Sunday, September 28, 2008

TorahBytes: Fighting Fat (Va-Yelekh)

For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 31:20; ESV)

According to this verse, fat is trouble. Near the end of Moses' life God warned the people of Israel that their future prosperity would be the cause of their spiritual downfall. God had promised that if they would obey his commands, they would be prospered in every way. Yet while prosperity is a blessing from God, it undermines the spirituality that led to it.

Prosperity in this verse is pictured specifically in terms of food. After years of living in bleak wilderness conditions where they had to completely depend on God for food and water every day, they would live in their own land, build homes, and grow their own food. Under God's blessing, their agricultural efforts would be successful, resulting in a bountiful harvest. Lots of food means lots of eating. Lots of eating means getting fat.

The problem with fat in the way God speaks of it here is that it creates the illusion of sufficiency. Being fat is a condition whereby our bodies carry a great deal more substance than we require to survive. The lack of need of food translates consciously or unconsciously into a lack of need of God.

Notice that God is speaking primarily to the nation, not individuals. He is not saying that people who eat too much automatically turn to other gods. He is speaking about a nation that becomes full and grows fat. He is speaking about what would happen when his people as a nation are prosperous. When a culture has much more than it needs, its relationship to God is in danger.

There are many societies today that could be categorized as fat. Not only are the waistlines of these societies larger than the world average, their overall lifestyles could be called fat. These are those societies that are able to give themselves to an abundance of things and activities that are not essential to living. That these societies may perceive their luxuries as necessities, is a further indication of how fat they really are.

Only societies that are fat struggle to lose weight. Fighting fat is an impossible battle, not because we cannot learn to effectively diet, but because fat is more than about individual choices and more than just a diet issue. Fat is the result of a selfish society.

When God called Abraham, he promised to bless him and make him a blessing (Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-3). The purpose of receiving God's blessing is to bless others. The purpose of prosperity is not personal success and comfort, but it is to be the means by which we alleviate the needs of others. To successfully fight fat we don't need a diet plan, we need a plan to die to self. We need a completely different way of looking at life: one that puts God and his ways first.

Prosperity is not the problem. We are. Our natural spiritual condition cannot handle God's blessings. Instead of administrating his blessings effectively, we get fat on them instead. The Torah understands this, thus preparing our hearts for the needed transformation that only the Messiah can provide. His life confronts our fat lifestyles. His death provides forgiveness. His resurrection frees us to live fat-free lives.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

TorahBytes: Good Question (Nizzavim)

Why has the LORD done thus to this land? What caused the heat of this great anger? (Devarim / Deuteronomy 29:24; ESV)

One of the delightful things about young children is observing their intellectual development. It takes a considerable amount of time for human beings to correctly associate terms and phrases with their respective concepts. For example, years ago one of our sons asked my wife in the early morning, "When will it become pitch white?" thinking that pitch white was the opposite of the pitch black of nighttime.

An example from my own childhood was when I asked my older cousin a particular question. I cannot remember what my question was, but I do remember his answer. He said to me, "That is a good question." At first I was so excited that my cousin would compliment me on my question, that it was of such extraordinary quality. And then, I waited for the good answer. I didn't know that a good question was one to which there was no answer, which disappointed me.

Perhaps that was a defining moment in my life, because since then I have been asking "good questions". I continue to ask questions to which people either don't know the answer or they don't want to answer.

This week's Torah portion includes such a question. Not long before his death, Moses was telling the people that the children of a future generation may ask the following good question due to their observation of the desolation of the Promised Land: "Why has the LORD done thus to this land? What caused the heat of this great anger?" (Devarim / Deuteronomy 29:24; ESV). In this case Moses does provide an answer:
Then people will say, "It is because they abandoned the covenant of the LORD, the God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt, and went and served other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them. Therefore the anger of the LORD was kindled against this land, bringing upon it all the curses written in this book, and the LORD uprooted them from their land in anger and fury and great wrath, and cast them into another land, as they are this day" (Devarim / Deuteronomy 29:25-28)
You may be wondering why I refer to this as a good question if a good question is one to which we don't have an answer. While Moses and the future generation to which he was referring knew the answer and was willing to give it, I wonder if our generation is as knowledgeable and willing. I wonder if someone would ask the same kind of question today, could we and would we give such an answer or would we respond with "good question" just like my cousin did.

The current situation in the Land of Israel is a complex one. Certainly it is better than it has been for much of the past two thousand years. Still, it is not all that God intended. Are we willing to answer the question, "Why is the Land of Israel in the state it is in?" How about the state of the world? Or the state of our congregations? Or our families? Or our individual lives? Are we willing to answer the question, "Why are we in the state we are in?" Or are we going to say, "Good question"?

