Thoughts on Tzav

This week’s parasha, Tzav, “Command” (Leviticus 6:1-8:36) begins,

ADONAI spoke to Moses, saying: “Command (tzav) Aaron and his sons, saying: This is the Torah (or law) of the burnt offering. The burnt offering should remain on the hearth atop the altar all night until the morning, while the fire of the altar is kept burning on it. … Fire is to be kept burning on the altar continually—it must not go out.”

Leviticus 6:1-2 & 6

Later in Ki Tavo as Bnei Israel prepared to enter into the promised land, Moshe proclaimed,

“This day ADONAI your God is commanding you to do these statutes and ordinances—so you are to take care and do them with all your heart and with all your soul. 

Deuteronomy 26:16)

It has been said that the Torah is our handbook for daily life. However, learning to apply its rules to a constantly changing world takes quite a bit of effort and at times originality. New discoveries in science and medicine, new political realities, and even differing economic systems require new insights from our Torah. The ability to adjust or to adapt has always existed. Contrary to what we see in some communities, innovation is inherent to our tradition. Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of modern-day Israel, stressed that we must “renew the old and sanctify the new”. 

In the Friday, April 3rd digital edition of The Times of Israel, correspondent Ben Harris writes, 

The coronavirus pandemic has upended so many parts of life that it’s perhaps little surprise that it’s also having a significant impact in the field of Jewish law, or halacha. The sudden impossibility of once routine facets of observant Jewish life has generated a surge in questions never considered before — and modern technology means that Jews the world over are more able than ever to ask those questions and share their answers.

We are in an unprecedented time for religious observance and routine. As one browses the news, faith communities all over the world are trying to find ways to keep their communities together. Some are going against local health ministry regulations and continuing to meet as normal and in doing so, take the chance of infecting or being infected with COVID-19.  Others have found creative ways to maintain their communal existence. Some are using various internet video-conferencing methods, others have set up drive-in type parking lots where everyone stays sequestered in their car while worship services are broadcast over loudspeakers. At least one Catholic community I read about offers drive-up confessionals as well as communion. 

As Mr. Harris noted above, within Judaism, “The sudden impossibility of once routine facets of observant Jewish life has generated a surge in questions never considered before….” The sense of community remains at the very heart of Judaism and isolation and quarantine has the potential of eroding that heart. In response, there are live-streaming and video-conferencing prayer services going on daily, including Shabbat. There are numerous rabbis in Israel and around the world who have either encouraged or at least hesitantly allowed for both Shabbat evening meals as well as Passover to be shared with family over the Internet. This is not a complete change of halakhic norms, rather it is adjusting the ancient traditions to meet the specific needs that face us today. As Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo stated, “For too long, Halakha has been jailed in compartmentalized and awkward boxes. It is time to liberate it.” (Nathan Lopes Cardozo. Jewish Law as Rebellion. Jerusalem, Urim Publications, 2018, p35)

Remember the occurrence in Mark 2 when Yeshua interacted with the P’rushim (Pharisees) over allowed Sabbath activities. The end of the matter was Yeshua’s statement that “Shabbat was made for man, and not man for Shabbat.” In no way was he speaking against keeping or honoring the Sabbath, rather he was trying to get the P’rushim as well as his talmidim, to understand that the Sabbath was Hashem’s gift to man – a time to fellowship and enjoy His presence as well as fellowship and enjoy the presence of others. That is why, at this juncture in time, we “break the Sabbath” by using our computers to meet together as communities, to encourage one another, to pray for one another, to open a window in a isolated room so others do not have to be alone during this pandemic. 

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

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Thoughts from the Haftarah – Vayikra

This week we begin a new section of the Torah, Vayikra/Leviticus; the reading is Leviticus 1:1 through 5:26. The portion deals with various offerings and how they are to be brought before the LORD. While much could be said concerning the sacrifices, their meaning then, and how we should understand them today, I would like to offer two words of encouragement from this week’s haftarah, Isaiah 43:21 – 44:23.

