Sunday, April 28, 2013

TorahBytes: The Deceit of Desire (Be-Har & Be-Hukkotai)

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9; ESV)

Humans are complex creatures. That shouldn't be surprising, since we are made in the image of a complex God. Scholars debate what being made in the image of God is all about. It's difficult to determine, since as far as I can tell, nowhere in Scripture is it clearly defined. One way we might go about understanding this is by looking at how the Bible describes both the characteristics of God and of humans. I think it is reasonable to assume that those human characteristics that reflect God's own are due to being made in his image. Where else would they come from?

A related topic has to do with how sin and its consequences affect God's image. Some think that evil has completely eradicated it, but I don't think that is correct. The prohibition against murder given to Noah is based on our being made in God's image (see Bereshit / Genesis 9:5-6). I believe it is most correct to say that the image of God in people is still present, but is essentially marred by evil. This helps to explain the reality of goodness, love, and compassion in human experience and our continuing struggle with selfishness, pride, greed, and evil fantasies.

One of the common characteristics shared by both God and people is desire. Both God and people have the capacity to want. The difference between us and God, however, is that while his wants are completely pure and good, ours are mixed at best. People can and do have true godly desires, but sin constantly pulls us in a selfish, evil direction.

If we take the verse I quoted from this week's Haftarah out of context, letting it stand on its own, we might conclude that our hearts are such that it is impossible to have pure desires of any kind. But I don't think that is what God is saying through the prophet Jeremiah here, especially if we look at the verse's context. The point being made here isn't so much that we can never desire anything good, but that the conditions of our hearts are such that we cannot accurately discern our motives. This means we, just like God, are filled with desires, but the desires themselves provide no help whatsoever in determining which ones are good and which ones are not.

It is in this same book of the Bible that God gives his people a most wonderful promise that addresses this. The resolution of the sin problem that prevented Israel from being the people God called them to be would be accomplished through the internalization of Torah (see Jeremiah 31:31-34). Properly understood, Torah is the teaching and direction of God. God promised that he would write his Torah on our hearts. This is similar to Ezekiel's prophesy about God swapping our heart of stone for a heart of flesh, resulting in a new ability to obey him (see Ezekiel 36:22-31).

But does this experience mean that now our hearts can be trusted? Does the transforming work of God through the Messiah Yeshua so completely heal our diseased hearts that the sheer presence of a desire indicates a godly want? If so, then we should be encouraged to follow our hearts wherever they may lead us. After all didn't David write "Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart" (Tehillim / Psalm 37:4; ESV)? Certainly he did, and I do believe that if we delight in the Lord, our desires can reflect God's own heart. But remember what the issue is in our beginning verse: it is the heart's deceitfulness. One of the ways this deceitfulness is expressed is by telling us that every desire we have should be acted upon. While through the Messiah the Torah is internalized, this doesn't make every impulse we have automatically good and godly. Through the Scriptures we learn God's ways. By his forgiveness and the power of the Ruach HaKodesh (English: the Holy Spirit) we are empowered to live godly lives. But we need to pay attention to his direction. Otherwise we are simply driven by desire, not led by God's Spirit.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

TorahBytes: The Feasts of the Lord (Emor)

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, These are the appointed feasts of the Lord that you shall proclaim as holy convocations; they are my appointed feasts." (Vayikra / Leviticus 23:1-2; ESV) 

As far as I know every culture has special occasions that help define that particular culture. Feasts, festivals, and holidays provide people with collective memory and shared values. The western world, which has become more distanced from its religious past, has either redefined its religious holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, or has created new ones, such as Earth Hour and the Super Bowl. 

The culture of ancient Israel as designed by God includes key events described in this week's Torah portion. These "feasts of the Lord" are the weekly Shabbat (English: Sabbath), the day of rest; the night of Pesach (English: Passover) followed by the week-long festival of Matzah (English: Unleavened Bread), commemorating the exodus from Egypt; the day of Shavuot (English: Weeks), which acts as the anniversary of the giving of the Ten Commandments; Yom Truah (English: Day of the Blowing of the Shofar), used to mark the New Year and prepare the people for the next two holidays, which are Yom Kippur (English: Day of Atonement), the national day of humility and repentance and the week-long Sukkot (English: Booths), to remember the days of Israel's living in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. These occasions include prescribed sacrifices and gatherings of the people. Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot were also harvest festivals, requiring pilgrimage to Jerusalem each year.

These special days and observances gave Israel a sense of national community, caused the people to remember its history, and draw the nation's attention to God. The weekly Shabbat observance and yearly holy days provided a regular rebooting of Israel's awareness of who they were and what life is truly all about. To neglect these days would lead to a loss of identity and direction.

For many in the Jewish community today these and other special occasions continue to act as community identifiers. For some Jewish people, Judaism may have no other practical application apart from one or more of these days. The more religious within the community hold to the misconception that by observing these and other special days, they are preserving an unbroken line from Moses until now. I use the word "misconception," because the inability to offer sacrifices due to the Temple's destruction two thousand years ago makes truly keeping these God-given feasts impossible. Like much of Judaism since then, feast observance is a mixture of things reminiscent of Temple days and a great many man-made traditions. Differentiating between God's directives and human tradition would make these observances that much more meaningful and beneficial.

