Monday, May 28, 2012

TorahBytes: What's in a Blessing? (Naso)

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them, The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace." (Bemidbar / Numbers 6:22-26; ESV)

Blessing is a major theme in the Scriptures. To be blessed is to be filled with the potential of life. When God created creatures - both animals and people in the book of Genesis, he said, "Be fruitful and multiply" (see Bereshit / Genesis 1:22, 28). Blessing is the opposite of cursing, which is the removal of the potential of life, such as that of the condition of a desert.

When one person blesses another, they are expressing a desire that God would fill the other with the potential of life. How blessing another person works I don't know, but it is similar to prayer in that the one doing the blessing is looking to God to honor their words and bless the one being blessed.

One of the best known blessings in the Bible is the one I quoted. God gave this particular blessing to the priests with which to bless the people of Israel. Through these words we get a better understanding as to what the blessing of God is all about. While this blessing sounds like a list, it's not. It's a poetical expression of the basic ingredients of what constitutes God's blessing.

The Lord bless you: These opening words are a general introduction to the blessing.

And keep you: "To keep" means "to watch over" like a shepherd keeps sheep. It is one thing to be filled with life, but if we are not protected by God, then the life he gives us will express itself in all sorts of ineffective ways. Many people have the Lord's blessing on their lives, but don't use it for godly purposes. Like lost sheep, their lives are on paths of destruction.

The Lord make his face to shine upon you: This is like saying, "May God smile at you." It expresses the desire that the one being blessed be in a positive relationship to him. Unless God is positively disposed toward us, then our lives will not go well.

And be gracious to you: There is nothing a human being can do to ensure they are in a positive relationship with God. It is only by a gracious act of God that anyone can be right with God. Just as Israel was chosen by God, so anyone, to be in right relationship with him, depends upon his grace.

The Lord lift up his countenance upon you: These words are a poetic parallel to "The Lord make his face to shine upon you" above. It emphasizes our need to have God's favor bestowed upon us.

And give you peace: The familiar word for peace, "shalom," means completeness or wholeness. When our lives are out of sorts, we cannot properly manage the abundant life God wants to pour out on us. It's only when we know his peace that we can experience his life.

Notice that there is no mention here of material prosperity or personal health. While the result of God's blessing may include these and other things, the essence of God's blessing is about living under the favor of God, not having stuff. It's when we know his favor - when his smile is upon us - that we are truly blessed. Then, not only are we filled with life ourselves, but that is when we become people through whom others too may be filled with life.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

TorahBytes: Don't Fit In? (Bemidbar)

For the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Only the tribe of Levi you shall not list, and you shall not take a census of them among the people of Israel." (Bemidbar / Numbers 1:48, 49; ESV)

The Hebrew name for the fourth book of Moses is Bemidbar, meaning "in the wilderness" which is referenced in the book's first verse. The common English name, "Numbers," is most likely due to the numbering of the people with which the book begins. The Hebrew name is more fitting, however, since most of the book is about various incidents that Israel experienced during their years in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land.

Readers tend to find the beginning of this book difficult, since we don't easily derive personal benefit from census data. Yet these are the types of passages that remind us that the Bible is more than a moral and religious document, it's a historical document wherein the true God reveals himself through the real lives of actual people.

The census with which Bemidbar begins is not a general one such is common in much of the world today. Rather, it was a counting of the men who were of military age and ability, a very important practical exercise to gauge the military resources of the nation. Every man from the age of twenty and up who was "able to go to war" was to be included. We are not told what conditions excluded someone from military service, but we can assume that it would have been obvious to them. A maximum age did not seem to be one of those conditions.

All the men twenty and over were to be counted except those of the tribe of Levi. The Levites were not eligible for military service, for they were set aside by God for service to him.

There is much that can be said about the special role that the tribe of Levi played in the life of the nation of Israel. But however we look at it, they were not like the rest of the nation. While some people like being different, it seems to me that most of us want to fit in with the crowd. Remember not only were the Levites not counted along with their kinsmen, when the time came they would be the only tribe not fighting.

Perhaps some of the Levites were glad to be excluded from military service, but others probably had a hard time staying away from the battle. Some among the fighting men may have resented the Levitical military exemption, while others may have wished they were Levites themselves, so that they would not have to face the dangers of war.

But how Levites and non-Levites felt about this was irrelevant. One's role among his people was determined by God alone as the exclusion was based on birth. There was nothing one could do about it, except to accept it and live accordingly.

Even though the Levitical system is not functioning today, God continues to set aside people for different roles based on his own determination and for his own purposes. Sometimes God's determination is clear as in the distinctions between men and women or parents and children. Other times it is not so clear as God leads different people to take on different roles. But whatever the reasons for our differences, the sooner we discern what they are, understand their particular purpose, and fulfill that purpose, the more effective we will be in life.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

TorahBytes: You Can Rest Now (Be-Har & Be-Hukkotai)

The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, "Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the Lord." (Vayikra / Leviticus 25:1, 2; ESV)

It wasn't that long ago that many communities were very different from what they are today. You might be old enough to remember when banks were only open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday to Friday. Banking services were only available during those times. What might be difficult to remember is how was it even possible to get all our banking done back then. There were no banking machines or online banking. Credit cards weren't as common as they are today and there were no debit cards at all. People used cash most of the time and getting cash was only available from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., Monday to Friday. Stores were more accepting of checks and giving credit to customers back then, but I think you get the point.

