Saturday, June 29, 2013

TorahBytes: Environmental Disaster (Mattot & Masei)

You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it. You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the people of Israel. (Bemidbar / Numbers 35:33-34; ESV)

Pollution. It's a bad thing. Poisoning the air, water, and soil destroys this beautiful planet in which we live. Irresponsible disposal of waste ruins our environment. When God mandated our first parents in the Garden of Eden to be stewards of the creation, he put the care of the planet squarely on our shoulders.

Proper management of the environment is not about the complete elimination of waste. God made the world in such a way as to tolerate certain levels of waste products. Pollution occurs when we overload the earth's natural filtration systems. In fact, in many cases when waste overload does occur, cleanup is still possible. It takes a very high level of pollution to reach the point of no return. But, of course, this should not encourage laziness on our part, especially since the harm of environmental disasters can be avoided.

With all the current interest in the environment, it is regrettable that most people and agencies neglect what is perhaps the main pollutant in our day: blood. The unjust shedding of blood pollutes the environment in ways beyond our comprehension. That's what the Torah says. But isn't that metaphorical? Yes and no. It is metaphorical in the sense that the Torah is not saying that when human blood is spilled on the ground the soil becomes unfit for use. But it not metaphorical in that murder has a real physical effect on the land. Just because the relationship between this type of injustice and the environment cannot be measured scientifically, doesn't make it any less real.

The Torah teaches that the remedy for first-degree murder is the execution of the perpetrator. This principle is rooted in God's words to Noah after he and his family emerged from the Ark (see Bereshit / Genesis 9:5-6). The Torah is careful to prevent revenge and establish fair trials. But it's only the reciprocal shedding of blood of the murderer that can cleanse the pollution cause by his or her crime. That capital punishment has become so distasteful in much of the world today reveals a great misunderstanding about the sacredness of life. I did a whole message on that topic earlier this Jewish year (Life Is Valuable:

The prevalence of the unjust shedding of blood in the world today is staggering, especially when we take into account the slaughter of the preborn through abortion and the growing popularity of euthanasia and assisted suicide. There is no way our environment can tolerate the disaster caused by so much killing. We should expect a serious environmental disaster as a result.

We don't have to look too far, for it is reasonable to extend the reference of land in our passage to the wider sphere of provision and prosperity in contemporary societies - that which we call the economy. And the economy of much of the Western World is currently in the grips of a catastrophe of an unprecedented scale. For the most part it is hidden from view by a sense of false security due to the illusion of endless credit. Yet the land cannot tolerate this situation much longer.

We are fooling ourselves to think that the current economic situation requires an economic solution. Our passage tells us that it's the shedding of blood that has brought this on. As I mentioned, only additional shedding of blood can bring the cleansing and restoration we need. I assume most of us find this bizarre. But perhaps once we realize how much blood we have on our hands and the nature of the disaster we have brought upon ourselves as a result, then maybe we will be open to God's solution: his taking on human form as the Messiah in order to shed his own blood on our behalf.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

TorahBytes: It's Our Turn (Pinhas)

These were those listed by Moses and Eleazar the priest, who listed the people of Israel in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho. But among these there was not one of those listed by Moses and Aaron the priest, who had listed the people of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai. For the Lord had said of them, “They shall die in the wilderness.” Not one of them was left, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun. (Bemidbar / Numbers 26:63-65; ESV)

This week's Torah portion includes the second census of the people of Israel taken almost forty years after the previous one. We just read how the adults listed in the latter census included no one from the first, except Caleb and Joshua. All the other adults, except for Moses who was nearing the end of his life, died out as the consequence of their failure to trust God regarding the conquest of the Promised Land.

