Sunday, May 30, 2010

TorahBytes: Don't Fear! (Shela Lekha)

Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the LORD is with us; do not fear them. (Bemidbar / Numbers 14:9; ESV)

A few years ago I wrote a TorahBytes message entitled The Fear Is Real, where I proposed that it was understandable that the Israelites who spied out the land of Canaan would be afraid of its inhabitants. I mentioned at that time that their real problem was not that they were afraid, but that they gave into their fears. I have heard courage explained as not the absence of fear, but rather doing what needs to be done in spite of fear. There may be some truth in that, but I don't know if that is the way God sees it. For I cannot think of a scripture that says "It's OK to be afraid, as long as you do what is right". Rather, what we read over and over again is "Don't fear."

When the people of Israel were afraid because they were told how big and powerful the inhabitants of the land were, Joshua and Caleb confronted their fear. They told them not to be afraid and why. The reason they gave was that God was with them and would work on their behalf. God had said he would give the inhabitants of the land into the hands of the Israelites, and Joshua and Caleb believed him.

God was real to these two. God's word was true as far as they were concerned. The inhabitants of the land may have been big and numerous, but God was more powerful. If God said he would give Israel victory, he would give Israel victory. There was no reason to fear.

There is a fascinating story about Yeshua, where a synagogue official asked him to heal his daughter. As Yeshua arrived at the place where she was, she died. The people who informed the official of this also suggested to him that he needn't take any more of Yeshua's time. But hearing this, Yeshua said to the official, "Do not fear, only believe." (Mark 5:36; ESV). Yeshua didn't say, "Don't doubt, just believe", he said "Don't fear, only believe." Was the official scared? Maybe not in the way we might think. He wasn't afraid in the same way the people of Israel were afraid of losing their lives in battle. In the case of the official, his was a fear of quiet acceptance of something quite normal, a child dying after an illness. Understandably to believe that there was still hope for his daughter would make him a laughing stock, something many of us have fear of being, and more so for someone of this man's stature as a synagogue official. As it turned out, Yeshua was laughed at when he said to the mourners, "The child is not dead but sleeping" (Mark 5:39; ESV), viewing her condition from God's perspective. To be called by Yeshua into living life this way can be very frightening.

So whether we are the Israelites facing the conquest of the Promised Land or a follower of Yeshua being called to trust him for a miracle, fear will prevent us from doing what God calls us to do.

Fear isn't always a noticeable, conscious emotion. At times the reason why we don't feel afraid is because of fear. That's because we tend to avoid what frightens us to the extent that we aren't afraid. We often only become conscious of our fears when we are forced to face whatever it is we are afraid of. The people of Israel were already afraid of big powerful armies before they faced the prospect of taking the Promised Land. The people already didn't trust that God would help them in such a circumstance. They may not have been in touch with their fear until the situation presented itself, but it was there. Yeshua knew the heart of the synagogue official and confronted his fear in the midst of what was, in the natural, an impossible situation. In order for him to walk in the miraculous, he needed to turn from fear and trust Yeshua.

Fear cannot co-exist with faith. Even if our initial state or reaction is one of fear, in order to live by faith we must reject fear. God knows how much we struggle with this. That is why Yeshua confronts it. We don't have to stay afraid, only believe.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

TorahBytes: Good Complaining (Be-Ha'alotkha)

I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness. (Bemidbar / Numbers 11:14,15; ESV)

The chapter in which these verses appear begins like this:

And the people complained in the hearing of the LORD about their misfortunes, and when the LORD heard it, his anger was kindled, and the fire of the LORD burned among them and consumed some outlying parts of the camp (Bemidbar / Numbers 11:1; ESV).
This is but one example of Israel complaining about their hardships during their years of living in the wilderness. Several times we read of their grumbling and God's punishing them in response. One would get the impression from these incidents that complaining is bad. God doesn't like it; so we shouldn't do it.

The problem with this conclusion, however, is that it doesn't seem to be consistent with the earlier verses we read. In that case, Moses is complaining to God that what he believed God expected of him was more than he could handle. His complaint is pretty intense. He even asks God to kill him rather than let him continue in his situation. In both these cases the complainers had enough of the challenges they were facing. Whether or not they could actually handle their situations or whether or not God would give them special ability to do so didn't matter to them. Enough was enough as far as they were concerned.

Yet unlike the people who were punished for complaining, God responds favorably to Moses and alleviates his unbearable burden. The difference in Moses' case has to do with to whom the complaining was directed. Moses complained to God. The people just complained among themselves. The people simply vented their frustration and fueled discontent among themselves. Moses' complaint engaged the only one who could truly help him with his problem. There is nothing wrong with bringing a reasonable complaint to those who truly have the authority and power to address your situation. But when they are unable or unwilling to alleviate the situation, what are we to do? Does God expect us to just suck it up and quietly endure every negative situation?