One of the problems with telling a child "Good question", meaning "I don't know", "I don't want to say", or "I don't want to think about it" is that they learn to stop asking such questions. I fear that this is where many of us are at today. Not only are we not getting the most important questions answered, we are not even asking the questions.

Why not?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

TorahBytes: God's Reflectors (Ki Tavo)

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. (Isaiah 60:1; ESV).

This section of the prophet Isaiah speaks of the time when God will establish the kind of relationship with the people of Israel that he intended. With the coming of the Messiah, we understand that this can be a reality right now to anyone who truly trusts in him. In Yeshua, God has returned to Zion, so that we, Jew and Gentile alike, can experience the blessing promised to Abraham so long ago.

The word picture painted by Isaiah is that of the dawning of a new day after a long, difficult night. The people of Israel had been chosen by God to be his instruments of blessing to the entire world. This indeed has happened, but not in the way anticipated. It was essential for the world to understand that human beings on our own cannot be what God wants us to be. The consequence of the rebellion of Adam and Eve against God is the predicament we are all born into. In order to come into the blessing promised to Abraham, we first need to accept the reality of that predicament. One of the functions of the Torah was to emphasize the fact that we are all sinners, incapable of pleasing God on our own. Israel's failure to live up to God's standard prepared us for the coming of the Messiah and his redemption. His sacrificial death and the overcoming of death through his resurrection is God's antidote to the predicament of sin.

Isaiah likened God's solution to the dawning of a new day. The light of a new day reflecting off the face of his people as God comes to rescue his people through the Messiah. The long night of despair, fear, and rejection is over as the new day of forgiveness, peace, and restoration dawns.

Note how Isaiah says that this wonderful experience is not just something that happens to us. The dawning of God's light is not something of which we are only spectators. This is not simply a prediction about the changing of circumstances, but rather it is a call to engage that change. As God's light dawns, we need to be reflectors of that light - or in Isaiah's words, "Arise, shine..."

Because God has made us right with him, we can be his reflectors. We reflect his light by directing our hearts and lives in such a way so that his goodness, his truth, and his reality will be seen by others.

As his reflectors, God uses us to reflect his light in order to shine his light in the world today. The day will come when God's light will encompass the whole earth, but for now, he calls us to stand out like beacons in an otherwise dark world. Not everyone will appreciate this however. For some we will be the means of their also becoming God's reflectors, but others will be blinded by that same light and will respond negatively to us. This is one of the reasons why some of us who at some level are aware of God's light refuse to be his reflectors. They may think it is possible to derive benefit from God's light while not disrupting the darkness around us. But they may be surprised one day to learn that they never actually really knew God's light at all, but rather have remained in the darkness. To truly know God's light we need also to reflect it.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

TorahBytes: Consistent Standards (Ki Teze)

When you are encamped against your enemies, then you shall keep yourself from every evil thing. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 23:9; ESV)

The Torah is filled with moral, spiritual, and ethical directives from God. God made it clear that his people were to live according to his standards. The consistency and seriousness of God's call to live righteous and just lives may make the verse just quoted seem strange. The people of Israel were told to keep themselves from evil when they were encamped against their enemies. Why would God say this? Had he not already make it abundantly clear that we should not do evil? Perhaps this is a case of repetition for emphasis. Something like "keep yourselves from evil in your home, in your fields, during the day, at night, at times of peace and times of war." However that is not the context of this directive. It appears to be one of many stand alone stipulations. It seems therefore that there is something special about this requirement to refrain from evil when encamped against enemies.

God, in his wisdom, so understands human nature. He knew that it was necessary to especially direct his people to keep themselves from evil in time of war. He knew that when we are in high pressure situations, we tend to adjust our standards to meet our perceived needs. It is typical of human behavior to be easy on ourselves when times are hard. When we cannot access our normal comforts, we look for comfort in other ways. But God makes it clear - the call to abstain from evil is not dependant upon our circumstances. Even in the most difficult of situations, we need to stick to God's moral, spiritual, and ethical standards.

If God's people were required to adhere to his standards in time of war, how much more when we face other kinds of challenges. Yet in these days of moral relativity, we tend to do whatever seems right at any given moment. It seems that few of us are committed to an unchanging morality that we stick to no matter what. Instead we make up morality and ethics as we go along, changing our standards depending on the situation and how we feel at the moment.

But this is not God's way. God calls people to his high standards in whatever situation we find ourselves. To live up to that standard requires us to know his Word and grow in wisdom in order to apply his Word to all of life. It requires us to be prepared for life's challenges through careful study of the Bible. It is tragic that to have the confidence that accompanies such understanding is perceived as arrogance today. Flexible morality and pragmatic ethics is what is valued most, not consistency.