In the haftarah, the prophet Isaiah rebukes Judah for neglecting the required sacrifices as well as abandoning the Temple rituals. And it appears that this neglect and abandonment is rooted in Israel’s abandonment of Hashem in favor of idol worship. The two scriptures that jumped out to me as I read Isaiah’s words were specifically words of encouragement for Israel to return to Hashem, putting aside her idolatress ways. I believe these words can also be a source of encouragement for us today as across the globe we all have fallen prey to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The first word of encouragement is, “Thus says ADONAI who made you, and formed you from the womb, who will help you: ‘Do not fear, Jacob My servant, Jeshurun, whom I have chosen,’” (Isaiah 44:2). While this verse contextually speaks directly to Israel, we can all take comfort in this promise. According to Genesis 1:27, Hashem created all of us in His image and the psalmist echoes this when he proclaimed, “Your hands have made me and formed me,” (Psalms 119:73). Earlier in Psalms it is written, “For He knows our frame. He remembers that we are but dust,” (Psalm 103:14). I do not know why we have fallen plague to this pandemic, but I know without a shadow of a doubt that as our Creator, Hashem knows our condition and situation, and just as He cared for Judah in her wayfaring condition, He cares for each one of us.

The second word is really a reiteration of the first, “Remember these things, Jacob, and Israel, for you are My servant. I formed you, you are My servant. Israel, you will not be forgotten by Me,” (Isaiah 44:21)! In the repetition, Hashem stresses that he formed Israel and because of that Israel will not be forgotten. And just as He will not forget Israel, He will not forget us as well. Returning to the psalmist we read these words,

If I say: “My foot has slipped,” Your mercy, ADONAI, will hold me up. When my troubling thoughts multiply within me, Your consolations comfort my soul. 

Psalm 94:18-19

He will not forget us. Remember Yeshua’s words at the end of the ‘Great Commission,’ “And remember! I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20). When the news of the pandemic situation threatens to overwhelm us, when isolation and confinement separates us from family and friends, especially those who have been inflicted with the virus – remember that (1) we will not be forgotten by Hashem and (2) His consolations will bring comfort to our souls.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

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Weekly Thoughts Vayakhel-Pekudei – Shabbat HaChodesh

Tomorrow is Shabbat HaChodesh (“Sabbath [of the] month”), which is the Shabbat that precedes the month of Nisan during which Pesach (Passover) is celebrated (Exodus 12:1-20). Traditionally, Rosh Chodesh Nisan is the first month of the Jewish year according to the schedule of the mo’edim (festivals; Lev. 23). Pesach is probably one of the most Judaically defining of all the mo’edim. Without the Exodus, and therefore without Pesach which commemorates the Exodus, the Jewish people would not exist today. 

It is also important to note that Pesach is not just a commemoration of a historical event that happened centuries ago; it is re-lived every year. Rabban Gamaliel instructs the Jewish people, 

In every generation a man is obligated to regard himself as though he personally had gone forth from Egypt, because it is said, “And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: ‘It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8). Therefore it is our duty to thank, praise, laud, glorify, raise up, beautify, bless, extol, and adore Him who made all these miracles for our fathers and ourselves; He brought us forth from slavery into freedom, from sorrow into joy, from mourning into festivity, from darkness into great light, and from servitude into redemption. Let us say before him, Hallelujah!

M. Pesachim 10.5

Each one of us is to personally consider that we ourselves have come out of Egypt. Notice that Rabban Gamaliel commended each person “in every generation” to recognize that Hashem has brought the individual out of Egypt. But in light of this understanding, Rabban Gamaliel also states that “ it is our duty…,” the duty of the entire community, “to thank, praise, laud, glorify, etc.,” Hashem for His actions on behalf the Children of Israel way back then as well as for His actions on behalf of us today.  

