Wednesday, December 26, 2007

TorahBytes: Hold On (Va-era)

Moses reported this to the Israelites, but they did not listen to him because of their discouragement and cruel bondage. (Shemot / Exodus 6:9)

Moses didn't have an easy job. God called him to stand before a powerful leader of a powerful nation to demand that they give up their slave labor force. It was not surprising that Pharaoh, King of Egypt, didn't listen to him. That was to be expected, but the very people whom he was to lead didn't listen to him either.

When Moses first presented God's plan to the leaders of his people, they received him enthusiastically. But it wasn't too long after Moses' first confrontation with Pharaoh that their plight turned from bad to worse. After so many years of cruel bondage, Moses, who was actually a fugitive, burst on the scene, saying God had sent him to deliver them. One would assume that if the all powerful God of the universe sends someone to save them that it would just happen. But instead Pharaoh decreed that their labor be made more intense.

I don't think we can blame them for their discouragement. There is no indication that God was critical of their reaction. It would be some time before God would strive with the people over their grumbling and unbelief, but at this point, he took their reaction in stride.

What a challenge this must have been for Moses, however. He knew he had encountered God. Not only had God told him he would deliver the people, he also told him that Pharaoh would not listen. It must have been encouraging to him to see his own people's initial positive response, but then he had to stand alone except for the companionship of his brother Aaron.

It is one thing to read this as a story, but if we stopped to think about it, I wonder how many of us would be willing to be involved in such an undertaking: confronting a political tyrant on one hand, and leading a downtrodden people who had lost all hope on the other.

Yet Moses did it. As God continued to tell him what to say, Moses continued to do it.

Some may think that if they would have such an encounter with God, they would be just like Moses, but I don't think so. We might be surprised at how we can have deeply rooted convictions, yet still give up under pressure. The Bible has many examples of people who dramatically encountered God, yet were not up to the task, or did well for a while, but failed in the end.

It's not the encounter that makes the difference. There is something much deeper that must happen inside a person to enable them to stick to their calling against all obstacles. Somehow Moses was able to keep perspective in spite of the difficulties before him. Somehow he knew that what God was saying was right in spite of the circumstances he faced. The people of Israel had every indication that their situation was not going to get better. Moses had performed some signs for them, which seemed to impress them, but their increased suffering proved to have greater influence upon their outlook than anything Moses said or did. But Moses' response was different. Moses continued to believe God.

This is the challenge that is before each one of us today. Whatever our life situation, will we base our outlook on life on our circumstances, good or bad, or will we base it on what God is saying to us? And God is speaking to us - whether we have had a dramatic encounter like that of Moses or we read his clear directives in the Scriptures. Either way, as we seek to live out what God says, we will be confronted by situations that will try to intimidate us by giving us the impression that we will not be able to succeed in fulfilling God's will in our lives.

It is only when we refuse to be dragged down by these threats of intimidation that we will be able to fulfill God's call. Again, that call may not include the same level of responsibility that Moses was given, or be as critical. Still, whatever our God-given responsibilities are, as we face similar challenges, we must continue to hold on to whatever it is God has said to us.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

TorahBytes: The Bible - Life's Mirror (Shemot)

When she could hide him no longer, she took for him a basket made of bulrushes and daubed it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the river bank. And his sister stood at a distance to know what would be done to him. (Shemot / Exodus 2:3,4; ESV)

Both Judaism and Christianity claim to be based on the Bible - Judaism on the Tenach (Old Testament), Christianity on both the Tenach and the New Covenant writings (New Testament). But what I encounter in the Bible is often lacking in these religions. This probably doesn't matter to those who claim to be part of either of these groups, yet view the Bible as an old-fashioned book of myths. But there are others who think their faith is in keeping with the teachings of the Bible, when nothing could be further from the truth. What would happen if we would take the time to compare our so-called biblical faith with what the Bible actually teaches.

One of the New Covenant books states,

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

What a transformation we would experience if we would allow ourselves to honestly face the scrutiny of the Scriptures!

The Bible is not a book primarily about synagogue and church. It is not about associations and agencies. It is not about religious symbols and rituals. It is certainly not about personalities and showmanship. The Bible is about real people who encounter the true God in the midst of real life. It is a book that demonstrates the destructive nature of sin and the marvelous power of God's love. It is a book that clearly reflects the hideousness of human nature and the blinding glory of God. It speaks of God's anger towards our wickedness and his yearning for our honest attention.

The Bible exposes us to the nitty-gritty of life through the circumstances of people just like us. In its pages we read of marital strife, sickness, death and fear. We read of hope, courage, faith, and sacrifice. We meet hypocrites and liars, the betrayers and the betrayed. We find bitterness and forgiveness, hate and love, despair and hope. All this and more are found within the blood, sweat, and tears of human experience.

However, it seems to me that many people don't want to face the reality of real life, let alone that reality as found in the Bible. Even while claiming to respect and honor the words of Scripture, they manipulate those words according to the world as they want it to be instead of what it really is.

But if we would honestly read the Bible, we would read about real situations such as Moses and his family as found in this week's Torah portion. The same jealousy that drove Pharaoh to oppress God's people back then is alive and well today. But so is the power and presence of God working on behalf of his faithful ones just as it did for Moses and his mother.

The Bible is a reflection of life the way it really is, but we too often mar that refection with our perceptions, preferences, and traditions. It is only as we allow the messages of the Scriptures to speak for themselves that its transforming power can be truly effective in our lives.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

TorahBytes: God's Compass (Va-yehi)

But Joseph said to them, "Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones." Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. (Bereshit / Genesis 50:19-21; ESV)

The number one movie in North America last weekend (December 7-9) was "The Golden Compass," based on the book by Phillip Pullman. According to his web site, Mr. Pullman is a committed atheist. Having not read his books themselves and having no interest in seeing this movie, I will make no further comment on him or the film. But what is interesting to me is that the title of this film, written by a man who claims God doesn't exist, is a reminder of God's compass.

The benefit of a compass is that it directs us to a fixed point. Wherever you are (with the exception of being very close to either of the north or south poles), it will always point north. However good or bad your personal sense of direction might be, a compass will tell you where to go. The compass itself isn't the fixed point, but by pointing to it, it can accurately and effectively guide you.

Compasses function as they do because of certain laws of physics that God has put in place. Due to God's design we can find the fixed point through which we can get our bearings. In the same way God has provided a spiritual compass - the Scriptures - through which we can find our spiritual bearings. Just like a compass points to a fixed point on earth as established by God, so the Bible points us to the fixed moral and spiritual points in life that God has established.

When using a compass, it is essential to not allow our own perceptions and feelings to get in the way of what it is telling us. In the same way, when we read the Bible, it is necessary to not allow our own perceptions and feelings to get in the way of what God is telling us.

Some people who believe the Bible don't believe it is a compass. They don't believe God has established fixed points to which the Bible directs us, or if there are fixed points, what they are is hidden from us. For them the Bible has become a book of spiritual experiences that encourage us in our own spiritual experiences and that's all. The legitimacy of any given experience is dependant on ourselves, not on objective standards established by God. As a result they go through life without a compass, striving to be content in their lost-ness.

This is not how Joseph saw life with God. Even though Joseph lived before most of the Bible was written, he understood God's ways as fixed points. His understanding of God that he inherited from his father, grandfather, and great grandfather was a compass directing him according to those fixed points. By accepting that God was whom he revealed himself to be and by adhering to God's standards, Joseph was able to be the man God called him to be. Knowing God as he did enabled him to keep his bearings through all the confusion he endured for so many years. By allowing himself to stay focused on God, his difficulties never did him in. Instead, his difficult circumstances prepared him for the great things he was called to accomplish.