As Jewish followers of Yeshua, my family and I seek to continue our people's traditions albeit through a biblical filter. We acknowledge the feasts as part of our history and seek to discover the essence of God's intentions in these special occasions as expressed in Scripture, engaging in those things that are truly biblical and distancing ourselves from those things which are not. While we cannot actually observe the feasts as God intended, like the rest of the Bible, they contain essential aspects of God's revelation. 

More and more Christians have become interested in the feasts. Recovering the biblical roots of New Testament faith is essential to understand what the coming of the Messiah is all about. The reality of the God of Israel can only be known within the context of his revelation through the whole Bible. But as for the feasts themselves, they can no longer be truly observed due to the Temple's destruction. Still, studying them and engaging in activities designed to teach the truths of God as revealed through them can be most worthwhile.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

TorahBytes: A Serious Health Advisory (Aharei Mot & Kedoshim)

But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. (Vayikra / Leviticus 18:26-28; ESV)

I am sorry for the crass language in the Torah verses I just quoted. This week's parsha (weekly Torah reading) contains strong warnings to the people of Israel, regarding rules that govern sexual intimacy, the consequences of which are rather disgusting. God through Moses states that if the people of Israel engage in these forbidden activities, the land would react negatively to them.

The word translated "vomit" is the same word that describes what the fish did to Jonah to get him from its insides up and out on to the land (see Jonah 2:11 [English: 2:10). The fish threw up Jonah. That's how God describes what the land would do to the people should they indulge in certain kinds of immorality.

Stating that the land would vomit out the people is certainly metaphorical language to describe exile. God was not saying that the physical terrain would literally violently regurgitate the people, sending them flying up and out of the land, causing them to drop down outside of Israel's borders, landing in foreign territory. The end result is the same, exile. But the process is not exactly that of vomiting. Or is it?

Apt metaphors vividly capture certain aspects of something in order to communicate with more power than when using plain words. When we know a language well, we don't normally consider those aspects of metaphors that are not intended to be taken literally. We simply get the point of what is being said. The intention behind saying, "shake a leg" is the urging of someone else to hurry up. The image of shaking is about the immediate call to action. No actual leg shaking is anticipated.

But while we rightly understand that the land would not literally vomit the people out, there is something in this expression we might too quickly miss, and that is the responding of the land to behavior.

However it actually works, the Bible is pretty clear that land responds to human behavior. Generally speaking, we can say that God blesses and curses our geographical locations in response to how we live. I am very aware that it is more complicated than this, but it is still fundamentally true. When people continually disregard God's ways it is only a matter of time before the land in which they live will no longer tolerate them. It's not the land itself responding, it is God at work through nature. Still, God designed the creation to be favorably disposed to morality and to reject immorality.

The vivid metaphor of upchucking immoral people reminds us that no society can get away with ignoring God's ways for too long. In case you are thinking that this only applies to the people of Israel who had been given the Torah, note that God's warning to them refers to the land vomiting up a previous nation.

How we live matters. The current popular morality that insists that people should feel free to follow their desires whatever they may be, rather than submit to God's rules, will result in disaster. When will that be? I can't say. Just listen for the tummy rumbles.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

TorahBytes: Contaminated (Tazri'a & Mezora)

Say to them: "For the generations to come, if any of your descendants is ceremonially unclean and yet comes near the sacred offerings that the Israelites consecrate to the LORD, that person must be cut off from my presence. I am the LORD" (Vayikra / Leviticus 22:3).

When I was a kid I remember if someone had touched something really dirty or disgusting, we would run away from them yelling, "You’re contaminated!" And if that person would touch anyone else, the other person would also get the same response.

In the Torah getting contaminated was a serious thing.

The sacrificial system in the Torah was central to the life of the nation of Israel. There were only certain people who were actually allowed to offer the sacrifices. The descendants of Aaron, Moses’ brother, were designated as cohanim (pronounced, co-han-`im ; "priests" in English). Yet only those cohanim who were fit for service could do so.

There were various things that could contaminate a cohen. For example disease, physical abnormalities, or touching dead animals would keep them from participating in the temple service for a time. Some of these things would disqualify them permanently.

But what was it about these things that made them unfit to serve? Why was it that they could not touch the sacred things?

It appears that in most cases what contaminated the priests either had to do with sickness or death. Such contact prohibited them from coming near the things of God.

But what was the big deal? Looking back on my childish behavior, I am ashamed that I would treat any one that way. Why then did God insist on being like this? Was he worried that we would contaminate him or his things?

God’s insistence on keeping separate from human weakness is for our benefit, not his. We needed to learn that our propensity toward sickness and death was not God’s intention for us. We need to be reminded that our human state is far from what it should be.

It is when we see the great distance between ourselves and God that we begin to make the journey toward him.

Once we recognize how contaminated by death we are, we are then ready for God to share his life with us.

And this is what he wants to do.

God has made a way for us to be able to approach him. By sending his Son, the Messiah, to offer himself as the perfect sacrifice, we can then be brought near to God. Through the Messiah’s death we are cleansed from death’s contamination. By trusting in what Yeshua has done for us, we can then all enter God presence.