Weekly Torah Commentary – Ki Tavo September 8, 2017

Torah reading:  Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

Haftorah reading:  Isaiah 60: 1-22

This section of Isaiah contains a few nuggets for our inspiration.  It opens with these words:

The Spirit of the LORD is upon me because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted, to proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed. He has sent me to tell those who mourn that the time of the LORD’s favor has come and with it, the day of God’s anger against their enemies.  To all who mourn in Israel, he will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair. In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks that the LORD has planted for His own glory.  Isaiah 61:1-3 NLT

God raised up a prophet endowed with the Holy Spirit to bring a Word that transforms poverty into prosperity; a Word that restores broken hearts; a Word that unleashes the cage of incarcerated dreams and visions; a Word that gives perspective for vision and leadership within the discombobulated realities of post-exilic Jerusalem.

To Isaiah, love and service for the post-exilic Hebrew people were priority. Equipping the people to rebuild waste places and regaining beauty for ashes were more important to the prophet than building his own ministry.

Divine callings are validated by our willingness to submit to the Spirit that has appointed and anointed us for the particular work to which God has called us.  Isaiah, surrounded by broken communities and fear; beauty trampled into ashes; years of hard labor smashed in a little time, announces with the confidence of one who knows his calling, that the Spirit of the LORD has sent him to lift up the downcast.

This was a risky declaration. Conditions were not good in Jerusalem at that time but Isaiah does what no president, prime minister or politician could do.  He brings the hope that the people needed. How? Because the Spirit of the Lord came upon him and he obeyed the prompting.

powerofone

 

This Word from God came at a time when the people felt that they were forgotten, unloved and abandoned. The message of the prophet assured Israel that God still loves and favors the abandoned.

The very same Word that spoke order in the middle of chaos in Genesis 1 is the same Word that filled the mouth of the prophet. There is something incredible that happens when the Spirit of God shows up.

  • The Spirit brings a Word to solve problems;
  • The Spirit brings a Word to undo predicaments and heal pains;
  • The Spirit comes with a Word that transforms lives and communities;
  • The Spirit comes with a Word to resolve and restoration;
  • The Spirit comes with a Word to change and challenge;
  • The Spirit comes with a Word to rescue and reveal God’s power;
  • The Spirit comes with a vision and provision;
  • The Spirit brings a Word of hope and help.

The “good news” to the broken is restoration. The “good news” to the hurting is healing.

What does this passage have to do with us today?

You and I may not be anointed as ‘prophets’ but the same Spirit of the LORD that empowered Isaiah is the same Spirit of the LORD today.  There isn’t a different one!

In 1945, Alma Androzzo penned the words to the song, “If I can help somebody as I pass along; if I can cheer somebody with a word or song, If I can show somebody he is traveling wrong; Then my living shall not be in vain.”

It is high time that we jump off the political bandwagons and take our position as God’s people seriously.  You can help solve problems, comfort the hurting, encourage the lonely and change your community – yes YOU!  The power of ONE is immeasurable, and never greater than when you have been empowered by the Spirit of the LORD for a specific task.

At the end of the day, what matters most is that we recognize the power that we each have to affect change and that we all step forward in obedience to the Spirit of the LORD. If we each take this responsibility we become many and, in this context, one is no small number. So, next time you think of yourself as “just one person” remember what a powerful thing that is. Just because you’re one doesn’t mean you’re small – it means you’re one more person who can make a difference.

It may be the lovable toddler or the wayward teen, the grieving widow or the grateful man for whom all is well. Each person is an individual. Each has divine potential. And each must be spiritually nourished and temporally cared for with love, kindness, and individual attention.

In Tune with Torah this week = Child of God, you are not here by accident or happenstance. You have a specific purpose to fulfill for God’s glory.  Let no timidity, excuse or rationalization keep you from walking in the destiny to which you were born.