Joseph's understanding of God had nothing to do with his personal perceptions, feelings, or preferences. Rather it was a compass enabling him to arrive at the right destination through the storms of life. Through the Bible we too have a compass, which reveals God's fixed points and through which we can be accurately and effectively directed in life. The more we give ourselves to its direction, the better equipped we will be to traverse the path of life.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

TorahBytes: The Power of Hunger (Va-yiggash)

And Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?" But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed at his presence. (Bereshit / Genesis 45:3; ESV)

Near the end of Moses' life he recounted to the people of Israel the significant details of their years living in the wilderness. According to Moses, one of the lessons that God sought to teach them during that time was that they needed to rely upon God for everything. In order to learn that lesson God had to humble them by leading them into a most desperate situation in which they had no food. Moses said to them:

And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 8:3; ESV)

This is one of the most important lessons that human beings must learn. While God has created us to be innovative and resourceful, and while he expects us to provide for ourselves and others, we are not to rely on ourselves, but upon him for all things. Whatever we do must be under his guidance along with a sincere acknowledgement that all we have comes from him.

This is a difficult lesson for us to learn. God has endowed us with great ability, but it is not our ability that is the real problem. The real problem is that we all come into the world with a messed up perspective on life. Our sinful human nature with its natural rebellious bent warps our understanding of who we really are in relationship to God, to others, and to ourselves. Humbly relying on God is a great challenge for us.

That is why the people of Israel had to be driven to such depths. It was only by being without food for a considerable amount of time that they had any hope whatsoever of learning so crucial a lesson.

Perhaps this sounds cruel to you, but God in his love can be pretty harsh sometimes. It is not because he finds pleasure in making life difficult for us, but rather he does what he must so that we will learn what we need to learn.

Hunger is a great motivator. We also see this in the story of Joseph and his brothers. Remember that Joseph's brothers hated him to the point of wanting to kill him. Their jealously of him prevented them from accepting the special role for which God was preparing him. They had no idea that after so many years he would be a high official of Egypt and be the one used by God to administer food throughout that part of the world during the severe famine.

It was their hunger that drove them to Egypt in search of food. It was ongoing hunger that took them there the second time even though they feared what Joseph (although they didn't know it was him yet) might do to them. But it was this same hunger that was driving them to be reconciled with their brother who would provide for them in the long term. If the famine had not been so severe, they likely never would have gone.

About a billion people in the world today are undernourished. I expect that most of the people reading (or listening to) this are not in that category. The type of hunger experienced by Joseph's brothers and the people of Israel is not something that most people have ever known. But there are other types of hunger besides hunger for food that God uses to lead us to the point of desperation.

At times God uses our desperation to provide us the opportunity to make radical adjustments in our lives, specifically to bring about a change of heart towards him. Sadly, not everyone who gets this opportunity makes the right choices. It doesn't help if we think that our times of hunger are simply challenges that we need to resolve ourselves. Instead, let us learn to rely on God to meet us in our place of need.

Friday, November 30, 2007

TorahBytes: A Violent Struggle (Mi-Kez/ Hanukkah)

Then he said to me, "This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts." (Zechariah 4:6; ESV)

Hanukkah, which begins this year on the evening of Tuesday, December 4, is a time to celebrate the God-inspired victory of the Maccabees over the powers of oppression (for more information about the festival itself, see the TorahBytes Hanukkah section). This event, which occurred in the second century B.C., is in keeping with so much of Jewish history. Throughout Jewish history we have been caught in a violent struggle. From the sword to the gas chamber, we have known great violence.

It is interesting that the Bible, which provides us with our understanding of God and his ways, is full of violent struggles between his people and other nations. While the Bible is more than just war stories, there is certainly a great deal of armed conflict found in its pages.

In the New Covenant section, we see a greater emphasis on issues of personal and communal morality and spirituality. The conflict continues, but it is a conflict of ideas and lifestyle, not of territorial conquest and expansion. This shift in emphasis in no way negates the significance of the violent episodes we encounter in the older writings and in the story of Hanukkah.

The violence we encounter in the Bible is a vivid picture of the nature of the conflict godly people face in every generation. Human nature and its relationship to the forces of evil are at war with God and his loyal subjects. While they did not always live up to their calling, the purpose of the people of Israel living the Land of Israel was to establish godliness amidst a world in rebellion against its Creator. The resulting conflict was ugly, creating a bloody picture of violence.

Thus is the nature of the struggle we face today. We should not be fooled by the glitz and glamour of our age. The forces against God and those who align themselves with him are just as vile as ever. To stand against them requires the same amount of courage and strength as those who engaged enemy armies long ago.

That is why we need the same reminder given by the prophet Zechariah and read at Hanukkah time. Even though our battle is not a physical one, we need to know that victory is won not through human ingenuity and capability, but rather through dependence upon God's Spirit.

Based upon the Maccabees' reading of Scripture, they knew that it was only by their reliance on God that they would be able to stand against an army so much greater than their own. So we too, against forces so much stronger than ourselves, can expect victory, but only as we truly rely on God. As we do, let us remember that the conflict at hand is a violent one, one which may cost us our lives. Yet in the end God will be victorious and we with him, if we remain true to him in this violent struggle.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

TorahBytes: True Spirituality - Part 2 (Va-eshev)

Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, had bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. (Bereshit / Genesis 39:1)

Last week we looked at an episode from the life of Jacob to demonstrate that true spirituality is not necessarily what most people think, even among those who claim to believe the Bible. The Scriptures give us understanding as to what life is really all about, but too often the words of the Bible are manipulated to create a false spirituality. It doesn't take great scholars to realize this. While we can benefit from good, careful scholarship, the essence of the Bible's spirituality is easily found within its pages.

Much of the Bible is straightforward, yet one of the reasons we fail to catch its message is that we are not always willing to allow it to correct our misconceptions. For example, we often prefer to stick to age-old traditions just because they are traditions. Or perhaps we may have at one time been significantly impacted by concepts wrapped in Biblical guise, but are now too scared to face what the Bible actually says about those concepts. Sometimes we don't want to accept the true teaching of Scripture because of how it might affect our relationships with others. Whatever the reason, our hearts and minds are not always as open to God's Word as we claim.

I have been finding that the kind of life esteemed by many Bible believers does not match the lifestyles of godly people in the Bible. This is what I sought to address last week with Jacob. In the midst of his blessed encounter with God, God crippled him. This dramatic spiritual encounter demonstrates how truly godly people are often broken by God at some point in their lives. It is in that brokenness that the reality of God and of life is at times found.

This was Joseph's experience as well. Joseph was set aside by God for a grand purpose, but his life's journey was anything but pleasant. He was hated by his brothers, most of whom wanted to kill him. In the end they sold him into slavery. While serving as a slave, he was falsely accused of making advances towards his master's wife and sent to prison as a result. It was only after a significant amount of time that he was released.

It is true that God's favor was upon him and God's presence was with him all that time. This is evident by how his father regarded him and by the dreams God entrusted to him. We see this in the level of responsibility given him in his master's house and then later in prison. It is most evident in his interpreting of Pharaoh's dreams and his administration of food before and during the famine.

I don't know if we are quick to accept that both the negative and positive aspects of Joseph's life are part of one package. The blessing and the suffering go hand in hand. The Bible has example after example of this. Abraham leaving familiar surroundings to live as a foreigner in his old age, yet being the father of faith. Moses left to die in the Nile, but saved by the daughter of the very one who wanted him dead; chosen by God as our Deliverer, but living 40 years in the wilderness before reluctantly returning to Egypt to lead us out of bondage; then spending another 40 years in the same wilderness leading a stubborn and unbelieving people, yet receiving the Torah from God. David, called the man after God's own heart, chosen to be king, finds himself first favored by the existing king, but eventually running for his life from that same king and living in the desert until God established his rule. Then there is the Messiah himself, whom Joseph so wonderfully foreshadows, living a godly life unequalled by anyone before or since, yet misunderstood by all, forsaken by his closest friends, given over to Roman execution by the leaders of his own people due to fear and jealousy, doing this all in order to conquer sin and death on our behalf.

