Sunday, April 26, 2009

TorahBytes:Pragmatism Doesn't Work (Aharei Mot & Kedoshim)

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, "Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the LORD your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the LORD your God. You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD." (Vayikra / Leviticus 18:1-5; ESV)

I was having a discussion with one of my son's politically savvy friends who was defending pragmatism as a foundational value for society. Merriam-Webster defines pragmatism as "a practical approach to problems and affairs," which commonly is taken to mean making decisions based upon what works rather than upon principle. This carries a subtle or not- so-subtle critique of idealists, who seem to want to stick to a set of ideals whether or not those ideals produce anything.

The pragmatist's criticism of the idealist is at times well warranted. Idealists can tend to so consume themselves with their grand theoretical notions that they don't allow their ideals to be proven in the real world. At the same time the pragmatist's commitment to "what works" tends to suffer from short-sightedness. Their supposed expertise in getting the job done doesn't easily embrace a long-term view. The pragmatist's apparent short-term gain rarely takes into account associated long-term losses.

One of the reasons for the dominance of pragmatism is un-pragmatic idealism. Understandably when a society's ideals don't seem to work, they will be challenged. While this critique of society's ideals is valid, the solution to ineffective ideals is not necessarily the giving up of those ideals. In fact, it is possible that the ineffectiveness of our ideals may have more to do with our failure to truly adhere to them, rather than an inherent weakness in the ideals themselves. There is nothing that renders grand ideals more ineffective than when we who claim to abide by them, actually deny them by our actions. That's called hypocrisy.

What the pragmatist fails to recognize and the hypocrite knows nothing about is that God's ideals are pragmatic; they really work! They may not deliver the kinds of immediate results that many of us prefer. Following God's ways can be inconvenient, difficult, painful, even embarrassing at times, but they produce long-lasting benefits. Note that following God's ways is also exhilarating, joyful, meaningful, and rewarding, but a focus on short-term results can rob us of these blessings even in the shorter term.

Is it that difficult to see that a good part of the reason for the current economic crisis, the breakdown of the family, and the sexually-transmitted-disease epidemic is due to the rejection of God's ideals in favor of short-sighted pragmatism? And yet I wonder how many of us think that this current crisis will be fixed with the very pragmatism that helped create the crisis in the first place. Pragmatism is not really pragmatic. If our so-called solutions just create more problems, they are not solutions. Pragmatism doesn't work.

It is only as we return to God's ways that we as individuals and communities will find real solutions to today's problems. Real commitment to God's ideals is the only thing that will truly work.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

TorahBytes: We Cannot Contain God (Tazri'a & Mezorah)

Thus says the LORD: "Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the LORD. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word." (Isaiah 66:1,2; ESV)

One of the themes of the book of the prophet Isaiah is the contrast between the futility of idols and the reality of God. An idol is made by human hands, has no inherent ability, and is simply an object that exists within the normal confines of time and space. God, on the other hand, is the creator of all things, does whatever pleases him, and is not limited nor contained by the material world. In the beginning of the last chapter of Isaiah, God himself speaks of the irony regarding his own temple in Jerusalem. While he decided in some sense to dwell within this man-made structure, did people really think that this was his true home? Did they think that they possessed a building that was actually God's resting place? Did they really think that the God of Israel, the Creator and Master of the Universe, was contained within his temple in the same way idols of the pagan world were contained within theirs?

The answer is obviously "No!" God is beyond our comprehension and control. That he would allow himself to have anything to do with human beings is based solely upon his own self determination. There is nothing we can do to manipulate him into action. Yet throughout history it has been so easy to misinterpret his desire to bless us with the notion that he is putting himself under our control. His presence among us is wrongly taken to mean that we now somehow possess him. His prior blessings become the justification of current wrongdoing. What was meant to represent the reality of God in our midst to remind us to submit to his will becomes a trophy to which we appeal in order to justify our own desires.

The temple was to demonstrate God's desire to dwell among his beloved creatures. He chose Abraham and the nation of Israel as part of his plan to restore our right relationship with him which was lost in the Garden of Eden. That the temple like just about every other token of blessing God bestowed upon us would become our focus instead of God himself served to show our inability to properly relate to God. This was all in preparation for the coming of the Messiah, who, through his sacrificial death and his resurrection, would provide all that was necessary to restore us to God.

Yet, those of us who have come to know God through Yeshua the Messiah repeat the same mistake of God's people of old. We mistakenly confuse his expressions of mercy, kindness, and love to think that he is now under our control. We somehow think we have him under lock and key within our definitions, denominations, and ministries.

Isaiah's words are clear that God does give his attention to people, but to whom exactly? God says through him, "But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word." God doesn't dwell within man-made structures, whether they be physical buildings or theological and philosophical ideologies. God regards humble people who fear his every word. This is not to say that physical buildings and theology have no place as some people think. Just because knowing God is first and foremost a matter of the heart doesn't negate the need for the effective use of facilities nor does it undermine the importance of theological truth. For any man-made system, whether they are ancient traditions or post-modern apparently unorganized chat sessions, easily degenerate into idols of human control, unless we remain in a posture of humble submission to God's word.

