Sunday, June 24, 2007

TorahBytes: The Spiritual Roots of Illicit Behavior (Balak)

While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate and bowed down before these gods. So Israel joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor. And the LORD's anger burned against them. (Bemidbar / Numbers 25:1-3)

The history of the people of Israel is fundamentally a spiritual one. As a nation created as a result of God's promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and then rescued by God from oppression in Egypt, Israel was called to be God's people. According to the Torah, the welfare of the nation would be dependent on its faithfulness to God. Israel was also to be the framework through which God would send the Messiah, the Savior of the whole world. Israel's history has also been designed to help the rest of the world understand spiritual principles.

Whenever Israel would turn to other gods, it would inevitably cause them great trouble. As we read in this week's parsha, before entering the Promised Land, Israel was in the vicinity of the nation of Moab. At some point they joined the Moabites in their worship of the false god, Baal, resulting in the death of thousands of Israelites.

Just prior to this incident, we read how Balak, king of Moab, having heard of Israel's earlier exploits, hired a sorcerer by the name of Balaam to curse the Israelites. God intervened and caused Balaam to bless Israel every time he tried to curse them. We may wonder then why God didn't intervene again in order to prevent Israel from turning to Baal as they did. Balaam's attempt to curse them was completely out of their hands. In that case God foiled the King of Moab's evil scheme. But in the case of the Moabite women, there was something else going on.

As we can see from the verse quoted at the start, Israel's sin was not purely religious. It was spiritual, as I will explain shortly, but not purely religious. It was not as if the people were drawn into simply singing songs to Baal, which would be bad enough, but they also engaged in sexual immorality. It is difficult to tell if they were lured into Baal worship by the advances of the Moabite women or if the sexual activity was part and parcel of the worship. Either way, unlike the earlier attempted spiritual attack, the men of Israel willfully engaged in illicit sexual activity.

What isn't obvious from the immediate context is it was Balaam that instigated this sexual activity (See Bemidbar / Number 31:15-17). What he could not accomplish through direct spiritual attack, he did through the advances of the Moabite women.

The lure of illicit sexual activity continues to be a snare to people today. The connection with Baal worship and the resulting destruction should warn us of the seriousness of such activity. Even though secular societies rarely, if ever, acknowledge the spiritual aspect of immoral behavior, that doesn't mean that it is not rooted in evil spiritual forces. The tactics of evil have not changed in all these centuries. Until we accept how serious sexual immorality really is and what its roots really are, the forces of evil will continue to overcome us.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

TorahBytes: You Don't Have To Do Stupid Things (Hukkat)

And Yiftah (English: Jephthah) made a vow to the LORD: "If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD's, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering." (Shoftim / Judges 11:30,31)

The biblical book of Shoftim (English: Judges) includes some "interesting" stories and characters. It underscores for us the interpretive principle of prescriptive vs., descriptive passages. Prescriptive passages are those that provide general directives or life principles to live by, such as "Honor your mother and your father" or "To give is better than to receive." Descriptive passages are those which simply describe an incident or provide dialogue without necessarily encouraging the reader to follow suit. This isn't always straightforward, which gives us the opportunity to ponder over these passages as we seek God to speak to us through them.

Shoftim, is especially challenging in this regard. Several of its characters who seem to be the heroes of the stories, engage in some disturbing behaviors. Since these characters appear to be divinely inspired to save the day, so to speak, the reader may be inclined to think that these behaviors are acceptable.

When this passage was chosen to be part of the annual cycle of readings, it was decided to stop the reading at the point where the hero wins the day, which leaves out the disturbing part. Maybe the conclusion of the story was just too embarrassing or too difficult to handle. Yiftah promised God that if God would give him victory in battle, then, upon his return home, he would sacrifice whatever came out of the door of his house to meet him. That much we learn from this week's passage. But what is not included is what it was that met him upon his return. I don't know what Yiftah was thinking when he made his promise in the first place. Did he think he would be initially met by one of his goats or sheep? As it turned out it was his daughter. So what does he do? Does he say to himself, "Oy veh! Am I meshuge (English: crazy person)! Forgive me O Lord for making such a rash vow!"? No, instead he tells his daughter how bad he feels that he has to go through with his promise!

I could see some supposedly spiritually minded people attempting to justify Yiftah's actions. After all it was God to whom he made this promise. Of course his daughter's death was tragic, but "God is God," they might say. But what does God think about murder and human sacrifice? While we should keep our promises even when it is extremely difficult, it is never to late to stop ourselves from doing stupid things.

One of the things about descriptive passages, even though they are not prescriptive, is that we are still to learn from them. The story of Yiftah and his daughter shows us how someone could be chosen by God and inspired by him to do great things, yet still say and do some of the most ridiculous and destructive things in the entire Bible.

