Sunday, January 30, 2011

TorahBytes: The Key to Spiritual Riches (Terumah & Rosh Hodesh)

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)

When Solomon dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem, he prayed,

But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built! Yet have regard to the prayer of your servant and to his plea, O LORD my God, listening to the cry and to the prayer that your servant prays before you this day, that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you have said, 'My name shall be there,' that you may listen to the prayer that your servant offers toward this place. (1 Melachim / 1 Kings 8:27-30; ESV)

Solomon in his day understood what God would say many years later through the prophet Isaiah: that God cannot be contained by a man-made house. While the Temple was central to the life of the nation of Israel and would eventually become a source of pride, virtually taking God's place in the minds and hearts of the people, Solomon himself understood its intended function as representing God's presence among the people.

But a source of pride it did become and so it was necessary for God through Isaiah to remind the nation that the existence of the Temple was not proof positive that they were in good stead with him. God's regard for the people was not based on the Temple, but upon their relationship with him - a relationship based upon a certain kind of heart attitude. This kind of person is described by Isaiah as "he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word."

This description is reminiscent of Isaiah's own experience when God appeared to him as recorded near the beginning of his book (see Isaiah 6). When he was drawn in to witness the heavenly worship scene, he became a most broken man - a man most unfit to speak God's word to the people. And it was because he was humble enough to recognize the reality of his condition before God, that God was able to equip him to speak on his behalf.

The description of the type of person that God regards is one that most people would resist. What is translated here as "humble and contrite" is the usual way to describe the poor, the needy, and the afflicted. These are those who are at the mercy of their circumstances, their oppressors, and their environment. They have no power and influence and there is nothing they can do about it. But by adding "in spirit" most likely denotes that these people are not afflicted in the natural, though they might be that as well. This is a description of people who are stricken in their hearts, people who see themselves as most needy in their spiritual state, just like Isaiah, those who tremble at God's word.

The people whom God regards are those who are keenly aware of their constant need of him. No matter how confident they may be in their relationship with him, that confidence never crosses into self-confidence as evidenced by their ongoing dependency on him and their continual openness to his correction and teaching.

It is so easy for us to "temple-ize" the work of God in our lives, where we regard that which we have learned in the past as his final word upon which we focus our lives. Our hearts become sealed in the concrete of our perceptions and find comfort in predictability and easy-(or not-so-easy-)to-define formulas.

To be in that place is to lose sight of who God is or, rather, to lose sight of God altogether. Just as the Temple of old could not contain the Creator of the Universe, we need to recognize that our perceptions of God, no matter how good, correct, and helpful they may be can never fully contain him. No matter how well off we may be spiritually, compared to his riches, we are all just spiritual paupers in great need of him. Once we are able to truly acknowledge how spiritually needy we really are, we will be in a place where we can get to know God as never before.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

TorahBytes: Liability (Mishpatim)

When men quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist and the man does not die but takes to his bed, then if the man rises again and walks outdoors with his staff, he who struck him shall be clear; only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall have him thoroughly healed. (Shemot / Exodus 21:18, 19; ESV)

The wisdom of God regarding liability in physical conflicts is clear: wrongdoers are not to be held responsible for more than the harm caused, but are responsible for both the lost wages of the injured party and for the cost of healing. Following God's directive on such matters contributes to a healthy thriving community.

Some people would rather address the issue of liability by proclaiming that fighting is wrong and ignore it. Others insist that the New Covenant approach contradicts the Torah and places all burden of crime on the victim. I am aware of the Messiah's teaching on "turn the other cheek" and what Paul wrote against lawsuits:
To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers! (1 Corinthians 6:7, 8; ESV) 
What the Messiah and Paul are teaching have to do with personal conflicts, not the establishment of godly laws governing a society. Sadly wrongs do happen to people and we will not always see justice in our personal conflicts. The Messiah, through his life, teaching, death, and resurrection, shows us how to handle being wronged. Paul is simply applying Yeshua's teaching and example to the life of a most dysfunctional congregation in the ancient Greek town of Corinth.

