Weekly Torah Commentary – Va’etchanan August 4, 2017

Torah reading: Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

Haftorah reading:  Isaiah 40: 1-26

This chapter of the book of Isaiah is the prologue to a series of oracles and songs that follow; it has the basic themes that are found throughout the following chapters. The passage begins with an instruction to comfort the people of God (vs.1,2), followed by the oracle of the one preparing the way (vs. 3-8), and the heralds announcing the coming of the LORD in accordance with the Word of God (vs. 9-11). Israel was in need of such good news because they were in captivity at the time. The heralds bring the good tidings not to Babylon, but to Zion where the glory of the LORD will reappear when He leads His people like a Shepherd.

The second part of the chapter is an encouragement that God is able to do all this (vs. 12-26). The message of comfort is based on the omnipotence of God (vs. 12-17) and the incomparable nature of God (vs. 18-26). This portion is a passionate appeal from the prophet intended to stir the people’s faith and re-direct their focus away from their captivity to the God who is in the process of restoring them to their ancestral homeland.

The theme of the message of comfort and the hope for the people of God is God’s presence.  Two images are presented. First, He is the sovereign LORD coming with power and His arm rules for Him. Powerful majesty will be the pattern of His dominion as King. He will bring rewards to dispense to His faithful subjects.

The second image is that of the shepherd. “He tends His flock”. The figure of a shepherd was commonly used in the ancient Near East for monarchs; it is the natural figure for any culture with a great deal of animal husbandry.  It signifies the care, leadership, and provisions that the LORD will bring to His people.

The great message of comfort hangs on this point. Look to God. He is coming to establish His kingdom. He will come in power. Without Him the “sheep” are weak and frail; with His presence they find everlasting peace and righteousness.

creation

How do we know God will do this for His people?

In vs. 12-14 He is affirmed as the God of creation.  The Scripture is clear: He spoke and creation came into being. No one gave God any advice, ever! God created everything by His own design and counsel.

In vs. 15-17, God is declared as sovereign over all nations. Governmental leaders, even the best of them, are under His authority whether or not they realize or acknowledge it. In the final end of all things, it is to Him that they will answer for their leadership, its successes and its failures.  The nations exist by the sovereign will of our Father and it is to Him that they primarily owe their allegiance and their respect.  The fact that some nations don’t, nor do they wish to, doesn’t change the reality of God’s supremacy one single bit.

In vs. 18-20, Isaiah goes on to declare with emphasis and passion that there is NO ONE like our God – NO ONE. He is the true and only God. To compare Him to idols is blasphemous. Even the materials for idols comes from God (see Isa. 44). Humans who are weak and frail have made the idols; they look for ways to make idols that will last. No one made God; rather, God created humans. The question in verse 18 then is rhetorical and put there to express that there is no one to whom we may compare the Almighty.  He is totally OTHER.

If God made everything, and if He is sovereign over all nations, and if He is incomparable to anyone or anything, then all creation is under His power. Verse 21 begins this section with four rhetorical questions to remind the people of what they already knew. The repetition is meant to be a rebuke, like hammering a point home:

“Do you not know?

Have you not heard?

Has it not been told you from the beginning?

Have you not understood since the earth was founded?”

They had centuries of time to have these truths sink in, but their weak faith and stubborn hearts had not taken it all to heart.  The distractions and interests of daily life clouded their thinking and removed the reality of God Almighty from their consciousness.

In tune with Torah this week = The people are called to look and contemplate the heavens and see God’s handiwork. It is by His power that the starry hosts were created and keep their order. Creation is meant to be a witness to the sovereignty of God, His existence, His creativity, His superiority over everything created.

Pondering these truths should inspire a fresh humility in our hearts; we, who so easily fall into thinking the the world revolves around us.  No it revolves around Him and it is incumbent upon us to consider His interests even more than our own.  He has made a world and filled it with people that He loves.  How are we responding to that love that He so generously pours out upon us?

Shabbat Shalom!

 

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayetzei November 27, 2014

Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

“And God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her, and opened her womb. And she became pregnant and she bore a son, and she said God has gathered in my disgrace. And she called his name Jospeh, saying, ‘May God grant me another son.’ ”

After many years of barrenness, the matriarch Rachel finally realizes the answer to her prayers. She gives birth to a son. Almost immediately, she asks the Lord for another child. Does that sound surprising?

Actually Rachel’s desire for more children was not selfish. For Rachel, having children meant playing a key role in the building of the children of Israel. Her request to have more children was a reflection of her own desire to play a greater role in building the legacy of her beloved, Jacob; of contributing sons who would be leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel to come; of adding to those who were called to fulfill God’s purpose as His chosen nation. This was not a sign of ingratitude, but the expression of a woman who yearned to participate in God’s purposes.

Life on this earth has many components and a plethora of opportunities. Our individual time on this earth is a journey of choices. We can focus on the accomplishments that this world values: career, possessions, bank accounts, prestige, achievements, success. We can build strong families and provide college educations for our children. In and of themselves, all of these have a certain merit.

