Sunday, March 30, 2014

TorahBytes: How Does It Work? (Mezora)

Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst. (Vayikra / Leviticus 15:31; ESV) 

Reading this verse makes me think, “How does this work?” God gave the people of Israel particular directions to follow with regard to how they were to deal with ritual uncleanness. Certain diseases, bodily emissions, and child birth required people to perform set procedures in order to restore themselves to a state of ritual purity.

I don’t tend to concern myself about how things work with regard to God and his directives. That God said these things resulted in defilement and told the people to follow his purification instructions should be good enough for us. After all, as God’s servants, our job is to obey him. Whether or not we understand how this sort of thing works is beside the point.

That said, forgive me for taking a bit of time to wonder why the possibility of defilement was so dangerous. Perhaps this will result in some valuable insights. So let’s see...

Some may suggest that what is going on here is the provision of effective health principles cloaked in spiritual terms. God’s directions had the people distancing themselves from others as well as washing themselves and any affected objects. Sounds like medically informed precautions and procedures to me. But is that what this is all about? Is the mention of God and things like sacrifice nothing more than coating around otherwise practical procedures to enable a superstitious ancient culture to swallow them?

This typical cynical lens through which much of the Bible is viewed by many modern thinkers isn’t intellectually honest. The same collection of writings that has blessed the world with its wisdom on health, as well as justice, government, and morality, also reveals truths about God and spiritual things. To dissect the Bible in order to separate its supposed unreasonable, illogical, superstitious, backward spiritual components from its progressive, wise, and effective practical ones fails to recognize how the practical aspects (that many like) arise from its spiritual foundation (that they don’t like)—not to mention how this approach provides no control over which practical aspects are to be accepted as valid and which are not. It all comes down to personal preferences being that which determine what to accept and what not to—an approach that the Bible certainly rejects.

The warning given by God regarding “uncleanness” is very serious. Failure to carefully follow God’s instructions would result in death. While history has shown that ignoring sound principles of hygiene and the like has devastated whole communities, that is not what is going on here. Death was the consequence of defiling the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle), the precursor to the Temple, where the sacrifices were offered. But how does the defiling of the Mishkan result in death?

I am not going to try to come up with a scientific answer, looking for technical physical connections of cause and effect. For the issue here is not found in the realms of physics, chemistry, or biology. It’s relational. God had determined to dwell among the people of Israel. Think about that for a second. The Master of the Universe took up residency on earth and gave regulations to his Chosen People on how to deal with ritual uncleanness. It was essential to follow these rules. To ignore them invited death.

If they followed God’s instructions, they need not worry. However, ritual uncleanness is a much greater problem than what is addressed in this context. God’s dwelling with the people placed them in a most precarious situation, since no nation, Israel included, could stay ritually clean. Death is not simply the result of acute ritual uncleanness as described in this week’s Torah reading portion. It is the result of the chronic uncleanness we all have been defiled with since the Garden of Eden. These rituals were designed to help us to see that. The greatest problems of the world are not the result of random, meaningless cause and effect. They are due to the ritual uncleanness of the human family who has defiled what was meant to be a holy and pure world where God lives.

This is why the Messiah came. He is the only one who, through his death and resurrection, provides us with the essential and lasting purity we need in order for God to fellowship with us. To neglect his offer of cleansing is to invite death. How does this work exactly? I still don’t know for sure; but it does.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

TorahBytes: God in All Things (Tazri'a & Hahodesh)

And when the days of her purifying are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, and he shall offer it before the Lord and make atonement for her. Then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, either male or female. (Vayikra / Leviticus 12:6-7; ESV)

My wife and I are parents of (what’s considered by today’s standards) a large family: six girls, four boys. Their ages range from 10 to 32 years old. One of the many wonderful things about a household of this size is the variety of personalities. People outside our family tend to notice our similarities, but those who know us better see how very different we are from each other. One of the differences I notice is that some of us are more self-assured than others. To some extent this is a reflection of me and my wife. She can be a lot quicker to come to a decision, and rarely struggles with second thoughts. It’s not that she never changes her mind. But if she does, it happens as quickly as her previous decision. I, on the other hand, ponder a little more, and struggle with doubts. But once I make a final decision, I am very reluctant to change course. Some of our children are more like me, and others are more like her.

