This week’s parasha, Shelach lecha, Numbers 13:1 – 15:41, takes its name from the first words of the second verse, “send for yourself,” which concerns the meraglim (spies) that were to go into the land of Canaan to check out the place before Bnei Israel would enter in and take possession. Sending the spies into Canaan to ascertain the lay of the land, the people, the produce, and the defenses can be considered as counting the cost (see Luke 14:31-32) before taking action. Counting the cost is a valid principle, but it needs to be balanced with the expressed word of HaShem. In Exodus, even before HaShem delivered Bnei Israel, he made this promise,

“I declare that I will bring you up out of the misery of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Exodus 3:17

There should not have been any doubt in the minds of Bnei Israel that he would fulfill his promises. To this point in the narrative, HaShem had fulfilled everything he had promised Israel. He had delivered them from slavery and oppression, provided for their needs, and even quite visibly entered into covenant with them at Sinai, making them his am segula(treasured people). But Israel still doubted his word and promises. Recounting this episode, Moses wrote in Deuteronomy,

All of you came to me and said, “Let us send men ahead of us to explore the land for us and bring back a report to us regarding the route by which we should go up and the cities we will come to.” The plan seemed good to me, and I selected twelve of you, one from each tribe.

Deuteronomy 1:22-23

It must be noted that the first part of the spies’ report upon returning from Canaan was great, 

“We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. … They brought back a report to us, and said, “It is a good land that the LORD our God is giving us.”

Numbers 13:27 & Deuteronomy 1:25

However, then there was a “but,”

Yet the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large; and besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. … But you were unwilling to go up. You rebelled against the command of the LORD your God; you grumbled in your tents and said, “It is because the LORD hates us that he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to destroy us.”

Numbers 1:28 & Deuteronomy 1:26-27

Rav Pam (Rabbi Avraham Yaakov Pam ז״ל) in his commentary on Shelach lecha wisely stated, 

A person should always try to avoid putting himself into a situation of nisayon (temptation), where he will be confronted with the opportunity to sin.

(Rav Pam on Chumash, Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 2004, p 169.)

Going into the Land and checking out the situation was not the problem. Israel’s doubting the word and the character of HaShem to fulfill his promise was. Unfortunately, this lack to trust in HaShem’s promises would cause a generation to fall in the Wilderness without entering into the Promised Land. This should remind us that we need to guard our own walk with HaShem to prevent doubt from growing as we follow his leading. James addresses this concern to followers of Yeshua who seemed to be operating in doubt when he wrote the following warning, “…ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:6-7).

As many of you know, one of my favorite Scriptures is from Rav Shual’s letter to the Corinthians, 

No testing (trial or temptation) has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

1 Corinthians 10:13

Sometimes his provision leads in a circuitous direction, just as he took newly delivered Bnei Israel the long way around to Canaan so they would not run into the Philistines (Exodus 13:17). Other times, he allows us to draw on our inner strength, as he did Joseph when Potiphar’s wife confronted him. HaShem did not need to intervene, because Joseph fled the situation. Unfortunately, not all the examples in Scripture turn out positive. The spies not only doubted HaShem but convinced the people to doubt as well, which led to a generation dying in the wilderness. King David also succumbed to temptation when, instead of fleeing from Bat Sheba, he submitted to lust of his eyes and committed both adultery with her and then murdered her husband, which resulted in the death of his new-born son.

We, like Bnei Israel, always have a choice. We can trust in the word and promises of God and the leading of the Ruach (Spirit), or we can trust in our own strength and follow the distractions of our heart and eyes. First Corinthians 10:12 warns each of us “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall,” and the letter ends with these words of encouragement,

Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.

1 Corinthians 16:13

Let this short phrase become a daily mantra as we walk out our journey together; all the time trusting that when we are weak, he will intervene—if we allow him to do so. 

* All Scripture readings are from New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.  