It is often said that a sense of community is at the very heart of the Jewish people. I can remember going camping on the west side of the Sea of Galilee, arriving in the early Thursday afternoon so that we could get the tent up before the afternoon winds came. Often, because of our arrival time, we would be the only one in the campground, which was usually rather large and spread out. By evening time, the campground had filled with other week-end campers. What surprised me, at least the first couple of times, is that when others came into the campground, they seldom chose a separate or more isolated section–they usually set up their tent either near ours or near the folks that were already next to us. In the end, though we did not know one another, we were all close proximity to one another, almost like a mini community. Once a friend described it as an Israeli herd instinct. Looking back on it though, I think it affirms the fact that community is at the heart of the Jewish people. 

On this Shabbat HaChodesh, as we begin thinking about Pesach and our traditional gatherings as a community with family and friends to commemorate the festival, the traditional gatherings may well be minimalized or forbidden all together due to the COVID-19 pandemic that we are currently experiencing. Jewish lifecycle events all over the world have been curtailed or postponed indefinitely due to the social distancing that the pandemic has necessitated. So how do we as a community celebrate a festival when we cannot gather together in our customary fashion due to health concerns and numeric restrictions? The answer is simple, we create new customs. We do what we can do with what we have. We focus on Him who is the reason for the festival, and we remember not only the Exodus, but we remember those times when we celebrated with family and friends. Aside from just remembering past celebrations, one person suggested to link family members together via the internet possibly setting up laptops, iPads/tablets, or even cell phones at individual place settings where family members or friends would normally sit. No, it is not ideal, but is a way to maintain a degree of community. 

Closer to the present, however, this Shabbat (and Sunday for some) most of us will be subject to local health ministry and governmental restrictions. Meetings in Israel are now restricted to 10 (some events 5) individuals or less with a 2-meter social distance between them. For chavurot (house groups) like ours, the number is not a problem, but the social distancing is. Some congregations are attempting to live stream their services while others are using applications like FaceTime and Zoom to stay connected and to support one another during these “interesting” times. 

During these “interesting times, let’s remember these words from the writer of Hebrews, 

And let us keep paying attention to one another, in order to spur each other on to love and good deeds, not neglecting our own congregational meetings, as some have made a practice of doing, but, rather, encouraging each other.

Hebrews 10:24-25, CJB

Even though we cannot meet together physically, today’s technology allows for, even encourages, us to stay connected and to meet together for support, edification, and encouragement. I encourage everyone to find ways that work for you and your community to stay connected and to stay safe. 

The readings for this Shabbat are:
Torah: Exodus 35:1 – 40:38
Special Maftir: Exodus 12:1-20
Haftarah: Ezekiel 45:16 – 46:18
Besorah: Matthew 15:32-39

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Thoughts on Tetzaveh

One of the most poignant mitzvot in Torah is the command to remember. Aside from the number of times that Hashem says that He will remember, there are numerous times when Israel was told to remember, e.g. Exodus 13:3 “Remember this day, on which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage. …”; Numbers 15:39-40, It will be your own tzitzit—so whenever you look at them, you will remember all the mitzvot of ADONAI and do them and not go spying out after your own hearts and your own eyes, prostituting yourselves. This way you will remember and obey all My mitzvot and you will be holy to your God.” 

The reason for this brief introduction about memory and remembrance is that this Shabbat is Shabbat Zachor or Sabbath (of) remembrance. Shabbat Zachor is the Shabbat before Purim. As the book of Esther comes to a close, these words are recorded…

The Jews established and took upon themselves, upon their descendants, and upon all who joined with them, that they would commemorate these two days in the way prescribed and at the appointed time every year. These days should be remembered and observed in every generation by every family and in every province and every city. These days of Purim should not fail from among the Jews, nor their remembrance perish from their descendants.

Esther 9:27-28

Interestingly, though not specified in Esther, there is a tradition that says that Haman, the archenemy of the Jewish people, was in fact descended from Amalek. And the Amalek connection explains this week’s Haftarah, 1 Samuel 15:1-34, which begins

Thus says ADONAI-Tzva’ot: “I remember what Amalek did to Israel, how he set himself against him on the way while he was coming up from Egypt. Now go and strike down Amalek and put all he has under the ban of destruction.”