Of course in order to refrain from evil, one needs to accept that evil exists. We need to recognize it for what it is and make sure that we have nothing to do with it. This requires discernment and judgment in order to know what to refrain from. This too comes from careful study of the Bible, but also the willingness to distinguish between types of human behavior, another thing that is unpopular today.

While this verse specifically refers to how to behave when facing battle situations, it also creates battles. For when we fail to recognize evil and refuse to stand against it, we will not conflict with others as readily. It was partly Israel's resistance to false spirituality that created conflict with other peoples. It is the same for us. Keeping from evil will create conflict. As we face that conflict, we may be tempted to adjust our standards in order to alleviate the conflict, the very thing we must not do.

As we find ourselves at odds with the culture, we need to remember to keep ourselves from evil. Failing to do so not only undermines God's Word to us, but leads to our being taken captive by a culture that is at odds with our God.

Monday, September 01, 2008

TorahBytes: Fragmented Existence (Shofetim)

Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you. You shall not plant any tree as an Asherah beside the altar of the LORD your God that you shall make. And you shall not set up a pillar, which the LORD your God hates. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 16:20-22; ESV)

As I read the Scriptures I am continually struck by how they relate to all of life. That it touches every area of life is something that many Bible readers understand, but the way it does so is not always acknowledged. The Bible sees life as integrated. While not every aspect of life directly affects every other aspect of life, effective living is accomplished through a holistic rather than a compartmentalized approach. While we tend to compartmentalize our lives, the Bible sees the various aspects of life as one whole. It is not as if the spiritual aspects of life are separate from the non-spiritual ones. The Bible calls us to live life from a godly perspective, that is all of life lived in response to the one true God.

This is why the Torah can speak about the need to uphold justice and the rejection of idolatry in the same context. Remaining true to God is intimately connected to how we treat people. This may be difficult for us to understand, even when we regularly read the Bible and respect its teaching. It is difficult because we don't understand life this way. Instead of seeing life as an integrated whole, we tend to break up life into compartments that seem to have little to do with each other.

I know that most people are not philosophically minded and therefore don't think in these terms. Most people don't go around talking about their compartmentalized vs. integrated lives. But it is important for followers of the Scriptures to understand this if we are going to live life the way the Bible prescribes. While we might say we adhere to the Bible's teaching, we don't always notice how we are swept away by the assumptions of the world around us. There is more to living a biblical life style than being committed to a set of moral principles and professing to adhere to a list of religious statements. In the Scriptures God provides us with an entire outlook on life which is quite different from the way life is lived today.

For many of us, life in the 21st century includes a set of assumptions that actually undermine a biblical lifestyle. While it is always possible to remain faithful to biblical principles in any situation in any time period, we face a bigger challenge today than we might be willing to admit.

For example a great number of people live their lives over an enormous territory. Many people today travel in a single day further than most people throughout history travelled in their life time. One of the effects of this is that our homes, our places of our work, where we pursue leisure, and the services we partake of are completely separate from one another. Instead of only relating to one social group as people have done for most of history, we have many, most of which may never intersect with the others. Our business life is separate from our home life which is separate from our congregational life which is separate from our medical life and so on. This fragmentation is probably felt most in our home lives, since families have less and less shared experiences. We spend most of our energy at work or school and then wonder why we struggle to feel connected to the members of our households.

The Bible doesn't envision life this way. It is not just that the Scriptures were written when life was simpler. The values expressed in Scripture kept communities knit together. It was ingrained into the society that all of life was meant to relate to all of life. God's directives on land use, holy days, family relationships, sexual fidelity, care for the poor and needy, hygiene, authority structures, all helped build healthy community life.

Society's rejection of God's ways in favor of "doing our own thing" has resulted in a fragmented existence, where the bits and pieces of our lives have little or nothing to do with each other. As a result we spend so much energy just to get through a day. No longer do we have a rhythm of life that allows for strong community and healthy families, which are the basis of strong and healthy individuals, which are the basis for strong community and healthy families, and so on.

What is the solution? First, we need to recognize what is going on. Our fragmented existence is overwhelming us to the point of distraction. We cannot be what God meant us to be while being pulled in so many directions as we are today. We need to begin to reverse the trend. If life was meant to be lived as an integrated whole within families and communities, then we need to take steps to restore just that. Working closer to home or from home would bring us closer to one another. We should ask ourselves if it is really necessary for us and our children to pursue the amount of leisure and extra-curricular activities that we do. Restoring family time, especially at meals would draw families together. Equally important would be to discover ways in which families and neighborhoods could begin to have shared experiences again. Congregations need to become places of community, not just a place where we satisfy our spiritual needs and wants. In fact, it is in these biblical-based communities that we can help one another restore life to the way it was meant to be lived.