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This week’s parasha us Korach, Numbers 16:1-18:32 begins with a Moses’ uncle, Korach (or Korah in English) challenging Moses for his leadership position in regard to Bnei Israel. It is very easy, even quite natural to blame Korach for his attempted coup of Moses’ leadership, his bid to seize power and authority that was not given him. 

“You’ve gone too far! All the community is holy—all of them—and ADONAI is with them! Then why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of ADONAI?”

Numbers 16:3

Rabbi Sacks, z”l, began his commentary on this parasha by asking “What exactly was wrong in what Korach and his motley band of fellow agitators said?” (https://rabbisacks.org/korach-5781/) Though he set the stage by asking what was wrong with Korach’s accusations against Moses, I am somewhat concerned about his negative description of those he gathered around himself. Granted, before challenging Moses, Korach (himself a Levite) in essence, counted the cost and apparently strengthened his position before he challenged Moses. 

Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, and sons of Reuben—Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—rose up against Moses and took 250 men from Bnei-Yisrael, men of renown who had been appointed to the council. They assembled against Moses and Aaron.

Numbers 16:1-3

Also, keep in mind that Korach and his clan already had been given a great responsibility by HaShem.

They were responsible for the Ark, the table, the menorah, the altars, and the implements of the Sanctuary used in service with them, the curtain and all involved with its use.

Numbers 3:31-32

So Korach had an established position in hierarchy of his clan and must have been an impressive leader to have been able to gather 250 men of renown and leaders in their own rights (see Numbers 1:16). These council leaders chosen by their clans and appointed to assist Moses in leading and judging Bnei Israel were swayed by the enticing words of Korach. Consider for a moment the census count in Numbers 1:46, the total men counted was 603,550, which means that Korach’s coup was populated by 0.04% of the census count.

In the end, the HaShem judged the rebellion, Korah, Dathan, and Abiram and their families lost their lives, “…they with all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol; the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly” (Numbers 16:33). As for 250 men of renown “…fire came out from the LORD and consumed the two hundred fifty men offering the incense” (Numbers 16:35). But sadly, though this was the end of Korach and those he gathered to assist in his rebellion, things did not return to normal. The next day a general revolt arose against Moses and Aaron, by people who felt that HaShem’s judgement was too harsh, blaming Moses and Aaron for HaShem’s actions, “You have killed the people of the LORD” (Numbers 16:41). HaShem judged this rebellion as well and in the end, “Those who died by the plague were fourteen thousand seven hundred, besides those who died in the affair of Korah” (Numbers 16:49). Thus 2.45% of the total census died due to a rebellion started by 0.04%.

When I was studying this parasha, I was reminded of another rebellion in the making against the plans of HaShem. Recorded in the book of Acts is the account of the Sanhedrin attempted to censure Yeshua’s disciples, forbidding them to propagate the teachings of their risen Lord.

But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”

Acts 5:34-39

In a manner, the Sanhedrin’s actions were traveling the same path as Korach. At Shavuot, HaShem empowered the nascent ecclesia to proclaim the kingdom of God and the messiahship of Yeshua to the world. In their rejection of Yeshua, most of the members of the Sanhedrin “became enraged and wanted to kill them (the disciples)” (Acts 5:33). But as it is written, Rabbi Gamaliel tempered their response reminding those gathered that they did not want to be found fighting against God.

We find ourselves in a similar situation today. In the last year political tensions have risen to a feverous pitch, turning brother against brother as well as sister against sister over ideological platforms that have almost taken on sacred significance. Each side thinks, knows with great assurance that the other is wrong, claiming in so many words that the other has “gone too far!” Zealots have taken to the streets, each sure their cause, their platform is correct. In the end, we are not seeing shalom, but chaos. In fact, the cacophony of accusations, even when some of the accusations are valid, are so chaotic that many do not even know what or how to pray to find the way back to the light. Many of the voices striving for our attention are not motivated by the needs or the good of the people of the advancement of the kingdom of God, rather they are motivated, like Korach, by self-interest and self-advancement.

