Sunday, August 26, 2012

TorahBytes: God's Determined Love (Ki Teze)

"For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you," says the Lord, your Redeemer. (Isaiah 54:7, 8; ESV)

Whatever I heard about God growing up, I don't remember hearing about the kind of intensity expressed in this week's Haftarah. Desertion, compassion, anger, love - sounds more like a soap opera than religion. I was told we were the chosen people, but doesn't that have to do with centuries of persecution and rejection? Isaiah's words suggest that there is more to it than that.

This passage is one of several that pictures Israel's relationship to God as a marriage - a difficult marriage. Israel is depicted as a troubled and oft time wayward wife, longing after other lovers who never satisfy. God hasn't taken very well to being jilted by his beloved and has responded in all sorts of ways, driven by a holy jealousy.

The ambivalence towards God experienced by many Jewish people today is the result of this difficult-to-understand relationship. For some, this great God of power has been reduced to cold religious rituals, for others he is a myth. Some are so angry at him, they deny his existence. Others are committed to not being sure.

Isaiah tells us, however, that something else is going on. The sense of being abandoned by God is real, for he has hidden his face from us. He has been angry with us. But what has been difficult to comprehend is that the distance we have experienced is motivated by his deep desire for us to be fully reconciled with him.

No other nation on earth possesses a history of God's intense love like this. He so yearns for an intimacy with Israel he will spare nothing to see it fully established forever. Isaiah tells us in another passage that God himself has provided all that is necessary to restore us to right relationship with him. The interesting thing about this passage is that you may have never heard about it.

The verse I read at the beginning is part of this week's Haftarah. The Haftarah is a supplementary portion of Scripture taken from the Hebrew prophets that is read following the weekly Torah (Books of Moses) portion on Shabbat (English: the Sabbath). The Haftarah readings are the same each year and were chosen long ago based on some level of commonality with its respective Torah portion. Last week, as is done every year around this time, the Haftarah was Isaiah 51:12 - 52:12. This week it's Isaiah 54:1-10, in effect skipping over Isaiah 52:13-53:12. I am not suggesting that this passage is skipped over intentionally; it's just regrettable.

Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12 reads like a play-by-play of what God has done to restore relationship with us by having the Messiah take on himself the consequences of our waywardness and making us right with God as a result. If you have never read this passage before, I encourage you to do so.

Thankfully, God's love for Israel is not for Israel alone. God's yearning after the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob demonstrates to the rest of the world its own waywardness and God's provision of restoration of all who put their trust in him through the Messiah. But that God's love is for all should in no way distract us from understanding that his first concern is for Israel.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

TorahBytes: A Prophet Like Moses (Shofetim)

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers - it is to him you shall listen (Devarim / Deuteronomy18:15; ESV)

Moses has a most honored place in the history of Israel, and by all rights he should! He was chosen by God to lead our people out of oppressive bondage in Egypt. He failed miserably at first when his care and compassion for his people resulted in the murder of an Egyptian and his running away into the wilderness as a result. By the time God called him as his appointed deliverer, any ambition to lead that he may have had was gone to the point of his resisting God. Yet, in the end, God prevailed. It is hard to believe that the same man who said "No" to God at the burning bush, turned out to be the able leader he was. Obviously God knew he could count on Moses.

The Torah calls Moses the most humble man in the world (see Bemidbar / Numbers 12:3). His humility is evident through the way he faithfully delivered God's Word to Egyptians and Israelites alike. Moreover, every time he encountered a difficulty, of which there were many, he turned to God for help.

One cannot overstate Moses' valuable legacy. His five books are foundational to the entire Bible. The Hebrew Bible and the New Covenant writings cannot be properly understood without Moses' words.

While Moses is one of a kind, he himself makes it clear that his is not the only or final word. As we read at the start, God would send others like him to whom the people were to listen. While caution was called for with regard to who was to be regarded as a true prophet, Moses cleared the way for them.

There appears to be two ways to understand this passage. The first is that it is speaking of the many prophets who were to come. These men and women of God would remind the people of God's ways, warning them of the consequences of disobedience and encouraging them to stay faithful to him. At times they would speak of near or distant future events. The Hebrew Bible records the words of many of these.

The second way this passage was understood was that it looked forward to a particular great Prophet to come - who would be the culmination of Israel's prophetic heritage and would have a place similar to Moses in the life of the people.

The New Covenant writings state that the great Prophet to come was the Messiah, Yeshua of Nazareth (see Acts 3:22, 23). Yeshua's fulfillment of this special role is enacted through such things as his Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5-7), where he provides definitive interpretations of Moses' words. When Moses and Elijah appeared alongside Yeshua on the mountain, God confirmed this role by echoing the words "Listen to him" taken from our portion (See Matthew 17:1-8).