The Bible is clear that godly living is lonely, difficult, and painful. It is a life lived contrary to the values of the world around us, and that world is cruel to those who do not cooperate with it. Yet it is those who live this life who really know the God of the Universe, who really make a difference, and are the ones who really live.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

TorahBytes: True Spirituality (Va-yishlah)

So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered." The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. (Bereshit / Genesis 32:31,32; English: 32:30,31; ESV)

As I study the Scriptures I am on the look-out for what we might call true spirituality. I am not alone in this trek. From pagans to animists, from the major religions to New Age philosophies, people have spent a great deal of time, energy, and money trying to find true spirituality. Even among those who deny the existence of any actual spiritual dimension in life, there has been a desire to find life's meaning. This also is a type of spirituality in that it assumes some kind of relationship between people and/or between people and nature that is more than just physical.

I believe that true spirituality is found in the Bible. The overriding theme in the Scriptures is one of how we human beings have been alienated from God, our Creator, and how God has sought to restore us to right relationship with him. What I am calling true spirituality refers to both our initial reconciliation to God through the Messiah and the living out of that reconciliation on a daily basis.

The Bible's view of true spirituality stands in contrast to the multitude of counterfeit spiritualities that have existed throughout time until now. Interestingly, the Bible's view of true spirituality also stands in contrast to the false spirituality of many who claim to be Bible believers. While there is room among those committed to the truth of Scripture to differ on various details of spirituality, if we would take the time to compare various so-called biblical spiritualities to the Bible itself, we would soon discover whether or not what we are embracing is truly valid.

In this week's Torah portion, Jacob has an encounter with God that forever changed his personal life and established the name of the nation that would arise from him. Jacob's encounter with God gives us one of the many glimpses we have in the Bible of the essence of true spirituality.

There is one aspect of this encounter that I would like to point out. Understanding this one thing makes all the difference to our overall understanding of what true biblical spirituality really is. What I am referring to is that as a result of Jacob's encounter with God that day, Jacob limped. The Torah tells us that in the midst of this unusual interchange, God injured Jacob. It is true that God also blessed him at that time, but one of the reminders of the blessing would be the pain. Jacob would spend the rest of his life with a physical challenge. Certainly this impediment is nothing compared to the significance of the change of heart he received that day. But still, what does this tell us about true sprituality?

An overall reading of the Bible surely reveals that true sprirituality is rich and meaningful. Yeshua promises his followers what he calls "abundant life" (John 10:10), but it is also includes a life of difficulty and pain (see Philippians 3:10). Difficulties from a variety of sources come to those who know God. In Jacob's case the pain was the result of a direct encounter with God.

There is so much that can be discussed regading this, but I would like to share this one thing here. I suspect that there are many people who, like Jacob, are in pain because of a real encounter with God or as a direct result of truly following him, and yet have not come out of that experence changed for the better in the way Jacob was. The reason for this may well be because of not understanding that the difficulty or pain suffered is part and parcel of true spirituality. God, in his love, knows that we need to be broken before him and others. This is not to say that we have to accept all difficulty and pain in our lives as if from God, but it might be that the very thing that has become a barrier between you and God is actually that which he is seeking to use to both restore you to him and through which he most desires to use you.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

TorahBytes: Spiritual Encounters (Va-yeze)

Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. And when Jacob saw them he said, "This is God’s camp!" So he called the name of that place Mahanaim. (Bereshit / Genesis 32: 2,3 [English: 32:1,2]; ESV)

After Jacob's brother, Esau, threatened to kill him, Jacob fled his homeland and lived in Mesopotamia for 21 years. During that time he established a sizable household and became wealthy. Upon his return home he had one of his significant spiritual encounters. We are not given that much detail of this particular encounter, but it is still significant. I will quote it again: "Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. And when Jacob saw them he said, 'This is God’s camp!' So he called the name of that place Mahanaim."

This encounter occurs in between two of Jacob's major crises. He had just before resolved a very difficult situation with his father-in-law, Laban. Had not God intervened by speaking to Laban, Jacob most likely would have suffered greatly by Laban's hand (31:24,29). Following the encounter was Jacob's greatest challenge - seeing Esau after all those years. This story is described in next week's portion, but suffice it to say that he was terrified of what might happen.

The spiritual encounter that we are looking at this week is described as "the angels of God met him." Jacob encountered angels. It is interesting that he would meet angels upon his return to the Promised Land, for his first such encounter was in a dream as he was leaving home for Mesopotamia (Bereshit / Genesis 28:10-17). It is possible that God provided the latter experience to encourage him. Seeing the angels would have reminded him of God's promise of protection and provision when he first left home. It would encourage him that he was on the right track returning home at this time in spite of the near disastrous situation with Laban. It would encourage him for his impending meeting with Esau.

What a wonderful experience for Jacob to have! Who wouldn't want to see angels - to have the privilege of witnessing the unveiling of the spiritual realm. So many find it a challenge to believe in God's unseen reality. As we struggle through life's challenges, the world as we know it doesn't always witness to the things of God. How many of us think that if we could have but a brief glimpse of the heavenly world, then our hearts would ever stand secure in God?

Jacob's life demonstrates that it doesn't work that way. The heavenly dream he had when leaving home didn't revolutionize him spiritually. Knowing God is realized by faith and not sight nor dramatic experiences. Visions, dreams, and other spiritual experiences serve their purpose, but they don't automatically make a difference in our lives.

There is something of Jacob's perspective that is expressed in his encounter that is most instructive. Note what he said after meeting the angels. His focus was not on the angels themselves, but on God, when he said, "This is God’s camp!" He realized that he was in a place where God's power was established. That angels are God's heavenly messengers to do his bidding is about God being in charge. The presence of the angels was a reminder to Jacob of God's presence. The sighting of the angels was not about the angels. It was about God.

It is far too common to focus on spiritual experiences instead of on God himself. It is too common that when heavenly reality breaks into our lives, whether it is in angel sightings or anything else, we become hooked to those things rather than to the God they are serving.

We would do far better to be like Jacob, who understood that true spiritual encounters are about God and not about the encounters themselves.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

TorahBytes: What Is a Man? (Toledot)

When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob. (Genesis / Bereshit 25:27,28)

Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. (Malachi 1:2,3)

I have encountered two popular notions regarding masculinity these days. The first stems from egalitarianism. Egalitarianism views the sexes as essentially equivalent in every way, with the exception of a few relatively insignificant (according to them) biological differences. For egalitarians, whether they claim adherence to biblical truth or not, the question of "what is a man?" is of little relevance and interest. They would understand that whatever it would mean to be human is the same for both males and females.

The other popular notion today sees males and females as fundamentally different. This is the thinking behind such books as "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus" by John Gray.

However popular egalitarianism may be, denying the differences between males and females is philosophical nonsense completely removed from reality. To diminish the fundamental differences between the sexes denies God's purposeful design for the human family and robs us of the primary aspects of our identity.

Once we accept that males and females are different, we may ask ourselves what are the essential aspects of that difference? There is a tendency among some when trying to describe the unique aspects of masculinity to do so in ways that don't apply to all males. Not every man is into power tools and adventure sports. Some men don't like sports of any kind. Some dislike competition altogether. While men are generally more muscular than women, not all men are muscular. Some are physically weak for one reason or another. Men are often referred to as bad communicators, but some of the best communicators are men. I can go on with examples of the masculine stereotype, but even if we could establish that there are tendencies for men to be one way or another, do those attributes define masculinity? If they did, then some people are more male than others.