In the days and weeks ahead, I suggest that we concentrate a little less on the chaos around us while focusing a little more on these three passages of Scripture. The first one because it tells us what HaShem expects, the second because it reminds us of who we are and how we should act, and the third because we often just do not know how to pray.

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

“By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

John 13:35

“Therefore, pray in this way: ‘Our Father in heaven, sanctified be Your name. Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Matthew 6:9-10

* 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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Parashat Nasso, Numbers 4:21-7:89, is almost always read on the Shabbat immediately following Shavuot. I find this interesting in that at Shavuot that traditionally we remember the giving of the Torah at Sinai along with Israel’s acceptance of the covenant with the words “All that ADONAI has spoken; we will do and obey” (Exodus 24:7). As followers of Yeshua, we also remember the reception of the empowering of the Ruach promised by Yeshua (see John 14:26), which according to Luke’s account occurred on Shavuot.

When the day of Shavuot had come, they were all together in one place. Suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And tongues like fire spreading out appeared to them and settled on each one of them. They were all filled with the Ruach ha-Kodesh and began to speak in other tongues as the Ruach enabled them to speak out.

Acts 2:1-4)

So, what is it about Nasso’s reading immediately following Shavuot that I find intriguing? There are two reasons. First, the acceptance of the Torah and Hashem’s covenant in a sense, made all of Bnei Israel a type of Nazarite, (Numbers 6:1ff). I say type, because while not abstaining from wine, strong drink, and haircuts (Numbers 6:3-5) they did, in fact make a vow “to be separate for ADONAI” (Numbers 6:2). 

The second reason is also found in chapter 6, this time at the end of the chapter, and that is the so-called Aaronic Benediction. 

ADONAI bless you and keep you!
ADONAI make His face to shine on you and be gracious to you!
ADONAI turn His face toward you and grant you shalom!

Numbers 6:24-26

Nechama Leibowitz, introduces her commentary on this passage by stating

The priestly benedictions are familiar to every Jew who visits the synagogue, so familiar indeed that we are perhaps inclined to forget their true content and fail to appreciate their profound significance.

Studies in Bamidbar, Nechama Leibowitz, p. 60.

Not only are these benedictions well known to most Jews, regardless of their affiliation, the same could be said about most Yeshua-followers as these three lines serve as a closing prayer in many services. What is the significance to this well-known benediction that Leibowitz fears that we miss due to familiarity? The first significance may well be their implied meaning. It is suggested that “ADONAI bless you and keep you” refers to material or physical care and protection. The second, “ADONAI make His face to shine on you and be gracious to you” refers to the HaShem taking care of one’s spiritual needs. And third, “ADONAI turn His face toward you and grant you shalom” refers to the HaShem’s ultimate favor, the granting of shalom. This third aspect of HaShem’s care is often misunderstood if we read shalom as “peace” which is the common English translation. However, “peace” is but a small nuance of the depth of “shalom.” In most Bible dictionaries or Hebrew lexicons, one finds shalom does carry the idea of peace, but much more than that. There is the concept of safety and security, of prosperity and well-being. There is an overriding sense of wholeness, completeness, a state or feeling of satisfaction, and contentment. Therefore, peace is not the absence of strife or chaos, rather shalom is the assurance that even in the strife and chaos, HaShem’s presence, comfort and care are there for us to access – to see us through to the other side of whatever we are facing or walking through. It is the shalom that HaShem gives that allowed the psalmist to write, 

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me: Your rod and Your staff comfort me.

Psalm 23:4

There is another aspect of the “Aaronic Benediction” of which we need to be reminded. “Aaronic Benediction” is a bit of a misnomer. In the synagogue, when the benediction is recited, toward the end of the Amidah, it is introduced with these words,

Our God, and the God of our fathers, bless us with the threefold blessing in the Torah, written by the hand of Moses Your servant and pronounced by Aaron and his sons the priests, Your holy people, as it is said:

Koren Heb/Eng Siddur, Jonathan Sacks, p.132.

