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.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

TorahBytes: Telling It Like It Is (Devarim)

Your country is desolate, your cities burned with fire; your fields are being stripped by foreigners right before you, laid waste as when overthrown by strangers. (Isaiah 1:7)

In the opening chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah we encounter a very negative description of life in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). The interesting thing about this is that it probably isn't an accurate description of what was going on around him when he spoke these words. If my understanding is correct, Isaiah lived during a basically prosperous time. While there were various threats from the world powers of his day, for the most part, things were pretty good.

What Isaiah spoke of was not to happen until some time much later, when the Land would become completely desolate and the people carried away into exile. Yet he spoke of it as if it were the current reality. This is what it was like for many of the prophets. Their understanding of life was affected more by what they saw in the future, than whatever the current circumstances suggested.

Note that what the prophets were saying were not simply predictions. They were not just foretelling future events. Their speaking of the future was intimately connected to the welfare of the people to whom they were addressing as well as to those who would read their words in future generations.

People tend to derive their understanding of life from their circumstances. If things are going well, then we must be doing what's right. If things are bad, then we tend to seek change to make our lives better. This way of thinking neglects the influences of forces outside of our control. It is a way of thinking that disregards God and our fundamental need to submit to his will. It is a way of thinking that forgets that God is the Ruler of the Universe and of our circumstances.

The prophet comes with a message of God's reality. He cuts through the fog of life's circumstances. He comes to heal our spiritual nearsightedness, bringing into focus the implications of our current way of life.

It is too bad that the prophets are rarely heeded. They are too often seen as party poopers - they are the "glass-is-half-empty" kind of people. But the issue isn't over how positive or negative their message is, but rather over whether or not they are telling the truth.

Discerning the validity of their message isn't really that difficult to do. It is not as if the messages of the biblical prophets came out of nowhere. Their words of warning and promise were firmly founded upon God's earlier revelation to Israel through the Torah. The Torah clearly warned that if the people did not submit to God then they would be in big trouble. That's basically what prophets such as Isaiah were saying. They understood where the hearts of the people of their day were at and knew that they were heading down a destructive road. I don't think they were just figuring it out on their own, however. God enabled them to see what was really going on and where it would lead. Their job, then, was to tell it like it is.

We need people today who, like the prophets of old, are willing to tell it like it is. Even with the threats of global terrorism, world-wide epidemics, and unrest in many places, most of us think everything is just fine, when it is not. If we would be willing to compare our lives with the standards of God in his Word, how would we see the world today? And if we were brave enough to see it, who would be willing to tell it like it is?

Sunday, July 01, 2007

TorahBytes: Household Responsibility (Mattot & Masei)

When a young woman still living in her father's house makes a vow to the LORD or obligates herself by a pledge and her father hears about her vow or pledge but says nothing to her, then all her vows and every pledge by which she obligated herself will stand. (Bemidbar / Numbers 30:3,4)

The Torah gives us an interesting perspective on household responsibility. The context of its directives on this issue assumes that a husband and father is to take responsibility for his wife and daughters respectively. Before we get into the main thing I wish to address, I want to mention that, contrary to what some may think, the Torah's understanding of the husband's and father's role in the household in no way degrades the worth of women. In fact the equality of males and females is made clear by the statement that vows made by widows and divorcees are binding (30:9). If women lacked value before God and within Israelite society, then their vows would be worthless or easily deemed invalid. The specific issue we are looking at, namely household responsibility, is not about the worth of individuals, but about the roles pertaining to households, in particular the special role given by God to husbands and fathers.

The Torah teaches that if a wife or daughter makes a vow (a promise to God), and her husband or father hears about it, he has the right to nullify it. But if he says nothing about it, then the vow stands. This clearly outlines for us the delineation of responsibility within the household. It is important to note that if the husband or father says nothing, then the vow is binding. If he nullifies it after a period of time, then "he is responsible for her guilt" (30:15).