This is not the Bible's view of manhood. According to the Bible a man is a male. Nowhere in the Scriptures are men defined by personal qualities or attributes apart from their God-given anatomy.

It is noteworthy how God esteemed Jacob over Esau. Esau was far more of a stereo-typical male, while Jacob was not. I don't have any reason to believe that their different personalities influenced how God regarded them. God made men to have all sorts of physiques and dispositions - any of which are legitimate expressions of masculinity, since it is men that have these physiques and dispositions. For those of us that take seriously the differences between the sexes, it helps no one to focus on stereotypes. If we surveyed the men and women in the Bible we find all kinds of physiques and dispositions.

According to the Bible "What is a man?" - apart from anatomy - has to do with function and role, not such things as what jokes we prefer and how we like to resolve problems. But before we can address the implications of the uniqueness of masculinity, we need first to accept the Bible's perspective that we are men simply on the basis that God made us that way. Whatever our physiques, our personalities, our desires, our interests, our inclinations, our abilities may be, a man is a man.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

TorahBytes: How Prayer Works (Hayyei Sarah)

And he said, "O LORD, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. Behold, I am standing by the spring of water, and the daughters of the men of the city are coming out to draw water. Let the young woman to whom I shall say, 'Please let down your jar that I may drink,' and who shall say, 'Drink, and I will water your camels'—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master." Before he had finished speaking, behold, Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, came out with her water jar on her shoulder. (Bereshit / Genesis 24:12-15; ESV)

This week's Torah portion has an interesting example of prayer in action. Abraham assigned his servant the task of finding a wife for Isaac back in the land of Abraham's relatives. Upon arriving at his destination, Abraham's servant prayed that should the young woman he asks for a drink respond in a very particular way, then that woman would be the wife for Isaac.

The narrative tells us "Before he had finished speaking" Rebekah comes on the scene. As the story goes, she does all the things stated in the servant’s prayer.

Many have tried to figure out how prayer works. Perhaps the greatest challenge in coming to a clear understanding of this is the fact that it is to God we pray. While the people in the Bible address God in a fashion similar to petitioning a ruler - which is fitting, since God is the great King of the universe - unlike human authorities, God knows what we are going to say before we speak (see Psalm 139:4). The way Rebekah is introduced in this passage hints at God working behind the scenes even before the servant offered his prayer.

So if God already knows what we are going to say, then why do we need to pray before God does something?

As the King of the Universe, God is sovereign, which means that he is in full and total control of all that happens. That God chooses when and how to intervene in our lives is his business. Certainly it is nothing that we have control over.

Some people try to understand prayer by limiting God's omniscience (his knowing everything) and/or his sovereignty. This way of thinking leads to notions of God needing our prayers to fulfill his own desires or that we have the power to move God in ways he would not otherwise move. But limiting God in this way is not in keeping with the overall understanding of Scripture.

Those who emphasize God's omniscience and sovereignty also tend to draw unbiblical conclusions about prayer. For example, asserting that the actual purpose of prayer is to change us who pray rather than to affect circumstances, disregard the reality of the story at hand and many other accounts of prayer in the Bible. Certainly prayer has a positive spiritual effect on our lives, but this is a byproduct of prayers like these, not their purpose.

Some create complicated philosophical notions such as claiming that the sovereign God who determines the answers to our prayers also determines the prayers we pray. Not only does this turn us into robots, it makes prayer into some sort of divine ventriloquism, whereby we simply mouth words that are not actually are own. This view also disregards the accounts of prayer throughout the Bible. Prayer does not flow from our lips due to God's manipulation of us.

So why pray? Why did Abraham's servant pray? He did so, because he needed God’s help and believed that God would help him if he asked. I don't think it is any more complicated than that. Trying to understand how prayer works does nothing to help us pray. While the Scriptures reveal God and his ways to us, they don't tell us everything about the mechanics of spiritual dynamics. While it is essential to try to grasp as much as possible of what God has revealed to us, it is not helpful to try to figure out those things of which he has not given us sufficient information. How prayer works is one of those things.

That the all-powerful, sovereign, good and gracious God invites us to engage him in prayer should be sufficient to get us praying.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

TorahBytes: Adjusting Our Thinking (Va-yera)

And the LORD appeared to him (i.e. Abraham) by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. (Bereshit / Genesis 18:1,2; ESV)

We picture God in many different ways. While it is popular to accept everyone's understanding of God as equally valid, he is not a matter of personal perception and interpretation. Either God exists or not. If he does, then he is who he is. just as he told Moses, "I am who I am" (Shemot / Exodus 3:14). God is exactly who and what he is, nothing more, nothing less.

I assume that those of us who accept the inspiration of the Scriptures would allow the Bible to form our understanding of God. I assume that whenever there is a clash between what we read in the Scriptures and our own ideas, we would quickly adjust our thinking. But apparently this does not happen often. We might say that we believe the Bible, but time and time again we prefer to preserve our traditions over and above the truth. Our commitment to ourselves and our affiliations take precedence over our commitment to the Bible.

But who are we fooling? The truth is the truth. God is God. If who he is is not based on our perceptions, but upon who he actually is, then we should be glad to adjust our thinking as needed. That doesn't mean that we should be constantly changing our understanding of God to prove how open and flexible we are. We should take our understanding of him more seriously than that. But if that understanding is not based on the Scriptures, then it has no basis, and we should adjust accordingly.

The week's Torah portion gives us a special glimpse of God that may challenge some of our thinking about him. The portion begins with our being told "The LORD appeared to Abraham" (18:1), but then we read that when he looked up he saw "three men" (18:2). After conversing with them for a while suddenly it is God who is speaking to Abraham (compare 18:9 with 18:10). When the men leave to go to the city of Sodom, we read "Abraham still stood before the LORD" (18:22).

The story continues, "The two angels came to Sodom in the evening..." (19:1). This is the only time they are called "angels." Every other time they are called "men" (19:5,8,10,12,16). The word "angel" in Hebrew means "messenger". It is possible therefore that these "messengers" are not heavenly beings, but simply human messengers. On the other hand the way we are introduced to them at the beginning of chapter 18 suggests that all three of them had heavenly origins.

Whatever the true identity of the two individuals that went on to Sodom, it is clear that the individual who stayed with Abraham was God himself. This means that God came to Abraham that day in human form.

God came to Abraham in human form. This is not the only time in the Hebrew Scriptures that he does so. Jacob wrestled with God (Bereshit / Genesis 32:22-32); He revealed himself in human form to Samson's parents (Shoftim / Judges 13); and we read in the Torah that Moses saw God's form (Numbers / Bemidbar 12:8).

This is not to say that God in his fullness exists in human form, but it does show us that he doesn't have a problem coming to people that way. Since the Torah attests to this, then we should not find it offensive - as it is to some people - that in the Messiah God came to us in human form.

Believing in Yeshua as the Messiah may take some major adjustments in our thinking, but they are adjustments based on the truth of Scripture.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

TorahBytes: The God of Abraham (Lekh Lekha)

And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Bereshit / Genesis 15:6; ESV)

The story of Abraham is a story of faith. In him we find a man willing to leave the familiar in order to follow the directives of God. He was willing to spend his senior years in a foreign and potentially hostile environment without any support or encouragement outside his own family, because God told him to.

For Abraham this was not a religious exercise. It was simply life - a life lived not based on tradition, for he had next to no precedent for what he was doing; a life not based on material success, for while he was promised blessing, there was no guarantee of riches or fame; a life not based on comfort and pleasure, for he would live the rest of his days as a nomad; but a life based on keeping in step with the unseen God of the universe.

