Weekly Torah Commentary — Be’halot’cha June 24, 2016

Numbers 8 – 12

In this week’s Torah reading we are confronted with a despairing and discouraged Moses. The children of Israel complain about the food: ‘If only we had meat to eat. We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost – also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna.’

It was not the first time they showed such appalling ingratitude for all that the Lord had done for them; it was the fourth time. Yet Moses’ reaction is one of utter despair.

MosesQuail

Why are you treating me, Your servant, so harshly? Have mercy on me!  What did I do to deserve the burden of all these people? Did I give birth to them? Did I bring them into the world? Why did You tell me to carry them in my arms like a mother carries a nursing infant? How can I carry them to the land You swore to give their ancestors? Where am I supposed to get meat for all these people? They keep whining to me, saying, ‘Give us meat to eat!’  I can’t carry all these people by myself.  The load is far too heavy.  Is this is how You intend to treat me, just go ahead and kill me.  Do me a favor and spare me this misery!

Can you believe it? The great Moses prays to die! He is not the only biblical character to do so.  Elijah, Jeremiah and Jonah prayed the same – making us realize that even the greatest can have their moments of despair.

Yet there is something curious about this particular incident.  He had faced, and overcome, such difficulties before.  So, what is going on here?

God’s response is also curious.

Bring me 70 elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people. Make them come to the Tent of Meeting that they may stand there with you. I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the spirit that is on you and put the spirit on them. They will help you carry the burden of the people so that you will not have to carry it alone.

How would the appointment of seventy elders resolve Moses’ inner struggle?  He had already created a system of delegated authority on the advice of his father-in-law, Jethro. So why appoint more?

And what does God mean when He says: ‘I will take of the spirit that is on you and put the spirit on them’?  Was He anointing them to be prophets like Moses?  Prophets don’t carry out administrative affairs.  Prophets give guidance to the people.  Well, they already had Moses.  If the 70 elders were simply going to repeat what Moses was teaching the people, they were rather superfluous.  If not, they would undermine his leadership.  Strange, no?

Yet something happened when God spoke these words to him. Moses’ despair disappeared and his attitude changed. Immediately, it is as if a new Moses stands before us, untroubled by even the subsequent challenges to his leadership.

Just a few verses later we read that two of the elders, Eldad and Medad, prophesy not in the Tent of Meeting but in the camp. Joshua, protective of Moses’ authority, says, ‘Moses, my lord, stop them!’ Moses replies, with amazing generosity of spirit, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them.’

In the next chapter, his own brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, start complaining about him. There is no angry or despairing reaction.  ‘Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.’  When God became angry at Miriam, what did Moses do? He prayed for her. His despair has gone; his inner crisis has passed. These two challenges were far more serious than the request of the people for meat, yet Moses meets them in a spirit of peace and selflessness. Something has taken place between Moses and God. What was it?

We need to look back for a moment.  There is a noticeable change of tone between the book of Exodus and the book of Numbers. While there are complaints in both, the responses of God and of Moses are different. In Exodus, God does not generally get angry with the people. When He does, Moses’ prays and God hears. In Numbers, the responses of both God and Moses are less forgiving and long-suffering.  Why?

The early whining and complaining of the people appears more forgivable. Granted, in Egypt and during the early days after they were freed, they should have had faith in God, but they had not yet reached the Red Sea, or the desert, or lack of food and water. Their greatest sin – the making the Golden Calf – is followed by an extended interruption of the narrative as God instructs Moses and the people to build the Tabernacle. In fact, the next 53 chapters of the Torah (the second half of Exodus, all of Leviticus and the first ten chapters of Numbers) are dedicated to the Tabernacle – its construction, the services that were to be held there and the arrangement of the nation around it.  These 53 chapters cover a break in the Israelites’ journey as if time and space stand still.

From the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai to the completion of the Tabernacle, the children of Israel are changed from a crowd of fleeing slaves into a nation whose constitution is the Torah, whose King is God alone and at whose center is the visible presence of their God hovering over the Tabernacle day and night. They are no longer what they were before Sinai. They are now ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’

And that is why  Moses despaired when they murmured about the food.

What caused Moses’ spirit to break was the fact that, no sooner had they left the Sinai desert to begin the journey again, they reverted to their old habits of complaining as if nothing had changed. If the revelation at Sinai, the experience of Divine anger at the Golden Calf, and the long process of building the Tabernacle had not changed them, what in the world ever would or could?

Moses’ despair is understandable. For the first time since his mission began he could  visualize defeat.  Miracles, deliverances, revelations – it seemed that nothing could change this people from a nation so focused on food into one that grasped the significance of the unique spiritual destiny to which they had been called. Perhaps God, from the perspective of eternity, could see some ray of hope in the future. Moses, as a human being, could not. ‘I would rather die,’ he says, ‘than spend the rest of my life laboring in vain.’