1 Samuel 15:2-3

Returning to Esther 3:1, it states that Haman was the son of Hammedatha the Agagite. Three times in 1 Samuel 15:8, :20, and :32), Agag was acknowledged as the king of the Amalekites. So, could Haman have been a descendant of Agag, king of the Amalekites? I do not believe it can be proven without a doubt one way or the other. It can be said that Haman fit the modus operandi of Amalek, and that in his generation, he was the enemy of all the Jews and had schemed to destroy them completely,” (Esther 9:24). One has to wonder if King Saul had been obedient to the word of the LORD through Samuel, if he had totally destroyed Amalek, would the history of the Jews and the world been altered? 

There is another point to remember this Shabbat Zachor. When Hashem reveals His will, we need to obey it, otherwise disobedience can at times have dire consequences. As noted in 1 Samuel 15:3, King Saul was to “go and strike down Amalek and put all he has under the ban of destruction—so have no pity on him; but kill both men and women, children and nursing infants, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys.” However harsh that may seem to us today, that was Hashem’s command to King Saul. Sadly, King Saul disobeyed, resulting in Samuel proclaiming, “ADONAI has torn the kingship over Israel from you today and has given it to your neighbor who is better than you,” (1 Samuel 15:28). King Saul had tried to excuse his disobedience by saying,“for the people spared the best of the sheep and oxen to sacrifice to ADONAI your God—but the rest we have utterly destroyed.”

There were at least two problems with this statement, possibly three. First, King Saul brought back Agag instead of killing him. If he survived, quite possibly others did as well. Second, all the livestock were to be killed as well. Third and maybe the most damning for King Saul, was that he said the livestock, that had been slated for destruction, were to be sacrificed to Samuel’s God; he did not say “to be sacrificed to my God,” thus separating himself from Samuel’s and Israel’s God.

This week’s parasha Tetzaveh, (you shall command), Exodus 27:20 – 30:10, begins with the command concerning the pure olive oil that is to be set apart for the ner tamid, the lamp that was to burn continually, day and night before the veil blocking the Ark of the Covenant.

At the end of the parasha, there are the instructions concerning the altar of incense which ends with

You must not offer up unauthorized incense on it. Nor should any burnt offering or grain offering be there, nor should you pour any drink offering there.

Exodus 30:9

Later in Parashat Shemini, we will read about the outcome of being disobedient to this command.

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his own censer, put fire in it, laid incense over it, and offered unauthorized fire before ADONAI—which He had not commanded them. So fire came out from the presence of ADONAI and consumed them. So they died before ADONAI.

Leviticus 10:1-2

Nadab and Abihu were with their dad and uncle in preparing the Mishkan and the articles and rituals. They knew that they were not to “offer up unauthorized incense” or anything else on the altar – but for some reason they did and paid the ultimate price for their disobedience. Acts 5 records the account of Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, lying to Hashem. The compiler of Proverbs wrote, “Lying lips are detestable to ADONAI…” (Proverbs 12:22).

Fortunately, more often than not, punishment and discipline are not immediately metered out as with King Saul, Nadab and Abihu, and Ananias and Sapphira. That is not because our disobedience is of a lesser measure, rather it is because Hashem is gracious and patient. We see this affirmed by Hashem after the incident of the Molten Calf, when He proclaimed to Moshe,

“ADONAI, ADONAI, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness and truth, showing mercy to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means leaving the guilty unpunished, but bringing the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”

Exodus 34:6-7

Then through the prophet Ezekiel He told Israel,

“As I live”—it is a declaration of ADONAI— “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Return, return from your evil ways.”

Ezekiel 33:11

Just because punishment or discipline is not immediate does not mean that there will not be consequences for our disobedience. In any event, the ideal practice is to walk in obedience to the Word of God, and to trust in His grace when we stumble from the way. But, as Rav Shaul warned, “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be,” (Romans 6:15)! Also, let us remember what King Saul seemed to have forgotten, “…to obey is better than sacrifice, to pay heed than the fat of rams,” (1 Samuel 15:22).

* Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

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Torah Thoughts – Terumah

Many of us have a heart to serve Hashem, but often our hearts are divided. On one side is the desire to follow His commands or His leading completely. On the other side is the desire to set our own terms of service. We set up all sorts of conditions and limits on what we will do, where we will go, and how we will serve; all under the guise of following the Lord and doing His bidding. We want to remain in control of what we do and how we do it. In doing so, we forget Yeshua’s word of caution to his talmidim (including us),

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, and drive out demons in Your name, and perform many miracles in Your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Get away from Me, you workers of lawlessness!’”

Matthew 7:21-23

I suggest that the works of lawlessness were not the actions or ministry done in the name of the Lord, rather they were the fact that these actions were being done outside of the plans and directions of Hashem, seemingly of their own volition. 

In this week’s parasha, Terumah, Exodus 25:1 through 27:19, Bnei Israel is taught this lesson. 

“Tell Bnei-Yisrael to take up an offering for Me. From anyone whose heart compels him you are to take My offering. These are the contributions which you are to receive from them…”

Exodus 25:2-3

The word translated “offering” is terumah, a special gift, a contribution, something that is dedicated or set apart for sacred use. Notice first that the terumah or offering was to be given as each individual’s “heart compels” him/her, meaning that the individual had a degree of control over whether he or she gave, what he or she gave, and how much he or she gave. Second, the terumah was NOT just anything the heart compels. Hashem continued to give Moshe specific instructions as to what type of offerings were to be received from the people, and the list is long enough that everyone would have been able to participate in the terumah in some way or another. There were fifteen categories of items and there was no set amount, minimum or maximum stipulated.

After the command to give the terumah, Hashem gives the reason for the terumah, “Have them make a Sanctuary for Me, so that I may dwell among them,” (Exodus 25:8) But then, as with defining the acceptable terumah, He gives exact instructions on how to build the Sanctuary, 

You are to make it all precisely according to everything that I show you—the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all the furnishings within—just so you must make it.” As with the offering, the Sanctuary had to follow a set, certain pattern.

Exodus 25:9

So, while Hashem did want willing or heart motivated offerings, He was very specific in what offerings would be acceptable, as well as in exactly how the offerings were to be used. Remember that earlier Hashem had told Bnei Israel, “Now then, if you listen closely to My voice, and keep My covenant, then you will be My own treasure from among all people, for all the earth is Mine,” (Exodus 19:5); and the people responded, “Everything that ADONAI has spoken, we will do” (Exodus 19:8). Just as one cannot play baseball with golf clubs, Bnei Israel, if they were going to follow Hashem, had to do so by His rules, and that included the offerings brought as well as their use.

Concerning the Tabernacle Hashem told Moshe, You are to make it all precisely according to everything that I show you—the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all the furnishings within—just so you must make it.” It should be noted that in the Ancient Near East, (ANE), this would not be a surprising command. According to Nahum Sarna,

A prominent characteristic of the narrative in both its parts is the repeated reference to divinely given instructions and the celestial patterns for the terrestrial edifice and for its contents. Such a conception of a sanctuary is not unknown elsewhere in the ancient world. It is attested as early as about 2200 BCE in the narration of a building project by the Sumerian King Gudea of Lagash. It also occurs in Egyptian texts that treat similar enterprises. The idea of divine inspiration, initiation, and specification of a religious institution generally communicates the deity’s sanction and acceptance of the sacred structure, which is thereby endowed with legitimacy.

Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1991, 156.

In other words, receiving instructions from Hashem was not unexpected. If their God truly cared for them and desired their allegiance, they anticipated that He would tell them what He wanted and how He wanted it used. In fact, Hashem’s giving of rules and directions actually validated or as Sarna intimated, legitimized His and Bnei Israel’s mutual covenantal relationship.