One of our sons who is more like my wife in this regard, started his own lawn services business last year. I was very impressed with his initiative and sense of purpose. He quickly organized himself administratively, purchased equipment and garnered clients. He also freely took on a wide variety of projects, acquiring whatever knowledge and expertise he needed along the way. As the business wrapped up in the fall for the season, it was a success.

Here in this part of Canada, we still have a lot of snow on the ground. But spring is coming, and my son is ramping up for another year’s work. He is hard at it already, planning this and doing that with his usual gusto. Gets an idea; goes for it. Like his mom, I don’t hear him second guessing himself. He rarely asks for help, as he rarely thinks he needs it.

You might be wondering what this has to do with the verses I read. Well, I had been thinking about  these verses and how they illustrate how God was to be part of every aspect of  the community of Israel. We may not understand the necessity of ritual cleaning after child birth, nor is it explained. But God was involved in everything.

The other day, with this on my mind, I was nearby when my son sent off a business communication—a text message. I can’t remember what prompted me to ask him if he prayed every time before sending such messages. “No,” he replied. I interpreted this as a case of his self-assuredness, and encouraged  him to be more intentional on bringing decisions to God before acting. This was confirmed to me a couple of days later, when he said, “Praying for things really helps!” Lesson learned, or so I thought.

As it turns out, a lesson was learned, but not exactly as I thought. He explained to me later that while he spends time in prayer each day and stops to ask God before making serious decisions, the text message he had sent didn’t seem to be that important. But misunderstanding aside, he took my words to heart, and immediately started seeing the benefit of praying even for what may seem to be less important matters.

So what does this have to do with purification ceremonies after childbirth? It’s that Torah rituals like these trained the people of Israel to relate to God in all things. It wasn’t that the people were to fill their lives with mindless incantations and gimmicks to appease God or to get life to cooperate with them. It’s that God wanted intimate relationship with his children. Life comes from God; life is sustained by God; we are dependent on God for life. Our lives need to reflect that. The purification rites reminded the people that first and foremost everything they did affected their relationship with God.

People like me can easily come across as super-spiritual. I can make my insecurities sound like I am more dependent on God than others are. It could be what I interpret as self-assuredness in others—their tendency to just “go for it”—comes from deep faith in his love, presence, and guidance, while I have trouble accepting God’s faithfulness towards me. But whether we are prone to uncertainty or confidence, we all need to learn to rely on God in every circumstance. He wants us to and we need intimate fellowship with him more than we know.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

TorahBytes: Discrimination (Shemini & Parah)

This is the law about beast and bird and every living creature that moves through the waters and every creature that swarms on the ground, to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean and between the living creature that may be eaten and the living creature that may not be eaten. (Vayikra / Leviticus 11:46-47; ESV)

I don’t like sales people, especially the ones that phone me or come to my door. I am not proud to admit that I have been downright rude at times. I don’t trust them. They tell me they’re not selling anything when they are, they say that their pitch will take five minutes, when actually they want my attention for an hour or more. They pretend to be nice, but demonstrate no sensitivity whatsoever to me, the potential customer whom they claim to be serving.

The word to describe how I relate to sales people is “prejudice.” It means to “pre-judge”; to make a prior judgment of someone based on something about them. People used to make a lot of fuss about prejudice. We were taught, and rightly so, that we should not pre-judge someone on the basis of their skin color, for example. We were taught, rightly so, that a person’s ethnic background didn’t mean that they were good or bad, intelligent or not, and so on. We were encouraged, rightly so, to get to know people before making any determinations with regard to their character or abilities.

Today, we don’t hear much about prejudice. Now it’s “discrimination.” Discrimination has become one of the greatest evils of all. It’s not enough to only avoid pre-judging someone, we are told not to judge them—period. Instead of learning to treat all people fairly, which was the goal of confronting prejudice, we are expected to treat everyone the same. Current anti-discrimination philosophy insists that we make no moral judgment on anyone ever (except possibly on me for saying so!).

What many don’t realize is that discrimination, far from being the natural outcome of the movement against prejudice, it’s actually the cure. The reason why people are prejudiced is that they haven’t learned to effectively discriminate.