God graciously gave Moses what he really needed. In saying that he would take some of the spirit that was on Moses and put it on the 70 elders, Moses realized that he did make a difference.  He didn’t need their help; he needed to know that ‘his spirit’ – the essence of everything he had become in his personal journey with God – was indeed communicated to someone else – to 70 others.

He didn’t need to know that people would be studying his words for hundreds and thousands of years in the future; that history would remember him as one of the greatest leaders of all time.  All he needed to know was that his life had not been in vain;  that he had disciples who could carry on the building and establishing of God’s nation after his demise; that the glorious vision of a nation dedicated to the Almighty wouldn’t die.

That was enough.

In Tune with Torah this week = if it was enough for Moses, it must be enough for us. The good we do lives after us. It is the only thing of value that really does. Not wealth or power but a trace of our influence for good is the most important legacy any of us can leave behind.   That alone is the antidote to despair, the solid ground of hope….and the greatest blessing of leadership in whatever capacity life has made you a leader.

Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayikra March 18, 2016

Leviticus 1 – 5

The third book of the Torah, Leviticus, (Vayikra in Hebrew) begins in an unusual way and reminds us that originally the Torah was not divided up into chapters and books but was one continuous narrative.

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“And (He) called out to Moshe, and God spoke to him. “  The previous book, Exodus, came to an end rather abruptly and the story continues into the first chapter of Leviticus, a fact lost on some readers who don’t make the fundamental connection between the two books.

Of course, God calling out to man – especially to Moshe – is not an unusual occurrence in the Torah; however, this opening verse is different. For the first time, God calls out from within the completed Tabernacle. When we begin to read Leviticus in the context of the final verses of Exodus, we suddenly realize that this new book is the culmination of the Exodus itself.  The prophet, Jeremiah, actually helps us gain insight:

“Go and proclaim in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus says God: I remember the kindness of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.” (Jeremiah 2:2)

According to Jeremiah, God reminisces about the early days of His relationship with the Jewish People. Having rescued them from Egypt, the ex-slaves follow Moses into the desert, destined for Mt. Sinai.

Initially the experience at Sinai between God and His people strikes us as outstanding, amazing, stupendous. But no sooner is the covenant between them established, turmoil ensues as the Hebrews erect a golden calf and fall into idolatry. Is the relationship with the Almighty over?

Moses intercedes, and soon there is regret, repentance, and a restoration of the relationship. Moses ascends the mountain again and returns with the second set of Tablets which include the detailed instructions for building the Tabernacle. And as the construction is completed, the book of Exodus comes to a close.

But the Tabernacle, in and of it self, does not produce what God is ultimately after: intimacy with His people.  And that, my friends, is what Leviticus is truly all about.

Certainly God has spoken to Moses many times, but this is different; now, man has made place for God down on earth, indicating a sense of permanence to this relationship. A home has been built for them to share. Exactly like a marriage, now their relationship requires a commitment of a totally different degree.  Israel must begin to nurture and maintain the love between themselves and God in a consistent, stable and personal relationship. It is a new challenge for the congregation of former slaves and it is a challenge posed to God’s people in every generation.

Just as a magnificent home that welcomes a newlywed couple does not create intimacy and permanence in marriage, neither did the Tabernacle, nor the Temple centuries later; only personal relationship does.  Religious rules and traditions do not create intimacy with the Holy One of Israel; personal relationship with Him does.

The model of marriage plays well to our understanding.  Without personal communication between husband and wife, the marriage weakens and ultimately will fail.  Without you and I spending quality time with God, talking to Him in our own words, sharing our deepest thoughts and desires with Him and learning to listen to that still small voice within our own soul – that voice that answers us when we call upon Him – we may have religion, but we do not have relationship.

There is none so sad as he who thinks that relationship with God is simply a perfunctory habit of man-made rules. Nothing could be further from the truth. God is not looking for robots; He desires hearts that love Him with passion and devotion.

In Tune with Torah this week = Just as ‘He called out to Moses..’, He calls out to us in our own day.  Are we listening? Have we made it a priority to spend personal, intimate time with our God?  Are we consistent in our study of His inspired Word?

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Terumah Feb. 12, 2016

Exodus 25:1-27:19

Where do we find ourselves in this week’s Torah portion?  At the foot of Mt. Sinai receiving the Torah.

Moses is told to instruct the children of Israel to bring offerings to God (vs. 3-7) and in verse 8 we are told the reason.

Have the people of Israel build Me a holy sanctuary so I can live among them. (vs. 8)  Another translation renders this: Let the children of Israel fashion Me a Tent so I can make my home among them.