Returning to the beginning, I said that “Many of us have a heart to serve Hashem, but our often our hearts are divided.” Better yet, maybe we want to serve Hashem according to Frank Sinatra’s classic affirmation, “I did it my way.” Unfortunately, Yeshua told those who did it their way what he thought about their claim of service – “I never knew you. Get away from Me, you workers of lawlessness!” On the other hand, Yeshua told his followers, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments,” (John 14:15). For those who choose to keep his commandments and not to do things our way, I believe we will more likely hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You were faithful with a little, so I’ll put you in charge of much. Enter into your master’s joy,” (Matthew 25:23)! 

* Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

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Torah Thoughts – Mishpatim

I grew up in a “military” home; my father was career US Air Force. I kind of knew that I would also be going into the military. So, at eighteen I enlisted in the US Marine Corps and for the next twelve plus years lived by a relatively strict code of behavior and dress. It was not always easy, there were occasionally life and family pressures that came with being in the Marines. But the one thing that came to mind time and time again was, “I volunteered for this, I wasn’t drafted or forced into the Marine Corps.” I may not have understood the full implications of life in military service, but I willingly signed on the dotted line, committing myself to said life – three times in fact. 

In last week’s parsha, Israel was introduced to the basic framework of the Covenant that Hashem was offering them (Exodus 20:1-17). This week’s parasha, Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18, begins to flesh out that Covenant. The word mishpatim literally means “judgements” but can also be translated as rules or ordinances.According to the sages, mishpatim refers to the category of rules (mitzvot) that we can logically understand. Among other things, these mitzvot establish the guidelines for proper, ethical care for slaves and for livestock, as well as responsibility for damages caused by said livestock to others. They also cover the dealing with theft and restitution of lost property, whether by the hand of the thief or by the action or inaction of a borrower. The prophets repeatedly chided Israel for their failure to heed the mitzvot given in parashat Mishpatim, specifically oppression of those on the fringes of society

You must not exploit or oppress an outsider, for you were outsiders in the land of Egypt. You must not mistreat any widow or orphan. If you mistreat them in any way, and they cry out to Me, I will surely hear their cry.

Exodus 22:20-23

In Isaiah’s first vision, Hashem, in correcting wayward Judah and Jerusalem, pleaded with the people to “learn to do good, seek justice, relieve the oppressed, defend the orphan, [and] plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). The prophet Micah gives a practical understanding and application of the regulations in Mishpatim to care for others whether they be family or outsiders and to deal caringly for those who cannot care for themselves in his admonition, “He has told you, humanity, what is good, and what ADONAI is seeking from you: only to practice justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

There are other mitzvot in the Torah that Israel, both then and now, may or may not understand their reason or purpose. Mitzvot such as those dealing with ritual purity and impurity, food and clothing requirements, are not easy to understand logically. Nevertheless, Israel was and is just as responsible for these mitzvot as for those we can easily understand.  In fact, Israel has never been asked or required to understand the rationale behind the mitzvot but only to accept and to do them. Before the Covenant was given, Moshe explained that if they would keep the Covenant Israel would be Hashem’s Am Segula (His special people). Israel responded, “Everything that ADONAI has spoken, we will do,” וַיֹּאמְרוּ, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה נַעֲשֶׂה va’yomru, “kol asher diber ADONAI na’aseh” (Exodus 19:8). Then after the Covenant has been presented to them, the people respond once again “All that ADONAI has spoken, we will do and obey (literally ‘hear’)” וַיֹּאמְרוּ, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע va’yomru, kol asher diber ADONAI na’aseh v’nishmah (Exodus 24:7).

I included the Hebrew in both of the proclamations because I want to emphasize what the two verses have in common and the one difference. First all the people answered (וַיֹּאמְרוּ) and they said, “we will do” (נַעֲשֶׂה). The Covenant was not forced upon Bnei Israel, they accepted it voluntarily. They could have walked away from the mountain, saying “man, this is more than I bargained for, I’m out of here.” For that matter, after the mitzvot in Mishpatim were given and they learned more of what was required, they could have turned around and left; but instead, they reiterated their acceptance. They made the choice to accept the Covenant, binding it upon themselves and their descendants for all time. After hearing the parameters of the Covenant they committed their willingness to do what was written therein even before understanding the regulations, etc. The commitment in Exodus 24:7 states that Israel will do and hear (shema), which carries with it the idea of heeding, paying attention, understanding. So, the people of Israel committed to keeping and doing both logically understandable commands and not so understandable commands.

