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 — 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 Portion — Shelach June 13, 2014

NUMBERS/BAMIDBAR 13-15

In this week’s Torah reading, the episode of the spies takes center stage. Moses had sent them to spy out the Land of Promise but upon their return they acknowledged that the Land was indeed “flowing with milk and honey” as Moses had previously told the children of Israel, BUT….” It was the “BUT” that caused all the ensuing problems, for they added “but it is impossible to conquer.”

“The people who live there are powerful, and the cities fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of the giant there … We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are … All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the titans there … We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we seemed in theirs” (Num. 13:28-33).

How could they have gotten it so wrong? The truth is that while they were terrified of the inhabitants of the Land, they entirely failed to realize that those same inhabitants were terrified of them!
Rahab, the prostitute in Jericho, tells the spies sent by Joshua a generation later: “I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you … our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Joshua 2:10-11).

How then did these men, leaders in the congregation, make such a terrible mistake? Did they misinterpret what they saw? Was their faith in God too weak? Did they lack faith in themselves? Or was it something else? Maimonides argues in his work,The Guide for the Perplexed, that their fear was inevitable given their past history. They had spent most of their lives as slaves. Only recently had they acquired their freedom. They were not yet ready to fight a prolonged series of battles and establish themselves as a free people in their own land. That would take a new generation, born in freedom. Humans change, but not that quickly (Guide III, 32).

Most commentaries accuse the spies of a failure of courage or faith or both. Yet, as mentioned above, these men were, after all, “princes, chieftains, leaders” (Num. 13:2-3). Could it be that in fact they did not fear failure; they feared sucess?

Could it be that they did not want to leave the wilderness? Who could blame them for that? Think about it! They did not want to lose their unique relationship with God in the peaceful silence of the desert, far removed from the rest of the nations and their problems. Here, in the desert, they were closer to God than any generation had ever been. The God of Israel was a palpable, visible presence in the Sanctuary in their midst. Every day they looked at the awesome pillar of cloud by day and the brilliant pillar of fire by night. They ate manna from heaven and water from the rock. They experienced miracles daily. So long as they stayed in the desert under God’s sheltering canopy, they did not need to plow the earth, plant seeds, gather harvests, defend a country, run an economy, maintain a welfare system, or shoulder any of the other earthly burdens and distractions that take peoples’ minds away from their relationship with God.

Here, suspended between past and future, they were able to live with a simplicity and directness of relationship with their God they could not hope to find once they had re-entered everyday life in the material world. Paradoxically, although a desert is typically considered to be the exact opposite of a garden, in fact, the wilderness was the Israelites’ ‘Garden of Eden’. Here they were as close to God as Adam and Eve were before their loss of innocence.

Both Hosea and Jeremiah compared the wilderness to a honeymoon. Hosea said in the name of God: “I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her” (Hos. 2:16), implying that in the future God would take the people back there to celebrate a second honeymoon. Jeremiah said in God’s name, “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown” (Jer. 2:2). For both prophets, the wilderness years were the time of the first love between God and the Israelites. That, I suggest to you, is what the spies did not want to leave.

They did not want to let go of the intimacy and innocence of childhood and enter the adult world. Every parent faces the time when a certain measure of separation must occur for their child to become an adult. Ultimately, I suggest for your consideration, that the spies feared freedom and its responsibilities.

But that is what Torah is all about.

The Torah is not about retreat from the world, but engagement with the world. The Torah is a template for the construction of a society with all its gritty details: laws of warfare and welfare, harvests and livestock, loans and employer-employee relationships, the code of a nation in its land, part of the real world of politics and economics, yet somehow pointing to a better world where justice and compassion, love of the neighbor and stranger, are not lofty and philosophical ideals but principles worked out in peoples’ everyday lives. God chose Israel to make His presence visible in the world. To affect this world one must live in it, not hide in a quiet desert.

Certainly, throughout history, there have been some ascetics among the Jewish people, but these were the exceptions, not the rule. This is not the destiny of God’s people as communities of faith, to live outside time and space in ashrams or monasteries as the world’s recluses.

The spies did not want to contaminate Judaism by bringing it into contact with the real world. They sought the eternal childhood of God’s protection and the endless honeymoon of His all-embracing love. There is something noble about this desire, but also something profoundly irresponsible that de-moralised the people and provoked God’s anger. For the Torah, as the constitution of the Jewish nation under the sovereignty of God, is about building a society in the land of Israel that so honors human dignity and freedom that it will one day lead the world to say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deut. 4:6).

In Tune with Torah this week = Our duty is not to fear the real world but to enter and transform it. That is what the spies did not understand. Do we understand it even now?

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