The earlier generation blew it. After seeing all that God had done in powerfully delivering them from slavery in Egypt, caring for and protecting them afterward, and giving them the Torah at Mt. Sinai, they couldn't handle the challenge of facing the powerful nations who inhabited the Land of Canaan in spite of God's promise to give them overwhelming victory. They couldn't connect God's work on their behalf in the past with what God called them to face in the future. Their lack of faith disqualified them from receiving the land promised to their forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Now a new generation would face the same challenge. The failure of their parents didn't cancel out God's promise of the Land, only postponed it. Not much had changed in forty years, just the personnel. The nature of the task was the same. There is no indication that the inhabitants of Canaan were any less antagonistic or less able to withstand the Israelite invasion. I don't think we are told anywhere how or why they possessed an outlook their forebears did not. The new generation may have been more experienced than their elders, but experience alone doesn't produce faith. They were more removed from the effects of oppressive servitude. Yet freedom can make people more self-focused, not more submissive to God. But submissive faithful hearts they had, and while they too would have various issues regarding their reliance on God, they fundamentally stayed true to him and successfully settled the Land.

It would be difficult to underestimate the effects our ancestors have upon our lives. From genetics to behavioral patterns, from loyalty to afflictions, our family of origin is probably the single greatest factor in determining who we are. Last week I had the opportunity to give a Father's Day sermon. I began with talking about my own father and how my relationship with him affected me. It would be easy for me to blame my life struggles on him. But God doesn't allow me the luxury of blame shifting (you can read a summary of my sermon here: []). My father had to face his challenges. Now it is my turn. This week's passage shows me that I don't have to expect that the outcome of my life is going to resemble that of my father's or any of my ancestors. Just because they may or may not have failed in life need have no effect on me.

At the same time I am aware that this can be easier said than done. I don't believe the Hollywood adage "you can do anything you set your mind to." Life doesn't work that way. I prefer the biblical principle, "we can do anything God wants us to do." With God's help we can overcome any difficulty.

Whatever our backgrounds might be, they need not define who we are or what we can do. Each generation has the opportunity to hear what the Master of the Universe is saying and do his will. We can't do anything about the failures of others in the past. But now it's our turn.

Monday, June 17, 2013

TorahBytes: Leveraging Sexuality

When Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to commit sexual immorality with the daughters of Moab. (Bemidbar / Numbers 25:1; NET)

Israel faced many challenges in the wilderness in the years prior to their entering the Promised Land. Some went well; others not so much. This week's Torah portion includes both kinds. One in which God protected the people from harm and the second where disaster ensued. Both incidences had to do with the same opponents, the people of the region of Moab.

In the first instance Balak, the King of Moab was concerned that the people of Israel would cause him and his people much trouble, so he hired a prophet, more accurately a soothsayer, named Bilaam (or Balaam), to curse them. It's one of the more drawn out stories in the Torah. Every time Bilaam tried to curse Israel, God would not let him as blessings came from his mouth instead. The story ends or seems to end with Bilaam proclaiming nothing but good things over Israel. If this was a movie, the screen would fade to black as the narrator says, "Then Balaam rose and went back to his place. And Balak also went his way." (Bemidbar / Numbers 24:25; ESV)

The next segment begins with no reference to the previous story. Yet the people with whom Israel interacts with are still the Moabites. It begins with the verse I quoted at the start. It just seems to happen. The story of Balak and Bilaam is full of tension and anticipation, intrigue and frustration. God is at work to thwart the evil plan. Israel can't be cursed; don't even try. But now Israel does evil. Just like that. The consequence of this sin was the death of 24,000 Israelites.

While Israel was responsible for their irresponsible behavior, it didn't happen in a vacuum. Later on in this same book of the Torah we read concerning the Moabite women with whom the Israelite men sinned, "Behold, these, on Bilaam's advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord" (Bemidbar / Numbers 31:16; ESV). Bilaam had instigated this affair. What he couldn't accomplish through spiritual power, the nation of Israel brought upon itself through sexual sin. Bilaam conceived a plot whereby he leveraged the sexuality of women to bring destruction to Israel, which in the end also brought death to himself and the women he used.

Women are still being used by the forces of evil to bring destruction through the illicit use of their sexuality. I am not saying that women's sexuality is any more evil that men's. In fact sexuality itself isn't sinful at all. It's created by God for good purposes. Yet, sexual desire is a powerful and complex thing, and when not handled within God's defined parameters, it causes great trouble.