In the Apostolic Writings we read Yeshua’s words to his talmidim, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you. I selected you…” (John 15:16) and “No one can come to Me unless My Father who sent Me draws him…” (John 6:44). The choosing and drawing Yeshua spoke about is comparable to the leading of Bnei Israel out of Egypt, first to Sinai and eventually to the promised land. There was always a choice to be made – to do or not to do (a bit Shakespearian, huh?). Hashem never desired robots who followed commands without thought or choice. Rav Shaul recognized this when he wrote to the believers in Colossae,

But now He has reconciled you in Messiah’s physical body through death, in order to present you holy, spotless and blameless in His eyes—if indeed you continue in the faith, established and firm, not budging from the hope of the Good News that you have heard.

Colossians 1:22-23

It was never about obedience alone; there was and always is a component of choice. I joined the Marines voluntarily, because I wanted to do so. When I enlisted the first time, I thought I knew what was going to happen and accepted what would come. After being in for a while, I discovered that there was much more to the life of a Marine than what my limited understanding had thought. However, in spite of the newer or more complete understanding, I still reenlisted a couple more times, again voluntarily. When the time came that I left the Corps to pursue another course, that too was voluntary. 

Our lives are a series of choices made each and every day; choices to walk in the manner we know is right and godly or choices to walk in a manner contrary to what Scriptures tell us is the way to go. Either way, the choice is ours to make. We are faced with the same choice that Joshua challenged Bnei Israel after they entered the promised land,

Now therefore, fear ADONAI and worship Him in sincerity and in truth. Get rid of the gods that your fathers had worshipped beyond the River and in Egypt, and worship ADONAI. If it seems bad to you to worship ADONAI, then choose for yourselves today whom you will serve—whether the gods that your fathers worshipped that were beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will worship ADONAI!

Joshua 24:14-15

May we all choose to worship Adonai in sincerity and truth.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

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Torah Thoughts – Yithro

What is the importance of the number 3? Some common “threes” are the sun, moon, and stars, the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Kohanim, Levites and am ha’aretz, and the triune nature of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And speaking of Hashem, His three primary attributes are omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. There are three primary colors, red, blue, and green and there are three spatial dimensions, height, width, and length. Biblically, the number three represents divine wholeness, completeness and perfection. Finally, to bring this listing to an end, time is measured as past, present, and future. While not on purpose, I have listed nine common “threes” which amusingly is 3 x 3.

So why have I noted the importance of “three” in light of this week’s parasha, Yithro, Exodus 18:1-20:23? As we will see later, there are at least two significate “threes” in this week’s reading. 

Parashat Yithro does not begin with the Mt. Sinai experience and the giving of the Torah. Rather it begins with Yithro, a non-Jewish priest of Midian, who also happened to be Moshe’s father-in-law, coming to visit Moshe and bringing with him Moshe’s wife and two sons. After greeting one another, Moshe relates the account of Hashem’s deliverance of Bnei Israel from the oppression of Egyptian tyranny and the ultimate demise of Pharaoh and his army in the Sea of Reeds. After expressing praise to Hashem, Yithro observed Moshe’s day-to-day actions with the people which led Yithro to give Moshe some sage advice on how to govern and administer the people.

But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you’re doing is no good. You will surely wear yourself out, as well as these people who are with you, because the task is too heavy for you. You cannot do it alone, by yourself. Now listen to my voice—I will give you advice, and may God be with you! You, represent the people before God, and bring their cases to God. Enlighten them as to the statutes and the laws, and show them the way by which they must walk and the work they must do. But you should seek out capable men out of all the people—men who fear God, men of truth, who hate bribery. Appoint them to be rulers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Let them judge the people all the time. Then let every major case be brought to you, but every minor case they can judge for themselves. Make it easier for yourself, as they bear the burden with you.