Abraham's faith in God laid a foundation for all who would come after him, who would be willing to be just like him - free from the supposed control of the expectations of society; free from religious dictates that neither serve God nor truly benefit others, free from a materialistic world view that is blind to the liberating perspective of heaven; and free to fulfill the good pleasure of God, who yearns to reestablish right relationship with his beloved creatures.

And it is this "right relationship with God" that Abraham models for us. Unlike the complex system devised much later on by his own descendents, Abraham demonstrates for us what it takes to truly know God in the way that God desires for us. Abraham's intimate relationship with God was not due to ritualistic activities or good works. It was his trust (The words faith, belief, and trust are all derived the same Hebrew word) that enabled him to know God the way he did.

His faith in God found practical expression in how he lived and the things he did, but it was that simple trust in God that made him the friend of God that he was. It was his trust in God that enabled him to risk everything and venture into the unknown. It was his trust in God that became our model of what true spirituality really is.

It was ten years ago this week, according to the Jewish calendar, that I too ventured into the unknown. The Internet was coming into common use. I found myself with a desire to share the truths of Scripture with those who may not otherwise be exposed to them. So I wrote my first TorahBytes message. It was a message called Being a Blessing based on this same Torah portion. I cannot say that I envisioned myself still doing this ten years later, but I am so grateful to God for his help and encouragement week by week. I am grateful to my wife, who has proofed and critiqued almost every single message. Encouragement has often come through TorahBytes readers and listeners. It has almost become predictable that when I have most doubted that I should continue, that I would receive a meaningful note encouraging me to keep on.

I am not trying to say that my embarking on TorahBytes ten years ago makes me an Abraham. But it is Abraham's example that urges me to respond to God's prompting in my heart and step into the unknown without requiring guaranties of success. It is because of Abraham's example that I can know that God's blessing is more important than anything. Whatever I do, as I trust in God, he will guide me. The outcome I can leave with him.

Just as I didn't know ten years ago all that would transpire until this day, so I don't know what the next ten years will bring. Like Abraham, I don't know how God will direct me hereon in, but I am confident that he will. That's what knowing the God of Abraham is all about.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

TorahBytes: Does the Bible Embarrass You? (No'ah)

And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him went into the ark to escape the waters of the flood. (Bereshit / Genesis 7:7)

Besides being the undisputed best selling book of all time, no writing has ever had the kind of impact the Bible has. All over the world people from almost every language and culture have been changed for the better by this book. No other book has brought the kind of comfort, consolation, correction, inspiration, and direction the Bible has.

Yet for many the Bible is viewed as a relic of medieval times, when people understood life in religious, rather than scientific terms. Today we think we know better. The scientific mind is a so-called enlightened mind that has rid itself of sentimental and superstitious concepts that have kept the masses under the thumb of religious leaders.

Of course those who believe that the Bible is actually the Word of God don't share this criticism. The believer accepts the Bible as a treasure of timeless principles. While expressed in an ancient context, the teachings of Scripture remain true for all people of all cultures in every generation.

But what about the details? It seems to be that believers and unbelievers alike often share the same reaction to the stories of the Bible. It is one thing to embrace concepts like God, love, and forgiveness. It is another thing to boldly assert the validity of stories such as Noah's Ark, Jonah and the Big Fish, and Daniel in the Lion's Den. We may say we believe in miracles, but do we really? I think one of the reasons why we tend not to expect God to act supernaturally today is that we don't fully accept the reality of miracles at all. This is also why we hesitate to confidently stand up for the Bible's view of creation. We have more respect for the assertions of scientific research than we do for biblical inspiration.

When it comes right down to it, the Bible embarrasses us. The Bible asserts certain things that sound very strange to most people. Many of its teachings appear out of step with most of today's societies. Adhering to the details of the Bible strikes a strange discord in the contemporary ear. That strangeness reverberates in our own hearts, causing us to be intimidated. So instead of confidently standing on the testimony of Scripture, we mold it according to the world's preferences.

I am aware that there have been and still are interpretations of certain Bible passages that need to be adjusted as we gain further insight into them. But what I am referring to here is how we allow the opinions of others to erode our confidence in the Bible when we should know better.

How excited would you be if we finally had tangible proof of the existence of Noah's Ark? I wonder if the degree of that excitement is equal to the degree of uncertainty we have over the validity of what the Bible asserts. While I would hope that such a discovery would impact nonbelievers, should not believers already be convinced of the validity of the story whether or not we ever find it?

If you don't yet believe that the Bible is the Word of God, nothing in this message will convince you. But for those who do believe, what do you really think of the Bible's details? Do they embarrass you? I mentioned earlier that there is a tendency to adhere to the Bible's concepts, while denying the details. But in reality it is the Bible's details that carry the substance of its concepts. Once we undermine the details, we will also lose touch with its concepts.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

TorahBytes: Poetic License (Bereshit)

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth
(Bereshit / Genesis 1:1)

One of the marks of the time in which we live is that people think that a concept is valid solely on the basis that we believe that concept. Whether or not an idea is actually true is thought to be irrelevant. All that matters is whether or not the concept is true to a person's own self. What follows from that is whatever is true for self is not necessarily true for someone else. Self then has become the point of reference of truth and reality.

I think that this way of looking at life is ridiculous. And it's not just ridiculous for me myself, but it's ridiculous for everybody. While this "world according to self" has become the philosophy of choice for many today, it is an illusion. Not only is this way of looking at life not valid, many who claim to live this way, don't really do so, or at least not consistently. Take driving for example. Our society has made certain conclusions regarding what constitutes safe driving. Traffic rules are based for the most part on sound wisdom. Even if there is some disagreement over certain aspects of driving, we can accept that it is necessary for everyone to drive by the same rules. What is true and right for me is true and right for everyone else. If we drive according to "the world according to self," people get hurt and killed. That's just the way it is. Thankfully most people understand this regardless of their philosophical convictions.

Still, the hardcore reality that life is the way it is whatever our personal preferences might be, doesn't seem to diminish the belief that self is the primary point of reference to what is true and right. While we may not for the most part see this way of thinking in action on our roads, it is very active with respect to moral and spiritual issues.

The idea that truth should be based on self has affected Bible believers in a striking way. Because it has become popular to accept concepts that are based solely on personal perceptions and feelings, some people claiming to believe the Bible view the Bible that way. It has become acceptable to claim to adhere to the words of Scripture, while holding to an interpretation that is contrary to its plain meaning. Whether or not there is a reasonable connection between a particular passage and the conclusions drawn from it has become besides the point.

An example of this is found in the attempt to make the biblical creation accounts more acceptable to our culture. Some people try to reconcile the theory of evolution with the Bible by claiming that these passages are poetry. According to their reasoning, if they are poetry, then these passages should not be taken literally.

I do need to state that I don't have much reason to accept that the creation passages are poetical. While the Bible contains quite a bit of poetical material, Genesis chapters 2 and 3 do not read as poetry.

But even if these passages are poetical or metaphorical in some way, do they not assert certain things about God and his creation? Do we not read that God was intimately and personally involved in the various stages of creation including man and woman? Whether or not the writer is writing as if he was watching the process and giving us the precise details, or that these are creative expressions of what happened, we still have before us the truth of life's beginnings.

It is one thing to claim that a passage is metaphorical to prevent us from over literalizing what might be a creative way of expressing something. It is another thing in the name of poetry to deny what the Scriptures assert in order to justify a scientific viewpoint.

