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.