The need to learn to suffer wrong is not to be twisted into a societal dictum that gives wrongdoers free reign to abuse others. Even if the Messiah's "turn the other cheek" means that we should never speak up for ourselves when wronged (which I doubt is the intent), this is not a directive for people in authority to impose such an idea upon their people, whether those authorities are government officials, congregational leaders, or parents. When one of our children punches his little brother or sister, Yeshua does not expect us to get the two of them together and practice "turn the other cheek". While this might be a time to learn forgiveness (which is a different issue), it is also an opportunity for the wrongdoer to learn the principle of liability. In the same way congregational leaders and government officials would do well to follow God's ways to protect the innocent by ensuring that wrongdoers bear the responsibility of their actions.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

TorahBytes: Presuppositions (Yitro)

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!" And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" (Isaiah 6:1-5; ESV)

I have heard it said that Isaiah's vision of God, even though it is found in the sixth chapter of his book, must have occurred before he began his prophetic ministry. I can understand why. It is in this experience that Isaiah receives his marching orders and therefore serves the purpose of an introduction. Another clue that suggests this took place before he ever spoke to the people on God's behalf is his reaction. First, it devastated him: "Woe is me! For I am lost", which is not something we would expect from a faithful servant of God. Second, he confessed to have "unclean lips" just like the rest of his people. What kind of prophet of God has unclean lips? I would propose: a genuine one.

While it is possible that Isaiah's vision is set out of sequence, is it necessary that his dramatic experience had to come first before he took up his prophetic vocation? That assumption says more about our presuppositions of how God works than truly grappling with what is going on here.

I am aware of the many biblical accounts of people to whom God appeared and/or spoke to before they began their divine task. But there are also people that God appeared and/or spoke to well into their ministry. So why can't it be that Isaiah is an example of the latter? Well, as I already mentioned, the nature of the vision and the level of interaction is so foundational both in terms of Isaiah's personal spiritual state and the scope of the mission to which he was called, it is difficult to think of this coming to him midstream.

But why not? Why do we assume that Isaiah must have had all this in place prior to the beginning his work? Many people hearing or reading this are engaged in some sort of work for God. Do we believe that we are completely spiritual and that the scope of our ministry is perfectly defined? Oh, but we are not Isaiah, we might say. We cannot compare our callings to his. Why not? How different are we from him really? Isaiah, as were all the significant biblical characters, was a human being just like us, serving the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as we are called to do. Does it sound that far fetched that this great prophet of God might discover that he is not as spiritual as he thought he was and that he may not have yet fully grasped the scope of his calling?

Isaiah wasn't alone in his need to grow in his faith and work. All through Abraham's life God expanded his understanding of what was being promised to him and how it was to work out. It took Jacob years to become a true believer. Moses had a lot to learn before he was ready to assume his leadership role and even then the challenges that he faced forced him to draw closer and closer to God. David's whole life was one of getting to know God better. Some of his personal weaknesses did not rise to the surface until after God used him in very significant ways.

God uses imperfect vessels. He doesn't perfect us prior to his using us. When God calls us unto a task, he doesn't usually give us all the details. So then let us not presume that whatever understanding we currently have of God, our relationship to him, or the nature of the work to which he calls us, is complete.

God may not appear to or speak to us in the same manner as he did Isaiah, but let's be careful not to let our presuppositions about God and how he deals with us prevent him from working in our lives.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

TorahBytes: Don't Refuse God's Commandments (Be-Shallah)

On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. And the LORD said to Moses, "How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws?" (Shemot / Exodus 16:27, 28; ESV)

These words refer to the failure on the part of some of the Israelites regarding God's instructions about the gathering of manna. Manna was the miraculous bread-like substance that God provided for the people of Israel during their forty years of wilderness wanderings. Each morning the people were to gather only the amount necessary for their family. If they would collect too much it would go bad by the next day. The only exception was on the sixth day of the week (modern day Friday), when they were to collect twice as much so that they would have enough for Shabbat, the seventh day, when there would be no manna.

But some of the people didn't obey the Lord's words and went to gather on Shabbat anyway. The problem with what they were doing was probably not their attempt to gather, since they could not gather what was not there. What most likely happened was either they didn't collect double as they were told, perhaps due to not believing it would go bad overnight as it usually did, or they ate the entire double portion. Whatever it was, they didn't believe God and so did not obey his directives.

Years later Moses would reflect on God's provision of the manna and tell the people that its primary purpose was to teach them the essential lesson of relying on and obeying God's word:

And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD (Devarim/ Deuteronomy 8:3; ESV).