As we seek to uphold the validity of the Scriptures in our day, we need to avoid ways of thinking that in themselves undermine the very Truth we are seeking to affirm. As Scripture conflicts with the values of our culture, including the high regard we have for science, we are better off relying on the truth of Scripture than upon the opinions of so-called experts.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

TorahBytes: A Most Basic of Basics (Sukkot)

Then Moses said to him, "If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?" (Shemot / Exodus 33:15,16)

The Festival of Sukkot (English: Tabernacles or Booths), a week-long celebration, beginning this year the evening of Wednesday, September 26, is a "back to basics" festival. The Torah tells us that Sukkot was to serve as a reminder of how the Israelites lived in the wilderness for forty years after leaving Egypt (see Vayikra/ Leviticus 23:42,43).

The wilderness years were a time of extreme vulnerability, but it was also a time when the reality of God was most apparent. The people had to rely on God in a way they would not have to once they settled the Promised Land. In the wilderness they ate miraculous bread called Manna and more than once required a miraculous provision of water. In the Land, while they would still need to rely on God, they would establish permanent dwellings and farms.

Once the people settled the Land and had more or less a normal existence, they would like most people tend to think that their provision and protection was something derived from themselves instead from God. God's directive to live in makeshift huts during the week of Sukkot was intended to help the people to remember who their provider and protector really was.

When Shabbat falls in the midst of the week of Sukkot, Shemot (English: Exodus) 33:12-34:26 is read. This passage includes an interchange between Moses and God following the sin of the golden calf. Moses pleads with God that, in spite of the people's sinful behavior, God's presence would continue to be with them to guide them to the Promised Land.

Moses understood a most basic of basics: God's people required God's presence. God's people are to be a people, who not only tell stories about God and his exploits, they are to be a people with whom God himself dwells.

Is this not the most basic of basics of which Sukkot should remind us? The busy-ness of day-to-day life may contain references to God and his existence, but how often do we take the time to ask ourselves if God himself is really with us. We might have religion in our lives, but do we have God? We may fill our minds with spiritual concepts, but is God actually directing us?

Moses knew that there was no sense continuing on without God being with them. That those who don't believe in God don't give this any thought is understandable, but for those of us who claim to have faith in the God of Israel, do we share Moses' perspective? Does it matter to us whether or not God is really in our midst to lead us? Do we take the time to even notice?

There is so much that goes on in the name of religion and of God, but how much of it truly has God in its midst? Instead of being like Moses, who desperately cried out for God's presence, we are too easily satisfied with our traditions and so-called spiritual activities. We blindly accept the claims of others who tell us that God is in our midst, even though the evidence is to the contrary.

But what's the use of going on without him? What's the point of all of our busy-ness unless God is leading the way? Moses knew that. What about you?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

TorahBytes: Yom Kippur

This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or an alien living among you - because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins. (Vayikra / Leviticus 16:29,30)

As Jewish Believers my wife and I strive to express our Jewishness in such a way that is pleasing to God. In order to do that we put the religious and cultural aspects of our Jewishness through the filter of the Scriptures. Those things that are clearly supported by the Scriptures we keep. That which is clearly forbidden, we reject. And as for those things that are neither condemned nor condoned, we seek God for wisdom as to what to do. This is not always an easy or straightforward process, and so we regularly adjust what we do as we grow in understanding.

The high holiday season is full of rich meaning and tradition - some good; some not so good. It is a wonderful time of reflection. It is a time to especially remember who God is and what he has done. It is a time for family gatherings. It provides an opportunity to make things right with others. It is a time for joy and celebration.

Yom Kippur (English: The Day of Atonement) begins this year on the evening of September 21. I find the traditions surrounding this particular holiday some of the most challenging. According to the Torah, Yom Kippur was to be an annual event for the cleansing of the sins for the nation of Israel. Two important ritual ceremonies took place when the ancient Temple stood. One was that it was the only time in the year when the Cohen HaGadol (English: the High Priest) would enter the Most Holy Place to ceremonially cleanse the Ark of the Covenant. The other was the scapegoat - a symbolic act of carrying away the sins of the people by means of sending a goat into the wilderness.

Yom Kippur, like many other holy days, was to be a sabbath (whatever day of the week it would fall on) with the special directive to the people to deny themselves. Traditionally this has been interpreted to mean a complete fast of food, drink, wearing leather, washing, anointing oneself, and marital relations.

The Temple ceremonies ended upon its destruction in the year 70. Without the Temple it was impossible to fully observe what the Torah had directed Israel to do. What has not been readily accepted is that these ceremonies had already been rendered obsolete about 40 years prior by the sacrificial death of the Messiah. What was foreshadowed by these rituals was accomplished in Yeshua. Temple or no Temple the ceremonies of Yom Kippur are no longer necessary. This leads us to ask therefore, should the day still be observed?

Some believers use this day as a way to acknowledge and celebrate the gift of atonement given to us through Yeshua's sacrifice. As we do that, we may choose to reflect on the condition of our relationship to God and others. It can also be an excellent occasion to cry out to God for our people - for their welfare, both spiritual and physical. While Yeshua has accomplished the atonement foreshadowed by Yom Kippur, we await the full fruit of his labor - the final redemption of Israel, when the nation as a whole will recognize Yeshua as the Messiah.

If I were asked if we are obligated to keep Yom Kippur, I would have to say, "No," due to its fulfillment in Yeshua and the destruction of the Temple. Yet we may choose to enter into the day to express solidarity with the Jewish people and to seek God for the full accomplishment of his purposes among us.

As for what form our observance of Yom Kippur might take, if we decide to observe it, that is up to you before God. In the Messiah we are free to keep the day or not (Romans 14:5). Whatever we do, we need to do as he leads us by his Word and by his Spirit.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

TorahBytes: Stay on the Road (Ha'azinu)

Who is wise? He will realize these things. Who is discerning? He will understand them. The ways of the LORD are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them. (Hosea 14:10; English: 14:9)

The readings this week occur between Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year/Feast of Trumpets) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). These occasions are designed to cause us to reflect on our lives, our relationship with God, and our relationships with others. The goal of these reflections is to cause us to take God and life seriously enough to the point that we would truly walk in God's ways.

I have the impression that most people never take the time to reflect in this way. Even those who profess a faith in God seem to be content to let life take them on its course with little or no significant thought. Some people drift through life, while others are driven by it. They are either life's servant or victim (depending on their personality).

But God is calling us to something very different. He is looking for those who will hear his word and desire to do his will. He is looking for people who are not content with the way things are and will stand for the way God wants them to be.

In order to do that we need to heed the cry of the prophet Hosea: "Who is wise?...Who is discerning?" While we cannot understand the things of God without his help, we do have a part to play. As we hear his word we need to grasp it and act upon it. God will not do that for us. Too many of us are waiting for God to bring about dramatic change in our lives and life's circumstances without realizing that he is waiting for us to act.

Let me say again that I know that we cannot do this without God's enabling, but as we trust him, he will enable us. We need to make sure that we are in right relationship with him, something that can only occur by submitting ourselves to Yeshua the Messiah. It is as we follow Yeshua, that the presence and power of God works in us and through us. But that is not a passive thing. When we truly know God, his word will come to us again and again. If we do not allow ourselves to be instructed by him and respond to his directives with all our hearts, we will be useless.

As Hosea says, the righteous walk in God's ways. That means we understand the path he calls us to and purposely walk in it. It's as if God's path is an invisible road that co-exists among a complex and confusing super highway. As cars and trucks whiz by and neon signs lure us to lose ourselves in a multilaned frenzy of supposed pleasure and popularity, it is the truly discerning who understand that the super highway not only goes nowhere, but will result in catastrophe for all who stay on it. The discerning sees God's road, turning from the distraction of the world's superhighway and walks the lonely path of truth and life.

As Yeshua said,

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matthew 7:13,14).