This introduction elucidates the misnomer of calling it the “Aaronic Benediction.” Aaron and his descendants did not pronounce their blessing over Israel, they reiterated HaShem’s blessing. Here is the preamble and postscript to the benediction.

Again, ADONAI spoke to Moses saying, “Speak to Aaron and to his sons saying: Thus, you are to bless Bnei-Yisrael, by saying to them: … In this way they are to place My Name over Bnei-Yisrael, and so I will bless them.”

Numbers 6:22-23 & 27

It was and remains the words of HaShem, his blessing and his very name that was bestowed upon Israel via the office of the Aaronic priesthood. Thus, contrary to popular opinion and tradition, it is not the Aaronic Benediction but HaShem’s Benediction that is pronounced over the people of God, whether it be in the synagogue or in Yeshua-believing fellowships and communities. 

Furthermore, I suggest that it is this three-fold benediction also is a reminder of the Shavuot experience described in the book of Acts. The empowering presence of the Ruach ha-Kodesh is a tangible expression of the power and presence of HaShem with his people as promised by Yeshua. If there is any doubt of this, consider these words from Yeshua to his talmidim, as he promised them

Shalom I leave you, my shalom I give to you; but not as the world gives! Do not let your heart be troubled or afraid.”

John 14:27

So, as we enter into the Sabbath this weekend, may each of us truly be aware of the care and concern and provision that HaShem has for each of us and in that awareness, let us truly rest in His shalom.

* 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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This Shabbat we begin the fourth book of the Torah of Moses, Bamidbar, which is also the name of the weekly reading, Numbers 1:1-4:20. There is quite a difference in the book’s name in Hebrew and in English. Bamidbar, the fifth word in the first verse, literally means in the wilderness, which is Israel’s condition for the next 37 plus years. The rabbis called the fourth book Chumash HaPekudim (חומש הפקודים), the Book of Counting (Yoma 3a; Sota 36b). It has been suggested, with good reason, that the English title Numbers and the rabbis’ Chumash HaPekudim is based on the two censuses recorded in the book; the first one is in this week’s parasha and the second in parashat Pinchas, Numbers 26.

As a book, Bamidbar spans approximately thirty-seven years, beginning “the first of the second month of the second year” (Numbers 1:1) and ending as Bnei Israel prepares to enter into the land promised to the patriarchs. Bamidbar is framed by the two censuses; the first occurs after the construction and dedication of the Mishkan, as B’nei Israel start out on their journey to the Promised Land, (Numbers 1:1—4) and the second in the final year of their travels in the Wilderness as they begin preparations to enter the Promised Land (Numbers 26:1-4). It is noteworthy that both censuses counted males “20 years and upward available to serve in the army of Israel” (Numbers 1:3 & 26:2). While it is true that Bnei Israel was learning to trust HaShem to care and protect them, it was and also remains true that HaShem expected Israel, and us, to do their/our part as well. The journey through the Wilderness as well as the conquest of Canaan would require determination and occasional battles to secure the victory. There would be times when HaShem would intervene miraculously and other times when he would allow Israel to fight their own battles, thereby learning to stand on their own.

In addition to the similarities, one major difference exists between the two censuses. In the first census, the Levites were not counted—“Definitely you are not to number the tribe of Levi, nor take the sum of them among Bnei-Yisrael” (Numbers 1:49). However, in the second census, chapter 26, the tribe of Levite were counted.

In his commentary on the Chumash, Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz ז״ל  explains that the Levites were not included in the first census because they were not to “serve in the army and … not [to] conquer nor inherit any portion of the land.” (Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz. The Steinsaltz Humash. Jerusalem, Koren Publishers, 2018, p 734). Their duties lay elsewhere. 