The Spirit of the LORD is your strength.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Naso June 17, 2016

Note: At present, the Torah readings within Israel are different from those outside Israel.  This will continue for a short time and is due to the way the holidays fell this spring on the Hebrew calendar.  Since most of my readers are in countries outside Israel, I am following that schedule for the commentaries.

Numbers 4:21 – 7:89 

In this week’s Torah portion we are introduced to the Aaronic blessing.

Blessing

“Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the way you shall bless the children of Israel. Say to them: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace. So they shall invoke My name on the sons of Israel and I then will bless them.”  (Num. 6:23–27).

Many of you may be familiar with this blessing but did you notice the last verse?  We call it the Priestly blessing or the Aaronic blessing. In reality, it is God’s blessing on His people delivered through the priestly line.  ‘…I then will bless them…’

Our words have great influence in the lives of those around us, and spoken blessings can bring hope, encouragement, and direction to others. I believe that our society is sorely lacking in the art of blessing others.  This practice alone could have a powerful impact on the ills of our world.

A spoken blessing is a positive, Biblical statement that invokes the blessing of God in the life of another.  Our words have potential to do good or to do harm. The Bible speaks directly about the power of our words in verses such as these:

  • “Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof” (Proverbs 18:21).
  • “Pleasant words are as a honeycomb, sweet to the soul, and health to the bones” (Proverbs 16:24).
  • “Heaviness in the heart of man maketh it stoop: but a good word maketh it glad” (Proverbs 12:25).

While the blessing of the congregation of Israel was a task bestowed on the priestly line, it is also a template for how we can bless other people. I believe that cultivating an attitude of blessing is far more important than we realize. Sadly, cursing other people has become much more common than blessing them. To curse is to call evil or injury down on someone; to wish them harm or misfortune.  It is the very opposite of blessing. And our choice in life is to bless or to curse, to call forth goodness or to call down evil.

This choice goes beyond a formula of words for the choice between blessing or cursing someone else is a matter of the heart.  Whichever way we choose, we are unveiling the state of our inner being.  If we bless, we are living according to the commandment ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  If we curse others, we reveal a dark and sinister heart attitude.

The priestly blessing recorded in Numbers 6:24–26 provides us with an excellent example of a Godly blessing: “The Lord bless you, and keep [guard, protect, compass about with a hedge of safety] you: The Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you: The Lord lift up his countenance [give full attention in a favorable way] upon you, and give you peace [wholeness, health, security, serenity, well-being, contentment, harmony; an absence of negative stress, disturbance, tension, and conflict].”

One of the most worthwhile habits you could cultivate is the habit of blessing which includes but is not limited to:

thinking the best of others, instead of being critical and/or judgmental

looking for the good in others, instead of focusing on their weaknesses or failures

having their best interests at heart instead of thinking just of yourself

celebrating others’ successes and good fortune without resentment or jealousy

By developing the habit of blessing others with my words, I reap the benefit of gradually creating a positive, inspiring and godly character.

Years ago I knew a young woman who was competing for the title of Miss Teenage America.  In the interview portion of the competition, she was asked this question by one of the judges:  If you could choose, would you rather be a baseball or a baseball bat?

Without hesitation, she replied, “I’d choose to be the baseball bat so I could propel someone else to achieve success.”

That reply won her the title.

In Tune with Torah this week = have you blessed anyone lately? Whether in your own mind or aloud, have you spoken the blessings of God into anyone else’s life?  It could be as simple as this: you see someone driving recklessly.  Choose: will you say, ‘Dear God, grant him wisdom and help him get to his destination safely’?

Or will you sit back and criticize (a form of cursing)?

The choice is yours.

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Tazria April 8, 2016

Leviticus 12 – 13

The use of words as weapons by those seeking to inflict pain is as old as mankind and has taken various forms throughout history. The new version is called cyber-bullying and tragically, several teenagers have committed suicide because of it.