Notice how both the entrance to the way of life and the resulting journey are narrow. Walking with God is not like an amusement park ride where all you have to do is get on and it will pull you along whether you like it or not. It is a step-by-step journey on a narrow road, requiring ongoing discernment and a willingness to take the steps necessary to remain on that path. It seems that God's narrow road intersects with the world's superhighway on a regular basis. Without the needed discernment and the willingness to do whatever it takes to stay on the narrow road, we may find ourselves on the superhighway to destruction.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

TorahBytes: Silence Is not an Option (Nizzavim & Va-Yelekh)

For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem's sake I will not remain quiet, till her righteousness shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch. (Isaiah 62:1)

Through the Scriptures we learn the plans and purposes of God. Through its pages we understand the origins of life and the special place assigned to human beings by God. While that special place has never been revoked, history demonstrates how we have failed in our role as God's ambassadors on earth. Our failure is not the end of the story. God has been at work from the beginning to fulfill his desire to restore us to our rightful place in creation and in our relationship with him. To accomplish this, God established the people of Israel as his primary instruments with the view of making himself known to all nations.

The inability of the people of Israel to live up to God's standard was to help the rest of the world to understand that none of us can be what God intended without God's help. Not only was Israel to be God's channel of the coming of the Messiah, but also an object lesson for the world to see its need of him.

It is still in God's plan to fulfill his desire for his originally chosen people. Due to his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he is determined to bring about a spiritual transformation of Israel.

It can be said that this transformation of Israel was the primary purpose of the coming of the Messiah. That is why the angel said to Joseph regarding his wife to be, Miriam, "She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Yeshua, because he will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). Years later not long after Yeshua's death, resurrection, and ascension, one of his followers was heard saying to the Jewish people of his day,

Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah, who has been appointed for you - even Yeshua. He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets. (Acts 3:19-21).

Notice that it was necessary to proclaim these things to the people in order to invite them to turn to God. In doing so Yeshua's followers were in step with the Jewish prophetic tradition. God has always communicated his truth through words - both spoken and written.

That is why Isaiah cried, "For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem's sake I will not remain quiet, till her righteousness shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch." (Isaiah 62:1)

Isaiah knew that in order for Israel to experience its needed transformation, he had to speak out. Even though early in his ministry God told him that he would not see positive results, yet he spoke out.

In our day there is increasing pressure to keep silent. Western society, which at one time prided itself in the free exchange of ideas, tolerates less and less the clear proclamation of God's Truth. Popular so-called tolerance insists that all ideas are equally valid, thus denying the validity of God's Truth as revealed in the Bible. Followers of the Messiah are increasingly embarrassed to speak up in today's relativistic culture.

Making matters worse are those who use the principle of "actions speak louder than words" to downplay the necessity to speak out. While it is essential to demonstrate the reality of our words through corresponding actions, transformation comes about as people hear God's word.

Silence, therefore, is not an option.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

TorahBytes: How Does it Work? - Part 2 (Shofetim)

For this is what the LORD says: "You were sold for nothing, and without money you will be redeemed." (Isaiah 52:3)

Last week I related the occasion of my being asked to explain how God's transforming power in my life actually worked. At the time of the question I had difficulty giving a satisfactory answer, but since then I have had more time to think about it, and I am ready to make another attempt.

The most obvious aspect of my transformation was psychological. I had been struggling emotionally to the point of having panic attacks, which stopped immediately. My outlook on life radically changed. I had become a very self-seeking person, and while I do not claim to have attained absolute selflessness, my world was no longer just about me. Similarly, issues of morality meant little to me, but once Yeshua came into my life, I began to develop a strong sense of right and wrong. Life in general had no meaning. I was always bored except for brief moments of distraction, but in the Messiah God gave me purpose. Up until knowing Yeshua and my embracing of the Scriptures as the Word of God, my being Jewish was without relevance. My Jewish identity was important to me, but without substance. Coming to know the reality of the God of Israel caused me to see myself as part of his eternal plan that had begun centuries before with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

All this has to do with the results of what God did in my life on a September day in 1976. But it doesn't explain exactly what it was that God did to me that day. The best way for me to explain it is through the biblical concept of redemption. In the Scriptures, redemption refers to the act of buying back a person sold into slavery or the restoration of property that has been lost due to extreme poverty. According to the Torah, when this would occur it was the obligation of a near relative to redeem or, in other words, to buy back the person or property (see Vayikra/Leviticus 25 & 27; Bemidbar/Numbers 35).

Redemption as an act of God on behalf of his people is a regular theme throughout the Bible. Jacob refers to God's redemption in his life (Bereshit/Genesis 48:16). The deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt is referred to as an act of redemption (Shemot/Exodus 6:6; 15:13). Hoping in God as the Redeemer of Israel is found several times in the prophets (see Isaiah 41:14; 43:1; 43:14; 52:3; Jeremiah 50:34; Micah 4:10; etc.). The Book of Ruth is a beautiful illustration of redemption. In Tehilim (Psalms) we have references to God as redeemer of both Israel as a nation (74:2; 77:15; 78:35. etc.) and for individuals (19:14; 69:18; 103:4, etc.).

Redemption is the act of rescuing a person or persons from a most dire situation and restoring them to a place of freedom. It brings about a complete transformation of the life situation of the redeemed.

This is what happened to me that day over thirty years ago. God redeemed me.

I was in an oppressive situation, which included several components. The most basic component was the spiritual one in that I had no relationship to God. But it also included a relational component in that my home life was extremely dysfunctional and my friendships were based on selfishness. It had an economic component in that the only parent in my life was no longer able to provide for our needs. It had an intellectual component in that I had no direction for my education. I also had no work ethic, since I thought life was simply about comfort and pleasure.

When I encountered God that day, he redeemed me. Due to what Yeshua did on my behalf by giving his life as the ransom for my sins, God rescued me from my oppression, set me in right relationship with himself and began to direct me in the kind of life he intends for us all.

It was his redemption that significantly alleviated my extreme anxiety. My perspective on life was not simply due to a psychological adjustment. Rather I experienced a psychological adjustment due to the transformation of my life by God.

I remember crossing a particular street not long after asking Yeshua into my life and remarking to myself that everything looked different. While my physical surroundings hadn't really changed, it was as if the realm in which I found myself had.

The fact is I was living in a different realm. This is expressed so well in the New Covenant writings:

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13,14)

What our people experienced through God's redemption in Egypt anticipated an even greater redemption through the Messiah. Moreover, what is available to us today through him is a taste of what he still desires for us as a nation. It is something that is available to all people through trusting in Yeshua. It is not just a frame of mind or a commitment to a religious lifestyle, but a real transforming encounter with the God of Israel.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

TorahBytes: How Does it Work? (Re'eh)

Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. (Isaiah 55:12)

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to share some of the details of my spiritual journey with someone. Through the past thirty years of my knowing God through Yeshua the Messiah, I. have explained to many people how I have come to believe. When I have shared my story, people often respond with all sorts of questions, some of which I have heard many times: "How did your family react?; How did this change your life?; What does this mean to you as a Jewish person?"; and so on. But there was one question I was asked on this particular occasion that I don't think I have been asked before. The question was in response to my explaining the difference my faith in Yeshua has meant to me. Before I get to that question, let me provide some background. As a child and teenager, I suffered from a great deal of anxiety and depression. I had an emotional breakdown at age 11 and panic attacks along with a great fear of death at age 18. As far as I know, the chief contributing factor was my unstable upbringing. There was a lot of discord in our home. My parents argued (loudly) quite a bit. They separated when I was 6 years old, reconciled a year later only to split up permanently when I was 14. I lived with my mother until I went away to school at age 20, my three older brothers having moved away. I saw my father rarely through the years.