Yet today we are taught to pursue our desires, whatever they may be. Evil is defined as those things that restrict us from fulfilling our wants. We refuse to accept how the removal of God-given restrictions to our sexual wants only serves to ruin us individually and communally.

It is extremely important for both men and women to understand the dynamics of sexual desire. Any attempt to reduce a woman's allure is viewed as sexist and oppressive, but a woman's purity is a precious gift that should be protected. Men need not be expected to be sexual animals, living to fulfill their drives. Self-control is a gift of God's Spirit and is the mark of a true man.

It is essential that we discern the Bilaams of our world - those who understand the power of women's sexuality to leverage it for their own purposes, exploiting both men and women in the process. It may be difficult to resist this ploy. But with God's help we can.

The Father Factor

You may have heard the story of the prison chaplain who following the overly successful program of providing Mother's Day cards to inmates thought to do the same thing for Father's Day. But as it turned out, not one Father's Day card was requested.

Whether or not this is a true story is beside the point. It's believable. This is not to say that no one has issues with their mother, it's that we have the perception that father issues are very common. According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, an American organization dedicated to supporting the role of fathers, "there is a 'father factor' in nearly all of the social issues facing America today". America is not alone in this regard.

Do you have "father factors"? Something that debilitates you based on something that your father did or didn't do. Or maybe it's due to not having a father in your life at all. Or you did, but, not really.

Let me introduce you to my father. I don't have many pictures of him, but of the few I do have, here is one of my favorites:

Sam Gilman was born in 1914 in Russia. He was actually given the Yiddish name "Yoinah" (Jonah), but after emigrating to Montreal at 12 years of age, a girl in his class said, "Let's call him 'Sam'", and it stuck.

My father was a creative man. He had a good singing voice and played saxophone, clarinet, and guitar with jazz being his preferred genre. He also gave private guitar lessons. He took up oil painting in his fifties. Like many Jewish immigrants to North America back then, he worked in the garment industry, working in a dress factory his whole life, eventually becoming a dress designer and supervisor.
He had a great sense of humour with wonderful delivery, but his preferred characteristic was his physical strength. When he was thirteen he fell from a balcony and broke his hip. During his recuperation, he began to build up his upper body and earned the moniker "Tarzan". This picture was taken when he was 20.

His strength was also his weakness as he tended to resort to it in order to resolve problems. He was never physical with me. In fact, he was often appropriately affectionate. When I was young he regularly took me out for breakfast on weekends followed by a trip to the park. The positive effects of this kind of time and attention were offset by his constant griping about my mother. He also had a loud and aggressive temper that regularly agitated life at home. I don't recall ever receiving words of affirmation from him. In fact, I always had a sense that he was very disappointed in me and my three older brothers.

I think I can summarize my "father factor" as confused ambivalence. My father, who seemed to believe in his "Tarzan" persona, was a superhero in his own eyes. Yet he was helpless to solve the most important problems within his own family. Instead of helping me grow to be a man, he lamented my weaknesses, physical and emotional. He abandoned me and my mother just as I was beginning puberty. I only saw him a few times between age 15 and his death in 2001.

Perhaps the greatest thing I didn't receive from my father was a sense of identity. I grew up with no sense of who I was and what living on earth was all about. My anxiety, fear and insecurity were the results of this profound lostness. I don't blame my father for this, since he too was just as lost.

As I was preparing a sermon for Father's Day, I was drawn to the second of Paul's prayers in his letter to the Ephesians (3:14-19). I believe that it was issues of identity and security that were most likely on Paul's mind when he prayed this prayer, which begins, "For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named" (Ephesians 3:14-15). Much of Ephesian deals with how God through the Gospel made a way for non-Jews to become fully part of his family. Even today many of us, Jews and Gentiles, are bothered by a sense of not quite belonging.

Being insecure in our relationship to God drives some of us to spiritual excess, placing all sorts of unreasonable expectations on ourselves. Instead of resting in the security of our Father's love, some seek connection with God through religious rituals or just the right spiritual experience. Others simply live with a quiet, but debilitating sense of never quite belonging.

