Saturday, September 29, 2012

TorahBytes: The Writing God (Sukkot)

The Lord said to Moses, "Cut for yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke." (Shemot / Exodus 34:1; ESV)

This week's readings are special due to our being in the midst of the week-long festival of Sukkot (English: Tabernacles). The Torah portion chosen for this coming Shabbat (English: Sabbath) contains a reference to an alternate name of this holiday, Hag Ha-Asif (English: Feast of Ingathering), denoting it as one of the harvest festivals of ancient Israel (see Shemot / Exodus 34:22).

Also in this Torah portion is the reference I quoted at the beginning that shows that God himself wrote the Ten Commandments, the foundational portion of the covenant he made with Israel at Mt. Sinai. This is actually the second time God did this, for the first tablets that he wrote were smashed by Moses in response to the incident of the Golden Calf (see Shemot / Exodus 32:1-20).

The God of Israel is a writing God. Not only did he direct his spokespeople to write down what he said, he himself wrote. God chose words through literature as his medium of revelation, not visual arts, which was the other popular communication medium of those days. Obviously he used oral communication as well and we have examples of his utilization of drama through the prophets such as Isaiah and Ezekiel. But even in those cases, whatever was expressed was purposely passed down to us through writing.

If our God is a writing God, then human beings are called to be a reading people, a people dedicated to the reading of God's book, the Bible. Too many people today say they don't read. This is not simply a statement of personal preference. It is a symptom of a culture that has turned its back on God. And like so many contemporary cultural values, it's one that God's people should reject.

We could look at superficial reasons for why more and more people are reading less and less. Film and television are dominant cultural communication tools today, but the general busy-ness of life and the inundation of an overwhelming amount of small bits of information have robbed us of the time and energy required for meaningful reading. Apart from only having enough room in our hearts and minds for information and the finite nature of time, the media of today with its dazzling effect on one hand and its sheer volume on the other has made us lazy.

Effective reading requires a type of time and energy that few currently seem to have. Yet God designed us to be a reading people. That means we need to make sure that we have whatever time and energy it takes. And if that means radically changing our lifestyles to make it happen, so be it.

Don't get me wrong. Attempts to share God's Word through contemporary media are legitimate and necessary. But at the same time tweets, videos, and so on should not be substitutes for diligently and intelligently reading the Scriptures.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

TorahBytes: Forgiveness (Ha'azinu)

For the Lord will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants, when he sees that their power is gone and there is none remaining, bond or free. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 32:36; ESV)

We are currently in the time period traditionally called yamim noraim (English: the Days of Awe), which is between Rosh Hashanah (English: New Year) and Yom Kippur (English: Day of Atonement). It is during this time that we are encouraged to seek out those whom we have wronged to ask their forgiveness. What a wonderful tradition! While this is something we should be doing every day, if you don't normally consciously take stock of life like this, what better time is there than right now to make right any relational brokenness you may have?

Years ago I read the book "The Gift of the Jews" by Thomas Cahill, which claims that the greatest contribution the Jewish people brought to the world is the concept of linear time in contrast to cyclical time, which had been prevalent among most ancient cultures. But I wonder if an even greater gift is the concept of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is one of the most profound, but painful, human experiences. There are all sorts of easy versions of it, since most of the wrongs done to us are minor. But when a wrong costs us dearly, it's another matter. Maybe you have never thought of wrongs costing something, but that is actually the best way to understand what forgiveness is all about.

When we are wronged, it is as if someone stole something from us. If I step on someone's toe and cause them pain, I rob them of the physical comfort they were enjoying up to that point. If you cause a car accident, you may not only steal someone's physical well-being and create significant financial problems for them, you may also take from them the once in a lifetime opportunity they expected at their destination.

Some things can be paid for by the offending party such as car repairs and medical bills, but only forgiveness covers those things that can't be paid for. That means that the offended party assumes the cost of the wrong. When we forgive, we give up our right to exact payment from the offending party, whether it is monetary or not. Non-monetary payments are often in the form of emotional and relational aggression such as blame and bitterness, which produce nothing constructive, but only serve to imprison the offending party in some way. The irony is that it is often the person withholding forgiveness who finds themselves imprisoned by their own bitterness.

Some may think that it is inappropriate to forgive someone who hasn't asked for forgiveness. While lack of regret for a wrong is an issue when courts deal with crimes against society, we are well advised to forgive any and all who have wronged us personally, including those who have passed away. Forgiveness doesn't always mean that the wrongdoer will not face any consequences for their actions. It simply removes the relational debt that would be otherwise owed to the offended party. In fact genuine forgiveness often allows the most appropriate consequences to result without the complication of personal hurt getting in the way.

Some may think that this kind of forgiveness is far more Christian than Jewish. I assert that the only way that anything can be truly Christian is that it must be authentically Jewish first. While the depths of the richness of forgiveness are only discovered through what the Messiah has done for us by dying for our sins, what he has done for us can only be properly understood in the context of the God of Israel's covenant love as revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures. God's relationship with his people was never based on human performance, but on his love and grace. So during these Days of Awe, besides seeking forgiveness from those we have wronged, let us also forgive from our hearts all those who have wronged us, whether they seek us out or not.