Just before my nineteenth birthday, I met a young Jewish man - a friend of a friend - who demonstrated from the Jewish Bible that Yeshua was the Messiah. He also explained to me the biblical concepts of sin and forgiveness. He said that if I asked God to forgive me and believe that Yeshua died for my sins and rose from the dead, I would be happy for the rest of my life and live forever in heaven. While there was so much of what this young man said that was true, even though he himself was fairly new to these things, I would eventually learn that his promise of constant happiness was inaccurate. It was inaccurate, but not entirely untrue. It depends how one defines happiness. If it means a life devoid of grief, struggles and disappointments, then he was completely wrong. But if it means a basic sense of well being in the midst of the ups and downs of real life, then he was absolutely correct.

As my story goes, the panic attacks stopped immediately and for the most part of the next several months I was on an emotional high of a nature that I had never experienced up until that point in my life. That high didn't continue, which at first was somewhat of a crisis, but it would not be long before I would come to understand the depth of what God had done in my heart and life. While my assumptions regarding being happy forever (or at least in this life) would not be realized, the change that God brought about in my life has been no less profound. Coming to believe in Yeshua has completely changed me. From my emotional state to my outlook in life to my sense of worth to my values and goals, I have been transformed. While I may still struggle to some extent with the remnants of my first nineteen years of life, I have experienced a most wonderful transformation through my encounter with the reality of the God of Israel.

It was in response to my explaining my transformation that I was asked the following basic, but unusual question: How did it work? The person wanted to know what it was exactly that affected the change in me. To be honest, at the time of the question, I groped for an answer. That I had truly experienced the transforming power of God was clear to me, but as to exactly what it was that God did to me to cause that change, I couldn't sufficiently express at the time. I know that it was God in Yeshua that brought about the change, but that explains who changed me, not what he did to change me. As I tried to answer the question, the other person determined it had to do with my coming to an understanding of the meaning of life. If I understood them correctly, they surmised that it was my acceptance of Truth that gave me a sense of peace. Getting a handle on what life was really all about gave me stability of mind and heart that up until then was beyond my grasp.

I think there is much truth to what they said, but it, too, doesn't really answer the question, "How does it work?" I accept that my changed viewpoint has had a great, positive effect on me. But is that what it was that changed me? And even if it did, how did my viewpoint change? Was I simply convinced of it? Was it my adopting of a new philosophy that caused my transformation? I don't think so. Is there even an adequate answer to this question? It wouldn't bother me if there wasn't. That God's reality is at work in my life is good enough for me. Yet I do think there is more that we can say about how the transforming power of God works, but that will have to wait until next week.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

TorahBytes: It Isn't Working (Ekev)

If you carefully observe all these commands I am giving you to follow - to love the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways and to hold fast to him - then the LORD will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations larger and stronger than you. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 11:22,23)

The story of the people of Israel is a story intertwined with God and the Promised Land. The connection with the Land is made very clear in our day by the unceasing attention of the media. Yet how God fits in to it all is rarely mentioned. From a biblical perspective, however, we cannot separate the people of Israel and the Land of Israel from the God of Israel.

God stated that the possessing of the Land was contingent on the people's relationship to him. If we remained faithful to him, we would remain in the Land. But if we rebelled against him, he would scatter us among the nations. Most of the Hebrew Bible deals with this very subject. From its pages we see how, for the most part, our ancestors failed to live up to God's standards, eventually resulting in exile.

Part of God's promise to Israel is that even though he would cast us out of the Land, he would also cause us to return. The first return is recorded in the latter books of the Hebrew Bible and continues through the books of the New Covenant. Even though Israel was able to reestablish itself in the Land, except for a brief period, the people lived under the rule of one foreign power or another. This continued until a few decades after Yeshua's coming, when Rome, the power of the day, scattered the people in what became the exile of the past 2000 years - an exile, which in many ways is still reality, since most of us live outside the Land of Israel.

The establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948 is a modern miracle. God promised to restore us to our Land. But few thought that after being dispossessed for almost two millennia, we would actually have a homeland again. But is this the promised return? Does not the Scriptures reveal that our return would be intimately associated with a spiritual renewal in keeping with the Torah's understanding that the retaining of the Land was contingent upon our having a right relationship with God? Yet to my knowledge there is no significant spiritual renewal among our people today. Whatever spiritual vitality exists among us in the Land or elsewhere, it is a very small percentage.

No wonder the State of Israel is in the condition that it is currently. The leaders of the world are again seeking to divide the Land, Jerusalem included, and Israel's leaders are willing to negotiate. I am not commenting on the political leanings of any of the parties involved. I am not even commenting on the rights and wrongs of dividing the Land at this time. What I am commenting on is the fact that after almost 60 years since the establishment of the modern State of Israel, it is not working. The Zionist dream is not working. Left-wing and right-wing solutions are not working. The strategies of aggressive force and peaceful rhetoric are not working.

While our return to the Land may be miraculous, the current situation is not what it should be. It is not what it should be, because not one of the dominant approaches is working.

Our day is not unlike the days of the Bible, when stability in the Land was dependent upon our faithfulness to God. Nothing will change until we can recognize that the current instability is due to the very same reason. Until we truly turn to God in the name of our King, Yeshua the Messiah, there will be no Middle East solution.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

TorahBytes: Addition and Subtraction (Va-ethannan)

Hear now, O Israel, the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you. Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 4:1,2)

The Bible has rightly been called God's instruction manual, for through it God has revealed how we are to live. It may be surprising to discover how many warnings there are regarding our need to do exactly what he says. These warnings are irrelevant to those who disregard the Bible's teaching, but for those who take it seriously, why would we need to be told over and over again to obey God's commands?

It seems to me that one of the reasons (if not the reason) is that we have a tendency to want to embrace the benefits of relating to the God of the Bible without accepting the obligations that go with it. This way of relating to the Bible takes many forms, but whatever actual form it takes, it is common to pick and choose which parts of the Bible we prefer to integrate into our lives.

I accept that to fully embrace the whole Bible's teaching has its challenges. We don't live in the days of ancient Israel when the Temple was standing and the priests and Levites were fully functioning. We live in the post-Temple, Messianic era. The coming of the Messiah has transformed our relationship to God through the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Ruach Hakodesh (Holy Spirit). Still, a right relationship with God includes a lifestyle submitted to his Word.

This week's Torah reading includes one of the many warnings to follow God's commands. Included are the words, "Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it" . (Devarim / Deuteronomy 4:2). We have already looked briefly at our tendency to subtract from God's Word. While it is necessary to grapple with how to apply the many directives found in the Bible, I would hope that we would at least take it seriously enough to take up that challenge.

But what about the warning not to add to what God says. I don't know if we take this seriously enough. Ancient Jewish leaders created what is referred to as the fence around the Torah. These extra, man-made rules were designed as a buffer to prevent us from breaking God's actual commands by keeping us as far away from them as possible. For example, the Torah forbids doing work on Shabbat (English: Sabbath), but the rabbis forbid even the holding of an implement that might lead to work, though God gave no such prohibition. I appreciate the logic and wisdom in this. If we discover a tendency in ourselves toward certain wrong behaviors, then it is wise to avoid those situations that would normally draw us into those behaviors. Deciding to go beyond God's Word in this way is a good idea, but we must avoid taking our good idea and turning it into God's idea for everyone.

By not adding or subtracting from God's Word, we not only keep ourselves submitted to what God is saying to us, we also keep ourselves from getting in the way of what God is saying to others. We need to differentiate between what God has revealed and our traditions. Traditions may be helpful at the time, but when we add our traditions to what God has said, we misrepresent both him and his Word, thus robbing future generations of truly knowing God and his ways.

If we are really going to take God's Word seriously, it may be necessary to do a little arithmetic. Whatever we have added, we should subtract, and whatever we have subtracted, we need to add.