I have the impression that we live in a day when husbands are, for the most part, disengaged from family life. Whether or not the husband and father is physically present with his family, fewer and fewer fathers get involved in the aspirations and desires of their wives and daughters. These principles apply to sons as well, though the context here is specifically wives and daughters.

Our passage assumes a certain level of involvement on the part of husbands and fathers. This kind of involvement is not simply about car pooling, family vacations, or other occasions when a man might just be present with his family. This kind of involvement implied by our passage is that when a husband or father is engaged sufficiently to hear and interact with the aspirations and desires of his wife and daughters.

The most crucial thing to understand before we can be the godly husbands and fathers we are called to be is that it is we who bear responsibility before God for our wives and daughters. Husbands and fathers will answer to God for their families. I know this is contrary to what many cultures believe today. I also know that this is contrary to what many people who adhere to the Bible believe today. But if this is the Torah's perspective on the delineation of responsibility in the household and this same perspective is expressed throughout the entire Bible, then accepting our special role of responsibility is necessary if we want to build godly households.

Too many men today, out of fear and intimidation, avoid confronting their families with what they know is right. God calls husbands and fathers to create the kind of boundaries in our homes that will protect our families from harm and lead them effectively in God's ways. This does not mean we run their lives for them or think on their behalf. But when they seek to step outside God's boundaries and we know better, God expects us to speak up. We will answer to God for every time we have failed to do so.

TorahBytes: Life Isn't Just Fun and Games (Pinhas)

"Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you," declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 1:8)

Jeremiah was called by God to be a prophet at a most difficult time in Jewish history. The northern kingdom of Israel had been overrun by the Assyrian empire many years prior and now the southern kingdom of Judah was in the hands of the Babylonian empire. Jeremiah would see the destruction of the temple and the vast majority of his people taken away into exile. God gave him the difficult job of telling the people that this was all due to God's judgment upon them and that they should submit to it. Even though the leadership of his day recognized God's call on his life, they regarded him as a traitor. Jeremiah took no delight in the message he was given to proclaim, but through it all he remained faithful to God and his word.

Jeremiah was at first intimidated by the task God gave him, due to his youth. But God told him not to be afraid, since God himself would be with him and would rescue him. To be honest, I wonder about these words. As the story of Jeremiah's life plays out, he had a pretty hard time of it. Besides having to live through the general hardships of his day, he had to endure the disregard for his message, personal criticism, imprisonment, and forced exile. How could these things happen, if God promised to take care of him? Did God not come through for Jeremiah?

In order to properly answer this question, we need to take a closer look at what God actually promised him and how it related to the difficulties he faced.

God didn't say that Jeremiah would not have a hard time. He said he would be with him and would rescue him. The fact is that even though Jeremiah had a hard life, he was able to remain true to his calling and survive through it all. We don't know the exact circumstance surrounding his death, but the list of kings provided at the beginning of his book makes it clear that he lived a long life.

My difficulty with understanding how God's promises are in keeping with Jeremiah's life has more to do with my personal distaste for hardship. When I read references in the Bible about God's commitment to be with his people forever, I tend to take that to mean that if God is real, and I have a right relationship with him, then my life is going to be comfortable.

I believe that one of the reasons why I think this way is due to some general misnomers I have about life. There's a part of me that believes that life is or should be about fun and games, so when I hear that the God of the Universe is with me, then I expect that things are going to work out the way that I want.

What has taken me many years to grasp is that life is actually a battle. Whatever our circumstances, we are all living in the midst of war - a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil. It was just more obvious in Jeremiah's case than it might be for most of us, but we all share his call to some extent - the call to stand against the forces of evil, whatever the cost.

Once we can accept that life is not about fun and games, then we can see how much God was with Jeremiah and that he really did rescue him time and time again. And as we are willing to stand in the midst of the battles we face, we too can experience what it means for God to be with us and to be rescued by him.