What lesson should we learn from this? Are we to learn that if we are really spritual, then we can get away with murder, both literally and figuratively, or should we stop and realize that being spritual doesn't autmactically prevent anyone from doing stupid things? I suggest that as soon as we realize that we have gone down a foolish road - no matter how we got there or how far down that road we are - it is never too late to change course.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

TorahBytes: Do We Dare Dream? (Korah)

Moses also said to Korah, "Now listen, you Levites! Isn't it enough for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the rest of the Israelite community and brought you near himself to do the work at the LORD's tabernacle and to stand before the community and minister to them? He has brought you and all your fellow Levites near himself, but now you are trying to get the priesthood too. It is against the LORD that you and all your followers have banded together. Who is Aaron that you should grumble against him?" (Bemidbar / Numbers 16:8-11).

How do you like your position in life? Do you love it? Do you hate it? Maybe you never think about it. Maybe you think about it all the time. Do you have a dream? Do you dare dream? I hear a lot about daring to dream. Some people think that everyone has a dream - that each and every person deep inside has a yearning to do some great significant thing. Some people call it a destiny, a chosen path that we need to find in order to become all we were intended to be.

As for realizing those dreams or finding our destiny, some say that we can do anything, if we would only put our minds to it - that there's nothing we can't do, if we want it badly enough.

I don't know if that's how the Torah sees it, however. Were the Israelites stuck in oppressive bondage for all those years just because they all failed to want freedom badly enough? Then there was Moses. He was a man of destiny alright. How else can we explain his adoption by Pharaoh's daughter after being left in the Nile to die? We also know he was a man of destiny, because we know the rest of the story. It seems that he knew that he was a man of destiny early on. He had a dream of delivering his people from their bondage. But his dream became a nightmare when he killed an Egyptian, his people rejected his help, Pharaoh sought his life, and he ended up living forty years of his life as a fugitive in the wilderness.

Do you think he held on to his dream all those years? By the time God called him to the task, it doesn't look like it. He resisted the call of God, who had to persuade him to fulfill his destiny. This doesn't sound like the stuff of motivation seminars to me.

Now let’s look at a real dreamer. His name is Korah. His heart's desire was to be in the inner circle of the spiritual life of Israel. As a Levite, he was born into a certain level of spiritual privilege, but he wanted more. He wanted to be a priest (Hebrew: cohen), just like Aaron and his sons. Where did his dream get him? The earth swallowed him up. So much for dreams. Perhaps he had a subterranean destiny. Perhaps not.

I don’t know if everyone has a dream or a destiny. We read about many people in the Bible who did. Besides Moses, there was Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Samuel, David, Solomon, and others. But everybody? Some people have dramatic encounters with God through dreams and visions. Others, like Korah are simply born into their calling. Perhaps the burning in your heart is the fire of God calling you to great things, maybe it’s your discontent. How do we know?

God knows. I don't think there is any easy way to figure this out, but God knows. All we can do is be open to him - although even when we aren't, we may have a Moses experience. But unless we submit ourselves to God and entrust our lives to him, we may end up with a Korah experience.

The key? Here are the words of a dreamer, Solomon:

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. (Mishlei / Proverbs 3:5,6)

Sunday, June 03, 2007

TorahBytes: The Fear Is Real (Shela Lekha)

That night all the people of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, "If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn't it be better for us to go back to Egypt?" And they said to each other, "We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt." (Bemidbar / Numbers 14:1-4)

I don't criticize the people who make up the negative examples (of which there are many) in the Bible. While I would like to think that I would be a Moses confronting Pharaoh or a David challenging Goliath, I fear that I am far more like the complainers and grumblers referred to in this week’s parsha.

It would be nice to think that after seeing God's power expressed so dramatically through the plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea, and after delighting in his miraculous provision of food and water, that when the time came to enter the Promised Land, I would be ready go. Walled cities? No problem! Giants, armed to the teeth? No big deal. With the God of Abraham on our side, it would be like cutting melted butter!

Weren't Joshua and Caleb like that? They were among those who had spied out the land. They were confident. Even though the others brought back an intimidating report and even though they saw all the same things they did, Joshua and Caleb believed God would help them. I would like to be like them. But I have my doubts.

It's so easy to boast about faith in theory. It’s another thing to be confident when facing true danger. It's easy to pretend confidence. It's another think to demonstrate real courage. It's one thing to be calm when there's nothing to fear. It's another thing to stand strong when facing the impossible.

The problem wasn't that the people were scared. It's that they didn't submit their fear to God. When Joshua and Caleb urged them to not give into their fears, but to trust God, they actually wanted to kill them.

We cannot learn the lessons from other people's failures until we can accept that we are prone to the same kind of failure. I wonder how many challenges God has brought into our lives that we have rejected outright due to fear. How many times have we let fear dictate our decisions, rather than submitting to God's direction?

It may be nice to think that we are like Joshua and Caleb, but the sooner we realize we are acting like the others, the sooner we will be able to face the fearful challenges God brings into our lives.