But it’s not enough. The central issue is WHY. Why do we work long hours, build an enviable career, achieve a certain social status, strain for success? Why do we have children, raise them and educate them?

A life that is lived without eternity in focus is an incomplete and limited journey. There is a proverb in Ethics of the Fathers that describes this world as the “lobby of the World to Come” and urges us to so live each day mindful that eternity awaits us. Conscious of that, we will be diligent to protect our spiritual life lest it be crippled or damaged by the pressures and cares of life on earth.

It is highly possible to stumble through life on a kind of ‘automatic pilot’- going through the motions of life but without any great desire to seek God and to achieve spiritual greatness. The matriarch, Rachel, along with all the other Matriarchs and Patriarchs urge us by their example to keep our priorities in order: Seek God, learn His ways, apply them in daily life, teach them to your children and
in all you do, be mindful that this life is the ‘lobby of the World to Come’. Let every day be preparation for the Grand Entrance into His glorious Presence!

Shabbat Shalom – and to all my American readers, a blessed and healthy Thanksgiving!

Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayetzei November 8, 2013

 

Bresheit/Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

Jacob, our Patriarch, was a holy man. We don’t usually find holy people overly concerned with their physical well-being. Yet, in this week’s Torah portion, read at first glance, it would appear that Jacob is precisely concerned with his physical needs.

Jacob rested at ‘the place’ (Genesis 28:11) on his way to Charan. Rashi tells us that this place where Jacob rested was the holy mountain of Moriah, the future site of the Temple. While sleeping on holy ground, Jacob is shown a prophetic vision involving heavenly angels, and is told by God:

I am Hashem, God of Abraham, your father, and of Isaac. The ground on which you sleep, I will give to you and to your children. Your offspring will be as the dust of the earth, spreading out to the west, east, north and south. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves through you and your children. Behold, I am with you. I will guard you wherever you go and I will return you to this land. I will not forsake you until I have carried out what I have told you. (Genesis 28:13-15)

One would think that Jacob would be extremely inspired by this vision and sacred location. Therefore, we should find Jacob praying only for something like spiritual help and support as he faces new challenges in going away from Israel to Charan. Physical sustenance should be the last thing on his mind.

Yet in his prayers,  Jacob specifically asks for ‘bread to eat and clothes to wear’ (Genesis 28:22). Why is Jacob thinking about the mundane after such a spiritually transcending experience?

What’s more, why does Jacob feel the need to explain the function of bread and clothes? God would know that bread is ‘to eat’ and clothes are ‘to wear’.

The solution requires us to read the Torah more carefully.

Just as 2 + 2 never equals 5, we cannot accept things that do not make logical sense. It is impossible to understand that Jacob was sincerely interested in his physical well-being just after his amazing prophetic vision. It must be that in the very words that Jacob uses, we can discover a deeper meaning to his prayer.

Let’s read the phrase again. Jacob asks for ‘bread to eat and clothes to wear.’ Why does he define the function of bread and clothes? It must be that he is stating his exact intentions of using these material objects.  Jacob is saying that he only needs bread to eat. He does not need 57 kinds of potato chips or three favorite flavors of ice cream. He does not scan the supermarket aisles for the latest flavor of soda or the newest chocolate invention. He simply wants bread, and only bread, if necessary, to eat. As long as he can eat enough to continue living in order to serve God and achieve his lofty, spiritual goals, he is satisfied.

Neither is Jacob searching for the latest fashions in designer suits. He just wants some clothes to wear so that he can function in the world. Hence, ‘bread to eat’ and ‘clothes to wear’. A simple life unencumbered with a drive for luxuries.

Through this short phrase, Jacob defines his priorities of life. Appreciate food for its function – physical sustenance. Do not make food a priority in your life. Don’t spend your life running after possessions and clothing. Use and appreciate it for what it is, but don’t let it occupy an important place in your mind and in your value system.

We often take basic physical pleasure for granted as we constantly run after new and improved pleasures and luxuries. There is much to enjoy even in the simple things of life.

Most of the time, we hardly stop to even notice the blessing and the pleasurable taste of the food we are eating.  Preoccupied as we are with other things, how often do we actually finish eating our food without having focused on the pleasure God has given us through it? 

Driven as we are in our modern society by media advertising, brand names in fashion can so easily tend to overpower our way of thinking about the clothing we wear.

This week, in what appears to be a very simple prayer, our father Jacob reminds us to be grateful for the simple things.  If we have food to eat, thank God.  If we have clothes to wear, thank God.  If we have a roof over our heads, thank God.

In Tune with Torah this week = let us be quick to give thanks for all the good things in our life rather than spend time longing for what we don’t have at present.

Stop. Eat. Think. Appreciate. Thank God for His blessings. Even the ones we think are small and simple. That is the path of real holiness.