Bamidbar – Wildfire, Water and the Wilderness

May 26, 2017
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Bamidbar – Wildfire, Water and the Wilderness

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This week we embarked upon our annual reading of Bamidbar.  The fourth book of the Torah is so named since it begins “Vay’daber Adonai el-Mosheh b’midbar Sinai (And the LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai).” Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar both asks and answers, “Why does Hashem gift the Torah in the Wilderness?”  It goes on to explain that Torah is given in fire, water and wilderness. This is to teach us that just as each of these are free, so the learning of Torah is given freely.

Another approach to the Midrash is to understand fire, water and the wilderness as forces within man. Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein, for example, in his Shem MiShmuel, writes that fire refers to man’s heart, the inner fire that aspires to reach God, water refers to his mind, which adds an element of patience and reason in approaching the divine, and the wilderness refers to the renunciation of worldly pleasures which interfere with one’s spiritual pursuits. All three elements, he writes, are necessary for the study of Torah. I would like to extend this metaphor to both examine the potential hindrances to our growth and more importantly our capacity to endure and overcome these obstacles. Read more »

Behar – It All Belongs to the Lord

May 18, 2017
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Behar – It All Belongs to the Lord

From its outset Torah is the story of Israel and the Holy One whose name the nation would bear. From the very beginning of the history that is recorded in the Torah, humanity is called to bear collectively the image of the One True Creator.  With the disobedience of humanity the mantle is passed to Israel with the command to be a “kingdom of priests and a Holy nation.”  (Shemot 19:6) But what does this actually mean?

The first command in Gan Edan is literally to serve (l’avdah), the land (B’restit 2:15).  The God of Israel is not a King who exhausts his creation, rather a sovereign who serves the creation He loves. So as His image bearers it is incumbent upon us to also serve earth and its inhabitants. In such a manner we are to make the name of the King known, and bring all of humanity back into the service of Hashem. As it states in the daily prayer Alenu, “our task is our inheritance”.

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Emor – The Blemished and the Whole

May 11, 2017
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Emor – The Blemished and the Whole

For decades, Western society has been making concerted efforts to be more accepting and inclusive of those who have physical and mental disabilities. This means that accommodations must be made for impediments that have historically restricted people from living fully integrated into the greater society. In the past most of “civilized” society dealt with others’ handicaps by turning a blind eye. At best, the disabled were treated with dismissive sympathies and self-congratulatory charity; at worst they were often blamed for their disabilities and pushed to the margins of society. Only recently has the conversation turned toward treating those with disabilities as fully enfranchised members of society, rather than isolating them and consigning them to lives of degradation and exclusion.

Scripture also speaks of such disabilities through a complex balance of values, priorities, and perceptions. On the one hand, many of the heroes of the Bible suffered from physical and mental handicaps. Jacob limped, Isaac was blind, Moses had a speech impediment (and a fragile ego), Miriam dealt with dermatological concerns, and Saul clearly had bouts of depression and possibly psychosis. Rav Shaul dealt with some type of ailment but preferred to refer to it as “a thorn in the flesh,” leaving us to wonder about his issues of deep shame. What is most important to acknowledge is that these leaders were able to function in exemplary fashion. Read more »

Passover Lambs and Chesed Community

April 6, 2017
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Passover Lambs and Chesed Community

Among messianic Jews much has been said concerning the parallels between the sacrifices of the paschal lamb and that of Yeshua. After all the paschal lamb was the Korban Pesach, the essential sacrifice which God commanded the children of Israel to make before liberating them from bondage to the Pharaoh of Egypt and bringing them to Sinai where they would enter into a covenant of service to Him. The blood of this lamb placed upon the lintel and posts of the doors of Israel’s abodes in Goshen stood as the sign by which the destroyer would pass over them, averting the plague of death to the first born which befell the households of Egypt. Similarly the blood of Yeshua, who Yochanon the Immerser referred to as the “Lamb of God,” spiritually holds the curse of sin and death in abeyance, and brings both Israel and the nations into a renewed covenant with God. Yeshua himself used the symbols that surround the Seder meal and the Passover lamb, to ritualize and point forward to his own efficacious sacrifice. Read more »

Vayikra – A Tough Place for Man or Beast

March 30, 2017
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Vayikra – A Tough Place for Man or Beast

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At first glance Torah can be a tough read for those concerned about animal welfare. Much of the first ten chapters of Leviticus contain cultic material, especially in parsha Vayikra that, that concerns itself with sacrifice, which is more than occasionally of the animal variety. Though this brutal instruction may violate our contemporary sensibilities, the animal sacrifices in Torah must be understood within the cultural context of ancient Israel and its surrounding neighbors. While it is true that many of the particulars of Israel’s sacrificial system were borrowed from the cultures of pagan neighbors, the sacrifices they offered are to be understood theologically according to the particular character of Israel’s God and in accord with the peculiar covenantal relationship that He enacted with them. In this respect Israel’s sacrificial system can best be understood as a domestication of existing practices by inculcating God’s highest values into the normative ritual milieu. Israel’s community of faith put incredible energy and attentiveness into these offerings as material gestures, which defined the importance of God for the life of the community. The various sacrificial practices prescribed for Israel were vehicles designed to celebrate, affirm, enhance, or repair the defining relationship between them and God. Read more »

Pekudei – The Future Is Now

March 23, 2017
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Pekudei – The Future Is Now

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When I was a boy in the 60’s my two favorite cartoons were the popular Flintstones and Jetsons. While Hanna-Barbera Studios produced both, the Flintstones was “the modern stone-age family” while the Jetsons was the “space-age” family of the future. Ironically though, both families were really tongue in cheek reflections of 1960’s lifestyle and values.

The Flintstones had all of the 60’s lifestyle expectations, with Stone Age veneers. Their stone wheel cars would roll up to the drive-in restaurant so they could order a “bronto-burger.” Their humble abode in the Town of Bedrock resembled the low cost post WWII housing which accompanied the suburban sprawl or the 50’s and 60’s. Even their appliances such as garbage disposals and hairdryers ran on the power of prehistoric looking animals. The Jetsons on the other hand had flying cars, excessive gadgetry and robotic servants to help ease their life in cloud scraping hi-rise apartments. Almost prophetically every time saving convenience had a screen accompanied by robotic voices that sounded like alien invaders in 60’s sci-fi movies.

Just like the Flintstones, the Jetsons sported 60’s style hairdos and reflected the aspirations and mores of the decade. The women did not work and the men did everything possible to avoid work. Though the Flintstones represented the blue-collar family and the Jetsons the white-collar family, their mode of operation and goals were identical. So is there a lesson that can be gleaned by observing the relationship between the Flintstones and the Jetsons? I think there is, and I believe it to be profound. When we speak of what was or what can be, we can only reflect what we have already known and have experienced. We reconstruct the past and reframe the future based upon our experience of the present. Read more »