This is why God chastised them the way he did by saying "How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws?"

God provided the manna to feed his people. But the gathering of the manna had to be on his terms. To neglect his clear instructions was detrimental to the society and its individuals. God was seeking to train Israel to be a godly people, who would be a light to the nations. In order to do that, they needed to pay attention to his words and to do exactly what he directed them to do.

That lesson is the same lesson we all need to learn today. When the Messiah was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, one of the verses he used was the one I quoted from Deuteronomy (see Matthew 4:4). Yeshua said it is foolishness to neglect his teaching (see Matthew 7:24-27). His commandments which he instructed us to keep (see John 14:15) are the correct interpretation of the Torah (see Matthew 5:17, 21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43). His disciples were mandated to teach the nations to obey his teaching (see Matthew 28:18-20). According to the book of James, the person who is blessed in his activities is the one who perseveres in God's law (see James 1:23). Some adherents of the New Covenant Scriptures claim that in the Messiah God is not so concerned about the details of his directives. But if anything, he is more so. As we read in the book of Hebrews:

See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven (Hebrews 12:25; ESV).

It's tragic that both Judaism and Christianity have tended to be confused over this essential topic. In Judaism, the tendency has been to view the keeping of God's commandments as an end in itself. Christianity, on the other hand, has often over emphasized that a relationship with God is based on grace through faith to the neglect of doing God's will.

The Biblical balance is found in our trusting in the Messiah for the restoration of our relationship with God and then living out that restoration by carefully heeding his directives. This includes being open to hearing him confront us as he did the Israelites of old, when he says to us "How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws"?

Sunday, January 02, 2011

TorahBytes: Noisy Lives (Bo)

Call the name of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, "Noisy one who lets the hour go by." (Jeremiah 46:17; ESV)

Can a person miss their life's calling? This sort of question presupposes that each person has a specific God-given destiny that needs to be discovered. I don't know if the Scriptures teach that this is God's intention for each and every person, but it certainly seems that he intends this for some. It's not that these people's lives necessarily matter more than others. It's just that some people are chosen by God for very particular purposes.

Whether or not each one of us has a general life's calling, throughout our lives God presents us all with all sorts of opportunities. How much effect on history these opportunities might have differs from situation to situation, person to person. The things we do may seem very insignificant to us, especially at the time, and we may or may not be aware of how crucial the outcome of an opportunity might be. But just as seeds are so small in comparison to what they produce, so are our deeds in relation to their results.

This week's Haftarah portion is from the prophet Jeremiah. It is a message to Pharaoh, king of Egypt. The selection of this passage to coincide with this week's Torah portion is obviously because it harkens back to the Pharaoh of Moses' day. Jeremiah's description could be applied to either Pharaoh: "Noisy one who lets the hour go by." Both Pharaohs held positions of great power. Their decisions had wide-reaching effects. It was in their power to do a vast amount of good for the benefit of many. But in the case of both men, they let the hour go by, or, in other words, they each missed their opportunity.

Whether or not we can miss our life's calling is irrelevant if we miss the opportunities that God brings our way. What good does it do, if we have correctly discerned our vocation, but fail to respond properly to God-given opportunities as they arise?

One of the things that can easily distract us from responding effectively to God-given opportunities is found in how Pharaoh is described in our verse, where he is called "noisy one." The Hebrew word "sha-'own" may indicate more than just a lot of sound, but rather the clamor of a great amount of useless activity.

It is so easy to fool ourselves and others into thinking we are living truly productive and successful lives by increasing our noise level - the noise of busyness that is. Being busy, even doing good things, can function as a smoke screen, clouding over our reluctance to do what God is actually calling us to do.

Busyness often breeds more busyness in that it never allows us to turn down the noise level of our lives long enough for us to face the possibility that we have been neglecting God's will.

This is not to say that being busy in and of itself is just noise. It might be that God himself has you very busy. But let's not be fooled into thinking that busyness itself is a sign of being true to God's call on our lives. Turning down the noise of our busyness also doesn't necessarily mean we need to change vocations or other major aspects of our lives. It might, but we won't know until we turn down the noise of unnecessary busyness. As we begin a new calendar year, what a good time to stop and turn down the noise.