So Paul's reference to God the Father as the one "from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named" has to with how identity is ultimately established and defined by God. The only way the Ephesians (and you and me) will ever find a true and lasting sense of belonging is from the Creator God, the original Father, who made us on purpose and for a purpose. It is only from him that we will ever know who we are and why we are here.

Notice what Paul asks the Father to do: "that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being" (3:16). The way to become a secure human being is to be spiritually strengthened by God. What my dad did not (and could not) provide for me, God can. The result of God-provided strength is "so that the Messiah may dwell in your hearts through faith." When God fills us with spiritual strength, then Yeshua will truly be at home in our hearts and will live through us as never before. It is then that we will grasp the bigness of God and his plan for us and the universe (18), know the mind-blowing love of the Messiah, and be filled with God's own fullness (19)! Identity, security, fullness - the kind of father factors we all need - and ones that can only come from our heavenly Father.

So whatever father factors you might be dealing with this Father's Day, God desires something better for you. May he "strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being."

Sunday, June 09, 2013

TorahBytes: Trust Matters (Hukkat)

And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them." (Bemidbar / Numbers 20:12; ESV)

This week's parsha (weekly Torah portion) includes the sad story of God's forbidding of Moses to enter the Promised Land. He led the people of Israel for forty years, putting up with so much grief from the very people he had been assigned to help. He stood against the world power of his day and led an oppressed nation of slaves through stark wilderness and antagonistic territory. He diligently taught them God's ways and handled their disputes. When God himself was fed up with their rebellious attitudes and evil behavior, he pleaded for patience and mercy. No one should ever blame Moses for losing it. Anyone else would have given up long before he did.

But he did eventually fail. It's not too clear exactly what it was that prompted God to be so harsh with his otherwise faithful and humble servant. The incident involved the people grumbling yet again - this time due to lack of water. Like so many other times before, in spite of the people's inappropriate attitude, God directed Moses to perform another miracle. This was the second time God would cause water to come from a rock. Almost forty years earlier in a similar situation God told Moses to strike a particular rock with his staff and water would be provided as a result (see Shemot / Exodus 17:1-7). This time Moses was instructed to speak to the rock. There was no mention of hitting it. But hit it he did. If I read the story properly he hit it with an uncharacteristic anger towards the people. A great amount of water came out anyway, but something about Moses' handling of the situation resulted in God's forbidding him to enter the Promised Land.

I can't say for sure what it was that God disapproved of. Was it that he hit the rock, when he was told simply to speak to it? Or was it his expression of anger? Whatever it was, God said that Moses failed to uphold him as holy in the eyes of the people. Again, how he did that is not clear, but this is a serious charge. What is clear is what was behind Moses' failing to treat God properly. God said to him, "Because you did not believe in me."

Moses didn't believe in God? For many of us, that sounds as if he had no faith in God at all, which of course is not the case. Most people don't know that the Hebrew word aman' that is here translated "believe" can also be translated "faith," or "trust." The particular English word chosen depends on what makes the most sense in English in a given context. I think "trust" is better here. Reading it as "Because you did not trust me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people" gets across the correct idea in this particular case. It was Moses' lack of trust that resulted in his not being allowed to enter the Promised Land.

God was not completely rejecting Moses or discounting everything else that happened in the last forty years. It was not as if Moses' not trusting God in this instance caused him to forgo his status as a true child of God. He only lost the privilege and benefit of entering the Promised Land. This is not to say that this is no big deal. Far from it! To lead the people all that way only to fail in the end was huge. Moses would plead with God to change his mind, but God said "no" (see Devarim 3:23-29).

From this we learn that while general faith in God through the Messiah is completely sufficient to establish a right relationship with him, ongoing faith is necessary to live out the kind of life God desires for us. Our ongoing struggles with doubts and fear need not lead us to think that we are not God's children. But as God's children we need to grow in our trusting of him. Lack of faith will always result in a substandard walk with God. The more we trust him, the more effective our lives will be.