Tabernacle

You see, the Tabernacle wasn’t built because the people needed a place of worship. It was constructed for God; a home away from home, if you will, a specific place where God’s glory could rest.

This was the whole purpose for delivering them from slavery – that HE might dwell among them in such a profound, tangible way that every nation would know that He alone is God and that He and His people would enjoy an intimate relationship.  In a sense, God was about the process of re-creating the Garden of Eden.

Before Adam & Eve sinned, God walked with them in the garden; they and their Creator enjoyed absolute harmony and peace.  There was nothing between them and the Holy One.  That all changed because of ONE act of disobedience.  Though commentators may lament ‘what could have been’ if Adam & Eve had never sinned, the real issue at hand is that the Holy One of Israel lost the pleasure of their fellowship.  Since then He has deliberately and consistently worked among His people to restore what HE lost in Eden.

The text hints at this in the very next verse:  Be sure to make it according to the pattern that you saw on the mountain, He instructs Moses. During the forty days Moses spent in the presence of God on Mt. Sinai, the Holy One showed him the ‘Tabernacle’ – the ‘dwelling place’ in the heavens and essentially He said to Moses, Build Me one that is a mirror image of the one in heaven; a place where I can dwell.  The word in Hebrew is mishcan which literally means ‘tent of dwelling’.

But there is much more here than meets the eye.  The building – the ‘tent’ – speaks of something near and dear to the heart of God.  What He has always desired is to dwell in and among His people.  From the beginning He has wanted His people to be a living Tabernacle of His presence in the earth.

God did not intend his meeting with the Jewish people on Mt. Sinai as a never-to-be repeated pinnacle of human history. In the Tabernacle, he gave us the spiritual understanding to keep our relationship with Him fresh and alive, both as individuals and as communities of faith.  Entering the Tabernacle was a renewal and a reminder of the message of Sinai: I took you out of the slavery of Egypt so you could be My people and I could be Your God.  Walk with Me and be holy as I am holy.

Our sublime calling as human beings and as children of the Holy One of Israel is to be a living Tabernacle of the Almighty; that through our lifestyle – our words, our actions, our obedience to His Torah – the light of His truth will shine in this world.

In Tune with Torah this week = how well do we exhibit to those around us that spark of His presence which is within us? Do we have a positive effect on others by the way we live and interact with our fellowman?  Does it make a difference to this earth and to human kind that you are here?

Shabbat Shalom

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Weekly Torah Commentary – Mishpatim February 13, 2015

Exodus 21 – 24

Last week’s Torah portion took us to the heights of Mt. Sinai, a spiritual experience of the highest order.

This week we read one of the longest Torah portions, which outlines very specific instructions about such things as kidnapping, personal injury and property damage, occult practices, helping the poor and vulnerable, returning lost objects, and the compassionate care of animals; over fifty detailed commandments.

Why such a dramatic contrast between two successive Torah readings?  After the spiritual high of Mount Sinai, why does the Torah then outline in detail these issues of personal and societal life?  It’s kind of like stepping into an ice cold shower after a warm bath.

In reality, together these two readings are intimately related and convey an important message. The spiritual high of Sinai was exciting, emotional, intense and moving, but by itself it does not achieve God’s purpose for our life. True spirituality is not the product of solitary meditation on a mountaintop or in a secluded monastery alone. What the Torah teaches is that true spirituality is expressed in how we navigate our lives through the down-to-earth world of every day.

The Torah doesn’t recommend that we retreat from life, but rather that we elevate all of creation to glorify God. For example, on Friday nights, Jews around the world lift up a goblet of wine and recite a blessing – not to get drunk – but to sanctify (set apart) the Sabbath from the rest of the week.

The message is that spirituality, according to the Torah, is to be found in the kitchen, the bedroom, the living room, the office, the supermarket and the playground.

So why do we long for and treasure powerful spiritual experiences?

Because they are the ‘kickstart’ to spirituality; like jump-starting your car on a cold morning.

The sage, Maimonides, explains it this way:

Imagine you’re lost at night, trudging knee-deep in mud through a dark and vicious rainstorm. Suddenly a single flash of lightning appears, illuminating the road ahead. It is the only light you may see for miles. This single flash must guide you through the night. So too, one burst of inspiration may last for years.

The practical and detailed instructions outlined in this week’s reading help us to understand that the purpose of a spiritual experience is to motivate and inspire us to translate our spiritual insight into behavioral choices, thus demonstrating that our spirituality is authentic.

Mountaintop experiences do not guarantee sanctified living in the valley. Therefore, for example, after being commanded in last week’s reading “Thou shall not steal,” this week’s instructions tell us how to prosecute a thief. The Torah is at once highly spiritual and eminently practical.  It motivates us to action, then tells us precisely how to go about it.