The writers of the Psalms didn't think so. A large proportion of the Psalms are complaints. They were not just "singing' the blues", but rather they believed that God heard their complaints and expected him to do something in response.

When we face challenges and hardships, God is not expecting us to suffer in silence. As our Heavenly Father, he longs for us to come to him with our troubles, with our fears, even with our doubts. For only he is able to help us.

As we read in one of the New Covenant letters:

Don't worry about anything; on the contrary, make your requests known to God by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving. Then God's shalom, passing all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds safe in union with the Messiah Yeshua. (Philippians 4:6,7; Complete Jewish Bible).
This doesn't say "Stop worrying and keep your problems to yourself." Rather, instead of worrying we should come to God with what worries us. As we do, we will experience his shalom, his peace.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

TorahBytes: Some Things Only You Can Carry (Naso)

All the service of the sons of the Gershonites shall be at the command of Aaron and his sons, in all that they are to carry and in all that they have to do. And you shall assign to their charge all that they are to carry. (Bemidbar / Numbers 4:27; ESV)

The sons of Moses' brother Aaron were assigned by God to be priests (Hebrew: cohanim), whose primary responsibility was to offer the sacrifices. The priests were part of the tribe of Levi. The rest of the Levites (Hebrew: levi-im), who were not descended from Aaron, were assigned the job of assisting the priests. This week's Torah portion includes some of the specific responsibilities God gave to the Levitical clans. One of the stated responsibilities was the carrying of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle). The Mishkan was a large tent-like structure in which the sacrifices were offered. God was very particular with regard to what each clan had to carry.

The Levites are not the only ones to whom God gives burdens to carry. In one of the New Covenant letters followers of Yeshua were given instructions about carrying burdens, albeit figurative ones. One of the interesting aspects of these instructions is that there is a distinction between those burdens only we can carry and those of which we are to help each other carry:

Brothers, suppose someone is caught doing something wrong. You who have the Spirit should set him right, but in a spirit of humility, keeping an eye on yourselves so that you won't be tempted too. Bear one another's burdens - in this way you will be fulfilling the Torah's true meaning, which the Messiah upholds. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is really nothing, he is fooling himself. So let each of you scrutinize his own actions. Then if you do find something to boast about, at least the boasting will be based on what you have actually done and not merely on a judgment that you are better than someone else; for each person will carry his own load (Galatians 6:1-5; Complete Jewish Bible).
While some people find life more burdensome than others, we all have burdens to bear, loads to carry. These include our day-to-day responsibilities, problems we face, opportunities that present themselves, managing our personal health, relationships, and on and on. All of these require some amount of mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical energy for us to effectively handle them. To refer to responsibilities as things we carry is not to imply that they are negative necessarily, but only that they are responsibilities.

Sometimes we make life heavier for ourselves than it needs to be. We can do this by placing unreasonable expectations on ourselves or by buying into the expectations of others. Yeshua addressed this when he said,

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30; ESV).
The Messiah isn't saying here that our lives should be responsibility free. Rather he is saying that he would not lay upon us anything beyond what God himself requires of us. The religious leaders of those days had piled all sorts of extra responsibilities upon the people, far more than they were able to bear. Yeshua had come to restore right relationship with God, which included removing all sorts of unnecessary burdens from our lives.

The light burden of Yeshua doesn't mean that we should irresponsibly cast off those things which God has determined we should carry. We may attempt to do that through simple neglect or by trying to get others to carry those things which we ourselves must bear. If God is the one who has placed a particular burden on us to carry, no matter how much we try to ignore it or lay it on others, it will keep coming back to us. The sooner we accept our God-given responsibilities the better.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

TorahBytes:Owned by God (Bemidbar)

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, "Behold, I have taken the Levites from among the people of Israel instead of every firstborn who opens the womb among the people of Israel. The Levites shall be mine, for all the firstborn are mine. On the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both of man and of beast. They shall be mine: I am the LORD." (Bemidbar / Numbers 3:11-13; ESV)

The Levites (Hebrew: levi'im) fulfilled a special function within ancient Israel. Instead of being given territory within the Land as were the other tribes they were to be the religious ministers. A subset of the Levites were the priests (Hebrew: cohenim), the descendants of Moses' brother Aaron, who offered the sacrifices. The rest of the Levites assisted the priests in their duties and fulfilled other religious tasks throughout the nation. There is a sense in which the Levites belonged to God in a way the rest of the people did not, for their daily concerns were consumed with the service of God rather than normal human endeavors.

