Monday, May 28, 2007

TorahBytes: Healthy Community (Be-ha'alotkha)

The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, "If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost - also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!"...The LORD said to Moses: "Bring me seventy of Israel's elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people. Have them come to the Tent of Meeting, that they may stand there with you. I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit that is on you and put the Spirit on them. They will help you carry the burden of the people so that you will not have to carry it alone." (Bemidbar / Numbers 11:4-6,16,17)

God's desire for people is to live in healthy community. Throughout the Scriptures, it is understood that God's people would live as family with God himself being our Father. Community as family is expressed in a variety of ways, from living with parents and siblings to being part of a clan, a tribe, and the nation. This reality is expanded in the New Covenant era as we become family with other followers of the Messiah.

Sadly it is too common that we profess love for the community, while we are disconnected from the individuals who make up that community. But this certainly was never God's intention when he designed humanity to be in community. Should we therefore accept our dysfunctional communities because they are the norm, or should we strive for the kind of healthy community that God wants for us?

This week's parsha (Torah portion) provides us with one of the things that is needed in the establishment of healthy community. A discontented group within the community of Israel expressed their discontent with their food situation. God miraculously provided a substance called "manna" which they collected daily. After eating manna for a couple of years they understandably got tired of it. I don't think that being bored with the same food day after day was the problem as much as it was their attitude and the expression of that attitude. The discontent of one group was contagious and affected the whole community.

That one discontented subgroup could so affect the whole, is a sign of communal dysfunctionality. This all became too much for Moses to bear. So like every other problem he faced, he went to God in prayer about it. God's answer was to broaden Moses' leadership to a group of 70 recognized elders, who would then be spiritually equipped by God to share Moses' burden.

It is interesting that in the New Covenant era inaugurated by Yeshua, the leadership model for congregations is teams of elders, that is men recognized as elders by the community and who have been spiritually equipped by God for leadership.

Qualified elders are key in the establishment of healthy community. To neglect God-ordained structure is to invite dysfunctionality. Too many New Covenant communities are suffering the ill effects of unhealthy community, but are unwilling to submit to God's structure. Instead of following God's directives, we look for ways to cope with our destructive behavior. It needn't be this way, however. Healthy community is possible, but only as we cooperate with God and his plan for us.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

TorahBytes: Our Lives Affect Others (Naso)

A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was sterile and remained childless. The angel of the LORD appeared to her and said, "You are sterile and childless, but you are going to conceive and have a son. Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean, because you will conceive and give birth to a son. No razor may be used on his head, because the boy is to be a Nazirite, set apart to God from birth, and he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines." (Shoftim / Judges 13:2-5)

The story of Samson is one of the more troubling stories in the Bible. It is troubling because, on one hand it seems that Samson can be called a Bible hero, yet his life was not an exemplary one. Those familiar with the Scriptures are aware that even some of the noblest of biblical personalities had their share of personal issues, but Samson is extreme.

One of the lessons we can learn from his life is that just because a person has the call of God upon them as well as an experience of God's presence and power, doesn't automatically mean that they will live good lives and make wise choices. While God used Samson against Israel's enemies at the time, his tragic end demonstrates where careless living will take us.

How we live our lives makes a difference. It makes a difference to ourselves and to those around us - not to mention our relationship with God. The tendency to do whatever we feel like at the moment is far more destructive than we care to admit.

Samson's mother was to learn this even before Samson was born. When God revealed to her that she would give birth to a special son, she was given specific instructions as to what she was to eat and drink. It was essential that she limit her own freedom in order to ensure her son's fulfillment of his calling.

Her response to God's instructions would make all the difference. Her personal decisions would have a direct impact on her yet-to-be-born son's life - and upon the welfare of her people.

I don't think that Samson's mother's experience is that unique. Obviously there are elements of her story that are particular to her and her son, but the general principle applies to all of us. Samson's mother had to live for someone other than herself. Her decision to do just that set the stage for what God wanted to do in her nation.

How each of one us lives our lives affects others far more than we realize. Unlike Samson's mother we don't usually know exactly whom we affect in this way and how we affect them, but we do - for good or for harm.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

TorahBytes: God's True Identity (Bemidbar)

"In that day," declares the LORD, "you will call me 'my husband'; you will no longer call me 'my master.' I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips; no longer will their names be invoked." (Hosea 2:18,19; English: 2:16,17)

My family and I are fans of C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, a series of well-known children's fantasy books. In these stories people from our world have adventures in a parallel world. Masterfully written, Lewis weaves spiritual insights throughout these books, some of which have helped me to better grasp certain biblical concepts.