The availability or lack of availability of banking services is but one example of when our societies lived life to a very different rhythm from today. Most stores were closed on Sundays. There were no 24-hour stores. Access to home entertainment was limited to what TV and radio stations offered. There were audio recordings, of course, but there were no video stores and no downloading of anything. Often when you wanted something, you had to wait.

Rest was an essential aspect of God's directives for Israel. The word Sabbath (Hebrew: shabbat) is derived from the concept of ceasing or stopping. God's people were to cease from normal labor once in a seven-day week. There were also several annual festival days that were Sabbaths. This week's Torah portion refers to sabbatical years, whereby every seventh year the land was not to be worked and the people were to eat what grew of itself.

The need to rest on certain days and years had major implications for the remaining days and years. Because work was not to be done on Sabbath days and years, everything that needed to be done could only be done on the other days and years. This was the same situation that was faced in the days of limited banking hours. If you had banking to do, you had to do it during opening hours; otherwise if wouldn't get done. Having to rest forces us to relate to non-rest times differently than if rest is just an option. If I know that all grocery stores are going to be closed on a certain day, I will make sure that I have enough food to last until the next time I can get to the store during opening hours.

For many of our communities today this is not an issue, since goods and services are available to us every day of the week, and in many cases, 24 hours a day. Rest is no longer integrated into the fabric of society as it once was. Ceasing from the non-stop activity that is so prevalent today will only happen if we are intentional about it.

One of the things that prevents us from making rest a regular part of our lives is a certain common belief that drives the non-stop pace of today's culture. That belief is that we think we really need it. We are under the conviction that to not have the current level of access to goods and services would somehow undermine our quality of life. In the same way we believe deep down in our hearts that we need all the time possible to get done whatever we think we have to get done.

But underlying God's directive to rest is a different belief. This belief is vividly illustrated through the sabbatical year referenced by this week's reading. The God who directed the people not to work the land one year in seven also promised that he would prosper them in the sixth year sufficiently so that they would have enough food to last until they were able to work the land again. This is reminiscent of Israel's time in the wilderness, when God provided two days' worth of manna on the sixth day, so that they would have enough to eat on the Sabbath when no manna would be available to gather. Rest is only really possible because God promises to take care of us. Because God takes care of us, there is no need to work incessantly. To work incessantly exposes our lack of trust in him. Once we realize that unlike what our society believes, our lives don't depend on us and our labors, but rather upon God who provides, we can truly rest.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

TorahBytes: God's Lenses (Emor)

Say to them [i.e. the "cohanim"; English: the priests], "If any one of all your offspring throughout your generations approaches the holy things that the people of Israel dedicate to the Lord, while he has an uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from my presence: I am the Lord." (Vayikra / Leviticus 22:3; ESV)

So much of this third book of Moses is concerned with two pairs of concepts: clean and unclean, holy and common. These concepts are foreign to many of us. Even religious and spiritual people have little understanding of the Torah's perspective on such things. Many of us tend to make a distinction between the "sacred" and the "secular" as if there are some aspects of life that are separate from God and his influence. The Torah and the rest of the Bible make no such distinction. Since the God of Israel is the creator of all things, he is also the King and Judge of all things. Because all life exists under his domain, his people are called to live all of life in service to him.

Yet there are distinctions that God does make. He distinguishes between the clean and the unclean, the holy and the common. The terms clean and unclean (Hebrew: tahor and tamei) describe the state of a thing or person in relationship to their acceptability within the community of the people of God, especially with regard to God himself. The unclean is not acceptable in God's presence and must not be tolerated as part of the normal life of the community. In fact that which is unclean can contaminate that which is clean. Much care was to be taken to ensure such contamination would not occur.

The holy and common (Hebrew: kodesh and chol) are another pair of concepts that describe distinctions God makes. Unlike clean and unclean that refer to a state of acceptability, holy and common refer to the distinction between that which has been specially separated to God for his use and that which is not. These concepts are not concerned about whether or not something or someone is good or bad. It is simply a way to distinguish between that which is set aside for God's use and that which is not.

While these two pairs of concepts describe different aspects of life, how they interact with each other is crucial. That which is holy must also be clean. Since God will not tolerate uncleanness in his presence, there is dire consequences when something or someone who is holy becomes unclean.

This is the lens by which we need to see the world. Human beings were created by God to be his representatives on earth. We were deemed both clean (acceptable as members of his community) and holy (set apart for his service). Our first parents' rebellion against God made them unclean. Since they who were holy became unclean, they and all humanity after them were cast out of God's presence.

Unless we come to grips with the human condition as God sees it, we will never be what God intended. Denying it, medicating it, or covering it up through hard work or the pursuit of pleasure will never restore us to the fullness of being the children of God we were meant to be.

The story of the Bible is the story of God's plan to cleanse (make acceptable) humanity in order that we might once again be holy (set apart to serve him). That is why he chose Abraham and his descendants culminating in the coming of the Messiah. Messiah's life, death, resurrection, and ascension restore those who follow him to the state and function for which we were originally designed.

As we see life through the lenses of clean and unclean, holy and common, we will see our lives as God does. Not only will we become what we were meant to be, but we will also begin to relate to others and to the things of life as they were meant to be as well.