Our modern world gives high value to ‘feelings’.  The Torah teaches that ‘doing’ is more important than ‘feeling’.  In day to day life, the question is not ‘How do you feel?’ but rather, ‘What am I to do?’

What about the issue of “letter of the law” versus “spirit of the law.”? The term “Letter of the law” means to perform an act just because it is prescribed by the Torah. The “Spirit of the law” moves you to obey a Torah instruction because of an inner conviction, a desire or passion to honor God.

Does that mean I have to ‘feel’ the desire before I act?  No.

Let’s consider prayer. Someone may say, “Why can’t I just pray on those occasions when I’m inspired?” The truth is that, oftentimes, engaging in prayer is exactly what leads to wanting to pray. It is a pro-active approach of choosing to pray because of an abiding conviction of its importance to God and to you, irrespective of how you may feel at any given moment.

That, the Torah tells us, is how we bring the spiritual high of Sinai – or any other valid spiritual experience … down to earth.

In Tune with Torah = how well am I integrating the spiritual highs of my life with the practical duties and choices of my daily living?

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Devarim July 31, 2014

Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:1-3:22

For this week’s reading, we open to the final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, in Hebrew: Devarim. Moses begins his final address to the next generation and addresses a subject of profound importance: justice.

“I instructed your judges at that time as follows: “Listen to your fellow men, and decide justly [tzedek] between each man and his brother or a stranger. You shall not be partial in judgment. Listen to great and small alike. Fear no one, for judgment belongs to God. Any matter that is too difficult for you, bring to me and I will hear it.”

As we make our way through this book of the Torah over the next few weeks, we will find that Tzedek, “justice”, is a key word. A bit later we read:

Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Deut. 16:20)

So what does the Hebrew word, Tzedek, really mean?

It is very difficult, nay impossible, to translate with one word because it has many shades of meaning. The word can be translated as justice, charity, righteousness, integrity, equity, fairness and innocence. Clearly, it has a much broader range than the Hebrew word for strict legal justice, mishpat. For example, we will read later in Deut. 24: 12-13:

If a man is poor, you may not go to sleep holding his security. Return it to him at sun-down, so that he will be able to sleep in his garment and bless you. To you it will be reckoned as tzedakah before the Lord your God. (Deut. 24:12-13)

You can readily see that tzedakah does not here refer to legal justice. Rather it is speaking of the godly way to interact with a poor person who had nothing but his coat to offer as security for a loan. The lender could hold on to the coat til the loan is paid but that would be a harsh “justice”, cold and uncaring about the person. It is simply not the right thing to do. Compassion and kindness towards our fellow man takes priority. In fact, this same issue was already addressed in Exodus:

If you take your neighbour’s cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset, because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in? When he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate. (Ex. 22:25-26)

In situations like these, the word tzedakah, a form of tzedek, is rendered as compassion or charity; or simply stated, the right and honorable thing to do.

In Judaism, justice (Tzedek) must be balanced with compassion. According to Jewish thinking, Justice in this sense is always accompanied by mercy or grace. In Hebrew these two words – justice and mercy are not opposites. Actually the very word, tzedek, expresses the balance between the stricter sense of mishpat and the loving kindness reflective of the nature of God.

Why then does Moses begin his discourse with this topic of Tzedek, justice? Because a right understanding of the true meaning of tzedek is critical to the behavior God expects from His people. Tzedek is impartial; it makes no distinction between rich and poor, Jew or non-Jew, powerful or powerless. The Torah upholds equality before the law as a reflection of our equality before God Himself. We are urged more than once in the Torah to recognize that justice must not be arbitrary or exercised by human whim: “Fear no one, for judgment belongs to God.” Because it belongs to God, it must never be compromised – by fear, bribery, or favoritism. It is an inalienable right.

At Sinai, God gave to His people a religion of love: You shall love the Lord your God; you shall love your neighbor as yourself; you shall love the stranger.

But it is also a religion of justice, for without justice, love corrupts and don’t we see plenty of evidence of that in our world today? Those would not bend the rules to favor themselves or those they love or want to support have no place in Torah thinking.

On Sinai we were also given a religion of compassion, for without compassion the rule of law degenerates into inequity and even tyranny.

Justice plus compassion equals tzedek. No nation will thrive successfully when this principle is ignored, overlooked or denigrated. Neither will any family.

In Tune with Torah this week = Parents, is your discipline with your children just to the offense and is it administered with grace, with compassion? Friends, when you see someone doing wrong, is your first instinct to judge and condemn? When you yourself make a mistake, are you harshly self-critical? Unable to forgive yourself? Or others? This week, let us individually ponder whether or not we have learned tzedek – how to interact with a compassionate justice and a just compassion.

Your thoughts?