The setting aside of the Levites was not simply due to the need of having religious ministers. Rather they stood in the place of all the firstborn males who survived the Exodus. God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt by striking the Egyptians with ten plagues. The final plague was the killing of the firstborn males, both human and animal. To protect the people of Israel from this, God told them to sacrifice a lamb and apply its blood to the doorframes of their houses. When God came to strike down the firstborn males, he passed over the houses upon which the blood was applied. This is why the festival commemorating this event is called Passover (see Shemot / Exodus 11:1-12:13).

An important element of this is how it relates to the Levites. The tenth plague was not limited to the striking down of the Egyptian firstborn only, but rather of all the firstborn of the land of Egypt regardless of nationality. The stubborn disobedience of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, brought general destruction upon his land. There were certain plagues in which the people of Israel experienced special protection, but not all of them. With regard to the tenth plague, if any Israelite home did not follow God's instructions, their firstborn males would have perished as well. Therefore, the preservation of the Israelite firstborn males was due to God's special grace. Thus, the firstborn males of Israel were indebted to God to a greater extent than the rest of the nation. While the whole nation was indebted to God for their freedom, the firstborn males were indebted for their very lives.

The preservation of the firstborn males and their special relationship to God was to be remembered throughout future generations. Instead of the actual firstborn males of the whole nation being called into religious service, God determined that the Levites should stand in their place. Their service to God was more than a special calling simply due to the need for religious ministers. Rather they represented God's unique ownership of the firstborn males.

Just as the Levites were God's special possession, so are all followers of the Messiah. Like Egypt of old, God's judgment is coming upon the whole Earth. Due to our stubborn refusal to obey God according to his standards, God himself will condemn everyone to eternal destruction, unless we apply the blood of Yeshua's sacrifice to our lives. Like the firstborn males, God's judgment will pass over us if we follow God's instructions and entrust ourselves to Yeshua the Messiah.

Like the firstborn males, if we believe in Yeshua, we are indebted to him, not just for our freedom, but for our very lives. Therefore, like the Levites, we are God's special possession. Since we are owned by God in this way, we don't have the freedom to live however we wish, pursuing our own goals and desires. Rather, we are owned by God, set apart to serve his interests alone.

Monday, May 03, 2010

TorahBytes: Worthless Lies (Be-Har & Be-Hukkotai)

O LORD, my strength and my stronghold, my refuge in the day of trouble, to you shall the nations come from the ends of the earth and say: "Our fathers have inherited nothing but lies, worthless things in which there is no profit. Can man make for himself gods? Such are not gods!" Therefore, behold, I will make them know, this once I will make them know my power and my might, and they shall know that my name is the LORD. (Jeremiah 16:19-21; ESV)

The story of the Bible is one of rescue and restoration. The human predicament, which is largely denied today, yet is nonetheless prevalent, is explained in the story of Adam and Eve. Our first parents' rebellion against the Creator resulted in the profound dysfunction which has overwhelmed humankind ever since. But even as God pronounced judgment upon us, he promised that the day would come when evil would one day be destroyed. It would not be until the time of Abraham that how God would accomplish this would begin to unfold: from Abraham would arise a nation that would be the instrument of God's blessing to all other nations (see Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-3). As the history of Israel developed the nature of this blessing became clear: through faith in the Messiah, the son of David, Abraham's descendent, the nations of the earth would be reconciled to God.

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophetic writings in particular, the anticipation of this reconciliation is expressed in a variety of ways, an example of which is found in this week's Haftarah. God through Jeremiah predicted that the day would come when the non-Jewish nations would realize that their religions, traditions, and philosophies were nothing but worthless lies, were of absolutely no benefit to them, and that the God of Israel is the only true God. In so many different ways from Abraham onwards, this is the emerging picture. The world existed in spiritual darkness, but God made himself known to the people of Israel in anticipation of restoring the nations to himself.

This is exactly what has happened since Yeshua the Messiah came about two thousand years ago. The Jewish people of that time believed correctly that through the Messiah the reality of God would come to the entire world. How they envisioned it happening was very different from how it did happen, but happen it did. Or I should say, rather, that it is still happening. Beginning with Yeshua's first followers, the reality of the God of Israel has transformed the lives of people the world over. Entire cultures have been transformed by the truth of God's Word as people from almost every nation have realized that the ways they inherited from their ancestors were worthless and that the God of Israel is the only God.

Notice the two aspects of this. Not only do the nations realize the truth of the God of Israel, but they completely reject the worthless lies that they inherited from the past. Just because we claim to believe in the true God doesn't automatically mean that we have cast off everything that is not of him. We have a tendency to retain or incorporate aspects of ungodly thought and practice with our worship and service of the true God. We may not always recognize this, but anything that is not of God's Truth is a lie and is worthless. True faith in the Messiah includes both embracing everything he stands for and rejecting all that he rejects. Why hold on to worthless lies?