Discrimination is the act of discerning differences and acting upon them. Discrimination is absolutely necessary in life. It is what keeps us from eating poison, or making dangerous wrong turns, or pursuing destructive relationships. Without it everything looks the same and everything is treated the same.

Now, I am aware that one of the definitions for “discriminate” is “to unfairly treat a person or group of people differently from other people or groups” ( I know enough about words to understand that they mean what they mean based on how people use them and that discriminate is being used to describe this kind of injustice. I believe that God calls us to be against this kind of discrimination. The problem I am addressing, however, is that using this word in this way is fomenting moral confusion in our culture.

The cure for what is being labeled as discrimination is not avoiding discrimination, but learning to properly practice it. This is because not everything is the same. This is what God is teaching the people of Israel in this week’s parasha (English: weekly Torah portion). The people needed to “make a distinction between the unclean and the clean.” The Hebrew for “make a distinction” is ba-dal’, meaning “to separate, make distinction, distinguish.” When they looked over the animal kingdom, they were to distinguish between those animals permitted for consumption and those that were not. They were not all the same. These laws were a special part of Israeli Old Covenant culture designed to drum into the psyche of the people the principal of discernment or, as we might say, discrimination.

If I would learn this important lesson, then perhaps I wouldn’t be so hard on sales people. My problem has been my being prejudiced against them with no desire to discriminate. I usually don’t want to take the time to discern the nature of the various sales calls I receive. I want to treat them all the same. More than once I have almost ended conversations with people that I really did want to talk due to my lack of discrimination.

Monday, March 10, 2014

TorahBytes: Hidden Meanings (Zav & Zakhor)

By D. Gordon E. Robertson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0]

My family and I live in Ottawa, the capital of Canada. We love to take visitors on tours of the Parliament Buildings. We always begin just inside the grounds at the Centennial Flame (pictured above). One of the things that makes this structure so impressive is that it is actually a fountain, with the flame on top. It was built in 1967 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the establishment of Canada as a country. It includes the shields of the provinces and territories of Canada as of the centennial, with the dates when each joined the federation[1]. But what is the meaning of the flame?

The Centennial Flame is commonly called the “Eternal Flame,” but technically it is not since it is  shut off for maintenance four times a year, sometimes for a full day. Elsewhere in the world, there are all sorts of eternal flames, commemorating one thing or another[2]. You will also find them in churches and synagogues. In synagogues it is called “ner tamid” (eternal light) and hangs by where the Torah scrolls are stored[3]. The ner tamid has several meanings, including symbolizing the metaphorical light of the Torah and the presence of God, which is often associated with fire in the Bible. It also harkens back to the menorah, the seven-branched lamp in the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and the Temple. It may also refer to what I read at the start, that the fire for burnt offerings “shall be kept burning on the altar continually; it shall not go out.” (Vayikra / Leviticus 6:6 [English: 6:13]; ESV).

There is something about the command to ensure that the fire on the altar never goes out that begs for speculation, to discover meaning that isn’t explicitly stated in the context. I do the same thing every time I take people to see the Centennial Flame. What a wonderful image. Is it a symbol of hope, of enlightenment? Or how about peace? I am not sure how fire and light symbolize peace, but everyone likes peace!

So I looked it up. The Centennial Flame was originally designed as a temporary structure, scheduled to be extinguished at the end of the centennial year[4]. So any eternal aspect associated with the flame is unintentional. Besides marking the special year, the flame helps keep the water in the fountain from freezing in the winter. Makes sense in one of the world’s coldest federal capitals.[5] 

So what about the everlasting fire on the altar? Does it have any special meaning? Well, the passage doesn’t say it does. But a note for Leviticus 8-13 in the ESV Study Bible makes this observation: “This requirement would in turn serve as a special exhortation to the priests to be faithful in their duties so that the worship of the Lord could continue without interruption.” The fire on the altar had to always be ready. Therefore it was the priests’ job to keep it burning—simple and practical; like the Centennial Flame.

I am not saying that there is never deep metaphorical meaning to be found in Scripture, but we should be careful not to read in meaning that’s not there. More importantly, let’s not let our hunger for deep meaning distract us from the practical things God is calling us to do. I don’t know what fire you are responsible to tend, but is it still burning?