Here are two videos that vividly express a biblical view of forgiveness. The first is a recent release by artist Matthew West and is based on a true story. The second video is the story upon which the song is based.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

TorahBytes: Don't Point Fingers (Va-Yelekh)

And I will surely hide my face in that day because of all the evil that they have done, because they have turned to other gods. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 31:18; ESV)

I recently had the opportunity to share the story of how I came to believe in Yeshua with a relative. At one point in the conversation he mentioned a common criticism of the New Covenant scriptures (New Testament) - that it was anti-Semitic. I then explained how the critical statements regarding the Jewish people found in the New Covenant are similar to those contained in the Hebrew Bible. And just like the Hebrew Bible, much of the conflict in the New Covenant is a family dispute - Jewish people confronting other Jewish people over what's right and what's wrong. One of the things that has embittered Jewish people towards Christianity is the way non-Jews have often used our self-criticism against us. There is a big difference between my critique of my own family and when an outsider does it (especially using my words!).

I mentioned to my relative that some of the harsh words against our own people in the Hebrew Bible are stronger than those contained in the New Covenant. Moshe Rabbeinu (our great teacher, Moses) himself, before he died was directed by God to make sure the people understood that in the future they would suffer bitterly for turning away from God. This week's Torah portion uses very strong language to describe this. Throughout the Hebrew Bible are criticisms, dire warnings, and harsh judgments against Israel.

That non-Jews, especially Christians, would use negative words from the Bible against us is one of the greatest hypocrisies of all time. To do such a thing exposes a profound lack of self-awareness and Bible knowledge. One of the purposes of God's choosing Israel was to demonstrate to all the nations the whole world's failure before God. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans:

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God (Romans 3:19; ESV)

Israel's failure to keep the Torah just as God predicted in the Torah was designed by God to not only indict his own people for their failures, but to reveal to the whole world the sin problem which oppresses us all, Jew and non-Jew alike.

God chose the people of Israel to be an object lesson to the world. Israel's failure to live up to God's standards is an example of what any nation would do in that same situation. Whoever we are, if we don't see ourselves in the life of ancient Israel in the pages of Scripture, we don't realize that we have been looking in a mirror. For anyone to claim that they are any better is to be in the worst type of denial.

Thankfully, Israel's tragic role as being the nation picked by God to demonstrate common human sinfulness is not what being the Chosen People is all about. God's directing Moses to ensure the people knew about their destined failure was not to discourage them, but to help them recognize their need.

The coming of the Messiah is the culmination of the long prophetic history of Israel that began with Moses. Israel like all people required a clear confrontation of its sin. The high holidays, which are currently upon us again, are designed for the kind of self-reflection necessary to come to grips with our need before God. Once we honestly acknowledge the depths of our depravity, we will be in a place where we can receive God's provision of forgiveness and restoration in the Messiah.

Monday, September 10, 2012

TorahBytes: Whenever (Nizzavim)

And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. (Devarim /  Deuteronomy 30:1-3; ESV)

One of the most wonderful things about God, the true God, as revealed in the Bible, is that he is always willing to receive those who humbly and sincerely turn to him. In the Hebrew Bible there were times when it appeared that the people had gotten to the point of no return as if they no longer had any hope of restoration. But even some of the vilest of characters found mercy with God when they repented.

As Moses was preparing to die, the prospects of success for the people of Israel looked dim. God knew that Israel's heart was not truly for him and that they would neglect his ways in the years ahead. Yet, as quoted above, he also foresaw a time when Israel would take his Word to heart and turn back to him. Then he would them restore them to himself and to the Land.

How this would all work out is not spelled out here. What is clear is that Israel's waywardness would not result in God's renouncing his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As Paul wrote to the believers in Rome, "For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable" (Romans 11:29; ESV). In that same passage, he agrees with Torah by asserting that Israel's eventual complete restoration before God is assured (see Romans 11:26, 27).

While we don't know exactly how and when this will occur, we do know that the only way for Israel to be restored to God is through the Messiah. Israel would discover through its history its inability to live up to God's standards due to the curse inherited from our first parents in the Garden of Eden - an inability shared by all people - but highlighted by the people of Israel through the receiving of the Torah. While the Torah reveals so much of what is good and holy, including providing an accurate understanding of the person and nature of God, it indicts those who seek to live by its standards, thus impressing upon its disciples their need of a deliverer. The message of the New Covenant Scriptures (New Testament) is that everything Israel needed and longed for in its difficult history is fulfilled in Yeshua of Nazareth.

Some postulate that certain circumstances need to be in place in order for Israel to be restored to God. Yet God's word through Moses sounds like this could happen whenever. Whenever Israel takes to heart all they have gone through and turns to the Lord, the Lord will restore them. Paul again agrees. Speaking of the Jewish people, he says, "But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed" (2 Corinthians 3:16; ESV).

All over the world this is happening. Jewish and non-Jewish people alike are experiencing restoration with God upon turning to him in response to the good news of the coming of the Messiah. Let's not think that anyone, Jew or Gentile, is beyond God's reach today. The time of salvation is whenever.