Exodus 18:17-22, TLV

It is obvious that Yithro was concerned both for Moshe as well as for Bnei Israel. By putting Yithro’s advice into practice, it became the pattern for the Israelite administrative and judicial system. An 18th Moroccan mystic and Torah commentator, suggests that the purpose Yithro’s visit “was to teach us that although Torah is the all-encompassing repository of wisdom, there are things in which other people, gentiles, excel more than Jews. For instance, the skill of proper bureaucratic administration” (Pinchas Peli, Torah Today, 1987, p 73). The fact that Moshe immediately implemented Yitro’s advice instead of simply filing it away and continuing on his own, is a sign of Moshe’s greatness.

I find the phraseology of Yithro’s closing words to Moshe most remarkable. “If you do this – and God so commands you – you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied,” (Exodus 18:23, JPS). Yithro did not automatically assume that his advice would be unilaterally accepted by Moshe – but he encouraged Moshe to follow it, if it was acceptable to Hashem as well. Then as noted in vs 18, Yithro reiterated a show of compassion and pronounced the expected outcome – Moshe would be able to handle the load and the people would “go home unwearied.” 

Now for the promised “threes”. First, Yithro is one of three parashiot that carry the name of a non-Jew. There is Noach, who became the father of all mankind after the Flood; then Yithro, the priest of Midian; and finally, Balak, the less than righteous king of Moab. Noach was considered righteous, Yithro’s praise of Hashem and much needed advice to Moshe set him apart as a man of wisdom and compassion, and Balak was the bad apple of the three. It has been suggested that this set of three goes to show that all non-Jews are not necessarily bad or evil and that even those who do not specifically serve or follow the God of Israel can be righteous, moral individuals – affirming the fact that we all, Jews and non-Jews alike are created in the image of Hashem.

Then there is another “three” in this parasha. After Moshe told Yithro about the exploits of Hashem, Yitro immediate responds בָּרוּךְ ה׳, Baruch Hashem. Two times before in the Torah, this phrase was specifically proclaimed – and like this time, both were by non-Jews: Noach (Genesis 9:26) when he blessed Shem, and Eliezer (Genesis 24:27) when he realized that Hashem had indeed led him to Abraham’s kin and potentially Isaac’s future wife. Interestingly, the phrase Baruch Hashem, which has become one of the most common responses of religious Jews worldwide, did in fact originate from the lips of non-Jews.

Now for a final observation from Yithro, we need to return to last week’s parasha, Beshalach. After the Song at the Sea in Exodus 15, we read about the reaction of the surrounding nations at the deliverance of Bnei Israel by Hashem, “Then the chiefs of Edom are terrified. Trembling grips Moab’s mighty men. All of Canaan’s inhabitants will melt away. Terror and dread will fall on them,” (Exodus 15:15-16). Later we read that “the Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim,” (Exodus 17:8). Apparently, Amalek also heard of Hashem’s exploits and concluded that the best defense was good offence and decided to immediately go on the attack. Then we come to Yithro, who also heard of Hashem’s exploits (Exodus 18:1) but instead of fear and trembling or becoming angry and attacking, he chose to go see his son-in-law. He wanted to hear the story firsthand, after which he immediately offered praise to Hashem.

Often, we hear news or a report about and individual, or a group of individuals that invokes an immediately reaction. Sometimes the response is fear, sometimes anger, sometimes it is doubt and confusion. At times, these feelings are justified, sometimes they are not. Ideally, we should, like Yithro, go to the source and check-out the news or report to see if it is accurate. After doing so, then we can determine our next course of action, if any is needed. Afterwards, remember Yithro’s response when he heard Moshe’s account—Baruch Hashem—and remember that Hashem is deserving of blessing and praise regardless of the situation or circumstance. 

The Haftarah for Yithro is Isaiah 6:1-13 & the reading from the Apostolic Writings
is Matthew 5:13-20.

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