Judaism describes this kind of behavior as lashon hara, evil speech, speech about people that is negative and derogatory. It means, quite simply, speaking badly about people, and is considered part of the biblical prohibition against spreading gossip.

Jewish Sages have called it one of the worst of all sins and compared it to the three cardinal sins – idolatry, murder and incest – combined. Why?  Because, they said, it ‘kills’ three people, the one who says it, the one he says it about, and the one who listens to it.

The connection with this week’s Torah reading is easily made. Tazria is about a condition called tsara’at, sometimes translated as leprosy.  Judaism has taught that it was a punishment for lashon hara, derogatory speech.

The story of Miriam (Numbers 12:1) who spoke negatively about her brother Moses “because of the Ethiopian wife he had taken” provides the basis for this teaching. God himself defended Moses’ honor and as a punishment, turned Miriam leprous. Moses prayed for God to heal her. God mitigated the punishment to seven days, but did not annul it entirely.

Clearly this was no small matter, because Moses singles it out among the teachings he gives the next generation: “Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam along the way after you came out of Egypt” (Deut. 24:9).

Why is the Torah so severe about lashon hara, branding it as one of the worst of sins?

God created the universe by words: “And God said, Let there be … and there was.” God reveals Himself in words. He spoke to the patriarchs and the prophets and at Mount Sinai to the whole nation. Our very humanity has to do with our ability to use language. “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). One translation renders the last phrase as “and the man became a speaking being.” Language is life. Words are meant to be creative rather than destructive. If good words are holy then evil words are a desecration.

Despite everything, however – despite the Torah’s prohibition of gossip, despite its stories about Joseph, Moses, Miriam and the spies, despite the unparalleled prohibition against evil speech by the sages – lashon hara remained a problem throughout Jewish history and still does today.

Every one of us has to confront the issue of lashon hara. Firstly we may have to put up with it as the price of any kind of achievement. Some people are envious. They gossip. They build themselves up by putting other people down. If you are in any kind of leadership position, you may have to live with the fact that behind your back – or even before your face – people will be critical, malicious, disdainful, vilifying and sometimes downright dishonest. This can be hard to handle. Not all people in the public eye have a thick skin. Many of them are very sensitive and can find constant, unjust criticism deeply painful and stressful.

Maimonides wrote: “If a person is scrupulous in his conduct, gentle in his conversation, pleasant toward his fellow creatures, affable in manner when receiving them, not responding even when affronted, but showing courtesy to all, even to those who treat him with disdain … such a person has sanctified God and about him Scripture says, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified (Isaiah 49:3).”

Allowing people to speak badly about one another will eventually destroy the integrity of the group or community. Within the group it sows the seeds of distrust and jealousy. Directed towards others, it can lead to arrogance, self-righteousness, racism and prejudice, all of which are fatal to wholesome relationships and communities. It behooves each of us to have nothing to do with this kind of speech and allow it no place in our conversations.

Cyber-bullying is the latest manifestation of lashon hara. In general the Internet is the most effective distributor of hate-speech ever invented. Not only does it make targeted communication so easy, but it also bypasses the face-to-face encounter that can sometimes induce shame, sensitivity and self-control.

Free speech is not speech that costs nothing. It is speech that respects the freedom and dignity of others.

People engage in lashon hara because they think they can get away with it. “It wasn’t me. I never said it. I didn’t mean it. I was misunderstood.” The Torah knows nothing of excuses. Malicious speech uttered in private is disciplined in public and those who engage in it are to be openly shamed.

In Tune with Torah this week = our words reveal our character.  So do our actions, but this week we’re focusing on our speech.  How are we doing?  Listen to yourself for a few days or a week and take note of how many negative words, critical words, judgmental words or saracastic words you say.  You might be surprised.

God believes better things of you.  Those who control their tongue and refuse to speak negatively about others (even if the accusation is true) are men and women of the highest character and ultimately pleasing to Avinu Malkeinu, our Father and our King.

Shabbat Shalom