TorahBytes: Pay Attention to Detail (Shemini)

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. (Vayikra / Leviticus 10:1,2; ESV)

Both this week's Torah and Haftarah portions speak of the dire consequences of neglecting to carefully pay attention to how we relate to God. Following a most dramatic revelation of God to the people in response to their adherence to his word, Aaron's sons offer what the Torah calls "unauthorized fire". Exactly what it was they did, we do not know, but that is not the point. What is clear is that they approached God in a way that was wrong, and it cost them their lives.

I have mentioned on other occasions that there are things I read in the Scriptures that I don't like; this being one of them. That these two men would be burned to death sounds extreme. Perhaps it is, but that's what God did. That's how serious it was. The reader of the story is supposed to understand that. The story is meant to impact us, to shock us, to instill within us the fear of God.

King David should have known this. As a man "after God's own heart", he knew that his directives were meant to be followed. Why he neglected God's word on the occasion of bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, we don't know, but he did. As we read in this week's Haftarah, his neglect resulted in another unnecessary death:
And David and all the house of Israel were making merry before the LORD, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God. (2 Samuel 6:5-7; ESV)

In the case of Nadab and Abihu, we don't know their motive, but in David's case his heart was for God. He and those with him were so happy about restoring the precious Ark to a place of honor. Yet, David failed to do this wonderful thing in the way God had prescribed. Instead of having Levites carry the Ark on their shoulders, they transported it on an ox cart. When this unauthorized mode of transportation malfunctioned, Uzzah did what seemed right to him. He grabbed the Ark and God killed him.

Again, you and I may not like this story. David didn't. Aaron didn't like that God killed his two sons (see Vayikra / Leviticus 10:19). But how we feel about God and his ways is beside the point. God, the Creator of the universe and Lord of all, sees many things very differently from you and me. What we need to accept is that the way life works has nothing to do with how you and I feel about it. We may not like or appreciate how God does things, but seeing that he is God, he may do whatever he wishes.

Neglecting God's directives is killing us today. It may not be as dramatic as these stories, but no less real. Broken relationships, dysfunctional families, disease, lack of purpose and meaning, and addictions are just some of the consequences of our failure to pay careful attention to God's word. That people who have never read the Scriptures don't live according to God's ways is one thing, but that those who claim to know and honor the Scriptures fail to pay attention to its details is another.

We need to learn the lessons of these terrible stories. We need to make sure we know God's directives and follow them carefully. His word may seem to be inconvenient, unreasonable or irrelevant at times. But they are still his ways and to neglect them will result in negative consequences, whereas to abide by them is life.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

TorahBytes: Tell the Story (Pesach)

You shall tell your son on that day, "It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt." (Shemot / Exodus 13:8; ESV)

Pesach (English: Passover) starts this year the evening of April 8. At Pesach we gather together for a Seder (pronounced say'-der) - a ceremonial meal designed to retell the story of our deliverance from being slaves in Egypt many centuries ago. For Jewish people Pesach reinforces this crucial part of our history as our defining moment. Our beginnings are in the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but our peoplehood is defined as those whom God himself delivered from bondage in Egypt.

The events of the past, both good and bad, are what shape us as individuals and communities. Knowing our history provides us with understanding of who we are. Today's overemphasis on the individual gives us the impression that we can define ourselves apart from our history, but that is plain nonsense. Just as we cannot define our own genetic code, but have inherited it from our past through our parents, so we enter this life with our historical background pre-defined, setting the stage for whatever part each one of us will play.

Pesach reminds us that we have a story to tell, a story that reaches far back in time. At Pesach we recite these words verbatim to our children: "It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt." Even though we were not literally in Egypt at the time of the deliverance, these words intimately connect us to this past event. We are the children of the Great Deliverance. We are the descendants of the slaves set free. We are the benefactors of God's rescuing power. We tell the story of Pesach so as not to forget. We tell the story so our children would know who they are.

However, to effectively tell the story, we must do more than simply go through the motions. We may recite the Seder much in the same way as our parents and grandparents did, but do we really grasp that this story really is our story? Whether we do or not doesn't change the reality of our past, nor does it change our true identity. Yet failure to effectively tell the story cuts us off from the impact of that reality. We are slaves set free. More than that! We are slaves set free not due to our own ingenuity, strength, or popularity, but rather we are slaves set free by the hand of God. What a story to tell!

But there's more! This story, however wonderful it is, is the backdrop of an even greater story of deliverance. What God did by rescuing us from slavery in Egypt foreshadows our deliverance from slavery to sin and death. What we as a people experienced in Egypt is a taste of what all people may experience through the Messiah.

Just as we need to retell the story of our deliverance from slavery in Egypt, so we need to retell the story of our greater deliverance in the Messiah. It is fitting that Yeshua directed us to do just that when he celebrated his last Pesach with his disciples. The matza (English: unleavened bread), the wine and the other elements of the Seder, which were designed to be part of the retelling of the earlier deliverance, now also retell the story of the greater deliverance.

Through the Messiah these stories of deliverance can become the stories of everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike, who trusts in him. God invites us to make these stories our stories. And once these stories are truly our stories, then we will truly have a story to tell.