Lost from most expressions of Judaism today is the prophetic anticipation of Moses. God never intended for Moses to be a religious relic to which our religion does nothing but look back. Rather, through him we are meant to discover the great unfolding of God's plan, living with eager expectation of all he was yet to reveal through the prophets and the Great Prophet, the Messiah.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

TorahBytes: Situational Absolutes (Re'eh)

You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes, for you have not as yet come to the rest and to the inheritance that the Lord your God is giving you. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 12:8, 9; ESV)

People who believe in absolutes tend to resist the concept of situational ethics. Situational ethics is a concept whereby the basis of ethics is determined by their context. Therefore what is determined to be right in one situation might be wrong in another. Those who maintain that truth is absolute claim that right is right and wrong is wrong regardless of the situation.

An extreme absolutism with no regard to context is nonsense and harmful, however. In practice even the most ardent adherent of absolute truth must accept that certain things are right in certain situations and wrong in others. For example "cutting someone with a knife" is right and good when the context is surgery and wrong if the context is robbery. I expect that even most extreme moralists would agree that nakedness is appropriate in some situations and not in others. Therefore, however one determines what constitutes absolute truth, the situations of life we find ourselves in influences those truths.

This is not to say that absolutes do not exist. The existence of absolutes in the universe is self-evident. No sane person lives as if there are no set principles in life. Just as there are set physical principles in the universe, so there are moral laws that work in every culture, every place, and every time period. Murder, stealing, and adultery are understood as wrong, while love, faithfulness, and honesty are valued as good by every decent society in history.

According to the Bible the greatest absolute is God himself. He is self-existing, self-defining, and unchanging. And because it is he who establishes right and wrong, we can embrace a concept of absolutes and resist any attempt to manipulate his Word.

Yet God's specific directives for people are not the same for everyone in every place at every time. We see that in this week's Torah portion as God prepares the people of Israel to enter the Promised Land. Many of his regulations given to Moses were specific to the Land of Israel and were not relevant during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness or when they lived in Egypt. But once they possessed the Land, there were all sorts of new things they were obliged to do. Even though there were aspects of right and wrong that applied to them all along, other aspects were different.

Just as Israel went through a major transition when they entered the Promised Land, so they did again upon the establishment of the New Covenant. Not because God himself changes or his truth is relative, but rather due to the coming of the Messiah the new situation was radically different from what was before. The removal of the Temple and the sacrificial system made the rules of the Levitical priesthood obsolete. The forgiveness of sins and the inclusion of believers from all nations necessitated new ways of living never before experienced between peoples and between people and God.

The absolute nature of God's truth requires us to take his Word seriously and obey him regardless of our personal preferences. The existence of absolutes does not imply a cold, arbitrary application of ancient life principles into each and every life situation. Rather, we need to carefully discern God's will for the various situations in which we find ourselves.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

TorahBytes: Those Who Can, Teach (Ekev)

The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. (Isaiah 50:4; ESV)

Have you ever heard the adage, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach"? The idea behind this saying is that the reason why teachers teach is because they have no legitimate practical skills, leaving teaching as their only life option. This also implies that when it comes right down to it, teachers don't really know what they are talking about, since they can't really do anything truly worthwhile.

My guess is that most people disagree with this sentiment, at least superficially. Yet, I wonder how much we value teachers. Do we recognize teaching as productive in the same way we do other jobs or activities? Or do we think of teachers as people who, if they had the chance, would most certainly do something else? It's similar to coaching in sports. Wouldn't they be competing instead of coaching if they could?

The legitimacy of the teaching role has to do with the way God designed the human community. Whether it is parents, guardians, school teachers, religious teachers, trainers, or coaches, we have a need to learn from others. We need the information, training, and correction that only people gifted in teaching can give. After all, God himself is the Master Teacher and we his students. He has chosen to use human instruments to instruct us in life.

Now, just because someone is in the role of teacher doesn't make them a good teacher. There may be those who after suffering various difficulties in certain activities find themselves being teachers as a last resort. This is regrettable, because it takes a particular type of skill set to be a true teacher. Actually, a good teacher is someone who not only possesses real teaching ability, but is also experienced in the things they teach. While being an expert in something doesn't make someone a teacher, the best teachers are usually gifted teachers who are experts in something.

One reason why we might have difficulty in fully appreciating teachers is that they are more like a bridge than a destination. No matter how impressive a bridge might be, we tend to value destinations more than the bridges that helped get us there. Yet without well-designed bridges we would not be able to reach our desired destination. So too teachers help us get to where we need to go when we otherwise would not be able to get there. What then is more valuable, the destination or the bridge that helps get us there? The answer is both in their own way. So let's not devalue teachers. We would be stuck without them.