However, there is one particular concept Lewis seems to espouse that I take exception to. It is found in the last of the series, entitled The Last Battle. This story pictures the transition from life as we know it, to the age to come. The allegiance of the various characters is basically split between the messianic figure Aslan and an evil god, named Tash. It is only those who have served Aslan who will inherit eternal life in the age to come.

As it turns out one individual who, as far as everyone knows, including himself, has served Tash his whole life, is welcomed into the new creation. The explanation given is that those who have served Tash with noble and good deeds were, without knowing it, actually serving Aslan, while those who, in Aslan's name, lived cruel lives were actually serving Tash.

If this is Lewis's understanding of who, in the end, is truly accepted by God, then it expresses one biblical truth, while missing the mark in another. Certainly throughout history there have been many who have abused the name of the true God for their own evil purposes. Some of these people have put on a good front and others have not. Lewis is right that those who do evil in God's name are actually standing against him. These people should not be surprised when they are rejected by God in the end.

But Lewis has erred in his assertion that allegiance to the true God will be judged solely on the basis of people's intensions, faithfulness and good deeds. Whether or not people clearly and openly profess faith in the true God is therefore irrelevant according to "The Last Battle."

God is more than a spiritual concept; he is an actual personal entity with whom we need to be in proper relationship. God's identity is revealed to us very specifically. He is the God of Abraham , Isaac and Jacob - the God who led his people out of slavery in Egypt. It was essential that his people learn to in no way confuse him with other gods. He knew that if they made that confusion, they would engage in all sorts of destructive behaviors and would break loyalty to him.

The fact is the people of Israel continually engaged in this very confusion. They regularly integrated the spirituality of the nations around them with their service to the true God.

This week's Haftarah is taken from the writings of the prophet Hosea. Through him God foretold of a time when this confusion would be no more. Baal was a popular false god in those days. Throughout Israelite history the people were drawn into Baal worship. Through the passage quoted above we see that the true God was being called by the name of "Baal." The reference to "my master" is actually "my Baal." To the people of that day, they were one and the same. The day would come, however, when this confusion would be broken for good.

God's true identity is found in who he really is and not simply through our intentions. Our acknowledgement of his true identity is an essential part of being in right relationship with him. While true faith is not just a matter of using correct religious labels, to disregard the way in which God has revealed himself is to disregard him.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

TorahBytes: Author's Intent (Be-har & Be-hukkotai)

Do men make their own gods? Yes, but they are not gods! (Jeremiah 16:20)

I have a friend who is a university English professor. I was somewhat surprised when he explained to me that the general approach to studying literature today disregards the author's intent. Instead, the goal of literature is to get in touch with what the text means to the reader. Personal interpretation has become infinitely more important than what the writer of the work had attempted to communicate.

Maybe I am overly influenced by my own upbringing (elementary and secondary education in Canada starting in the early 1960's through the mid-1970's), but I thought if there was some way to ascertain the intent of a written work, then that would establish its meaning. I can accept that I may be affected by the work in a way that the writer didn't anticipate. But that is more a matter of application, not interpretation.

The reluctance today to seek original intent stems from the popular philosophy of relativism. According to this worldview, life is what you perceive it to be. There is no actual reality to get in touch with. Everything then becomes a matter of perception alone.

I find this way of thinking lacks integrity. Do people who claim to think like this actually expect others to treat their communications in the same way? If I receive a written message from someone, is it for me discover what it means to me or is it assumed that I will interpret the message in keeping with the author's intent.

The sooner I come to grips with the way things really are, the sooner I will live life in the way God intended me to. The sooner I adjust my perceptions to reality, the better it will be for me and for others in my life.

The words of Jeremiah from this week's Haftarah, confront relativism. People make gods; they create values and ideals; they establish principles and ways of thinking. But no matter how elaborate or impressive the things that we make might be, that which is false is false. Only what is really true is true.

A false god is a false god. It doesn't matter if it has been in the family line for generations or if others paid a high price for it. It is still false. It may take a long time before the truth is known, but its day of reckoning will come.

What I believe or you believe about life or God or truth or whatever, means nothing apart from its reality. Do not believe the lie that truth can't be known. The only ones who want you to believe that, are those who also want you to believe their lies.

Like all literature, the universe too has an author - an author who designed it with an intent - an intent that can be known. Whatever meaning people derive from the universe, it is about time we came to grips with its author's intent.