness of joy; at Your right hand, are pleasures for evermore.” Psalm 16:11

For this, in fact, is the heart of Shavuot: that the the God of Israel ‘married’ the people of Israel and the Ketubah (marriage contract) is the Torah. The Torah was NOT given to establish a religious system, contrary to what some may think. The Torah was given to establish a living, breathing, pulsing, joyful and intimate relationship between God and His people.

This statement does not in any way demean Judaism as a religion; rather, it is intended to highlight the GOAL of Judaism – to provide a framework where His chosen people, learning and living according to the Torah, would become a community, a nation, that would demonstrate the incomparable beauty of a living relationship with the Almighty. To observe the mitzvot and the traditions of Judaism without the inner, personal relationship with God misses the mark entirely.

As Maimonides has commented on this verse: Behold, I have take the Levites from amongst the children of Israel… and the Levites shall be Mine (3:12)

“Not only the tribe of Levi, but any man of all the inhabitants of the earth whose spirit has moved him and whose mind has given him to understand to set himself aside to stand before G-d to serve Him, to worship Him, to know G-d and walk justly as G-d has created him, and he casts from his neck the yoke of the many calculations that men seek–this man has become sanctified, a holy of holies, and G-d shall be his portion and his lot forever, and shall merit him his needs in this world, as He has merited the Kohanim and the Levites.”

In Tune with Torah this week = may the very title of this week’s reading, “Bamidabar/the Wilderness”, and the significance of it which we have briefly discussed, give us ample food for thought as we prepare ourselves for the upcoming Festival of Shavuot, which will be observed from sundown, June 3 through sundown, June 4th. May we embrace the Torah anew with joy and earnestness, so that this important festival will be both memorable and meaningful.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — EMOR April 25, 2014

EMOR Vayikra/Leviticus 21:1 – 24:3

And you shall count for yourselves from the morrow after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the omer of the wave offering; seven complete Sabbaths shall there be: to the morrow after the seventh Sabbath shall you number fifty days and you shall offer a new meal offering to the Lord. (Leviticus 23:15-16)

We are presently in the process of obeying this commandment as we are in the days of the counting of the Omer, which leads up to the festival of Shavuot, the day of the giving of the Torah.

Why would God, in remembrance of Pesach (Passover), command us to number or count these forty-nine days? The simple answer is that God wants us to realize the exodus out of Egypt was more than just the liberation of the Hebrew slaves. The exodus was directly connected to their arrival at Mount Sinai and to the receiving of the Torah on the fiftieth day.

The Israelites had been weakened physically, emotionally, and spiritually by the Egyptians. The years of backbreaking labor had taken a physical toll on the people. It was hard for them to keep an emotional balance while living in slavery. Understandably, there were emotions of hatred, bitterness, anger, and frustration. Spiritually they had been battered by the paganism of Egypt and their thousands of gods.

Their belief in the One True God had been passed down to them by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and his sons. No doubt, among many of the people, there was a wavering of this belief because of the severity of their conditions.

The word for Egypt in Hebrew is “mitzrayim.” The root meaning of this word is ‘boundaries and limitations’. Thus, in Egypt there was an oppressive and restrictive atmosphere that hung over the Israelites. The Egyptians restrained the Israelites’ freedom of movement and their freedom of expression.

As the children of Israel left Egypt, they were freed from their oppressive constraints. They now had to shed their emotional baggage as well to prepare for the monumental experience of receiving the Torah. This meant that negative emotions; such as, hatred, bitterness, anger, and frustration had to be replaced with the positive emotions of love, compassion, benevolence, harmony, and humility, to name a few.

We know the rest of the story. The Israelites did make it to Mount Sinai and they did receive the Torah; however, it was not without some major bumps along the way. There were complaints over water, food, and a major complaint over the whereabouts of Moses, which led to the golden calf incident. As a result, not everyone that left Egypt was standing at Mount Sinai on the fiftieth day.

What about us today, how can we apply the counting of the Omer to our lives?

We also have negative emotions that affect us through our surroundings. Today, our work load has been increased, prices of goods and commodities have risen, taxes have risen, and our overall ability to enjoy life has been diminished. Also, cultural norms have seeped into our lives with humanistic thought and behavior; slowly turning us away from God’s commandments to a morally bankrupt set of principles and practices.

What about the nation in which you live? And I live? Is our nation restricting our freedom of movement and restricting our freedom of expression? Our rights to travel, relocate, and voice our grievances with our national leaders were denied in Egypt prior to the exodus. What’s happening today?

Additionally, how would we judge our nation concerning its level of spiritual righteousness or spiritual impurity? Is our nation doing well or is it sinking close to the level of God’s judgment?

Because of the conditions surrounding us, the counting of the Omer takes on a new importance. It allows us personally to spend these forty-nine days exchanging our negative emotions for positive ones. The end result will be that we will arrive at a higher spiritual level, which will allow us to receive and understand the Torah in a greater way. Thus, we will let a greater light of Torah shine forth to the people around us, to our community, to our nation, and ultimately the world.

In Tune with Torah this week = this is the time to take inventory of our emotional life and determine whether or not we need to exchange irritability for patience, frustration for trusting prayer, fear for faith and stress for quiet confidence in our God.

Shabbat Shalom!

Portions of this week’s commentary were taken from an article found on THYME FOR THE SOUL magazine.