Instead, you are to appoint the Levites over the Tabernacle of the Testimony, over all its implements and all pertaining to it. They are to carry the Tabernacle and all its utensils, tend to it and camp around it. … The Levites are to camp around the Tabernacle of the Testimony, so that there will be no wrath unleashed on the community of Bnei-Yisrael. So, the Levites are to maintain care of the Tabernacle of the Testimony.

Numbers 1:50 & 53

Two specific duties are mentioned in these verses: first, the Levites’ primary concern was the care, maintenance and service of the Mishkan (vs 50); second, they were to serve as a protective shield, keeping the other 11 tribes from encroaching upon the sanctity of Mishkan, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Such protection prevented the wrath of HaShem from being “unleashed on the community.” The utmost importance of this second duty is exemplified in Parashat Shemini, which we read a few weeks ago. Parashat Shemini records the account of the exploits and death of Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, who offered strange or unauthorized fire on the altar and were immediately struck dead for the infraction (Leviticus 10:1). Whether their zeal was intentional or unintentional, the result of the action was the same—death. In the Haftarah for Shemini, we read the account of the death of Uzzah, a non-Levite, who reached out to steady the Ark when the oxen drawing the cart that held the Ark stumbled (2 Samuel 6:6-7).

These two examples stress the importance of the Levites being properly versed and trained in their duties concerning the care, ritual activities, and transport of the Mishkan. They served as a buffer or a shield to protect the rest of the Israel from approaching the presence of HaShem in an unworthy or defiled manner. When the Levites did not perform their duties in the proper manner, such as seen with Nadab and Abihu and Uzzah, horrific results were often swift and decisive. 

What application might we draw today from the Levites role as a buffer or shield? Consider Yeshua’s words to his talmidim, which I quoted last week,

I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper so He may be with you forever. … But the Helper, the Ruach ha-Kodesh whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you everything and remind you of everything that I said to you.”

John 14:16, 26

As the Levites served as a buffer to protect the rest Israel from improperly approaching the Mishkan and by extension the presence of HaShem, so the Ruach ha-Kodesh works in the same manner, teaching and reminding each of us of Yeshua’s teaching when he walked among us and the whole counsel of God as revealed in the Scriptures. Equally, as the Israelites had no excuse if they skirted the Levitical protection, we, as followers of Yeshua who are filled with the promised Ruach, have no excuse when we suffer the consequences brought about by our actions that are contrary to the revealed word of God. Each of the two censuses in Bamidbar carried the idea of making preparations, both numbering men for future battles and identifying the Levites as a buffer. In Luke 14:31, Yeshua echoes the same sentiment in parable concerning the king who would go to war but first needed to count the cost. This reminds us to think about our actions and to count the costs before rushing in like fools “where angels fear to tread” (Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Criticism,” 1711).

* 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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This Shabbat is Shabbat Mevarchim Chodesh Sivan. For some, you have just read the previous italicized words and thought “huh, what did he say?” It is not hard to understand if you know the lingo. Shabbat Mevarchim is the Shabbat before the upcoming Rosh Chodesh (new month) on the Jewish calendar. The upcoming Rosh Chodesh is Sivan, which begins on Wednesday, May 12th. Thus the month of Sivan spans from mid-May to mid-June on the Gregorian calendar.

As always on Shabbat Mevarchim after the Torah and the Haftarah (Prophets) readings, a special segment for the upcoming Rosh Chodesh is read. The chazzan or Torah reader takes the Torah Scroll in his arms and recites, 

May He who performed miracles for our ancestors and redeemed them from slavery to freedom, redeem us soon, and gather our dispersed people from the four quarters of the earth, so that all Israel may be united in friendship, and let us say: Amen

Rosh Chodesh Sivan will occur in Yom Revi’i. May it come to us and all Israel for good.

(Then in Israel the following is said.)

May the Holy One, blessed be He, renew for us and for all His people the house of Israel, wherever they are, for good and blessing, gladness and joy, for salvation and consolation, livelihood and sustenance, for life and peace, good tidings, and good news, (during the winter, for rain in its due season), for complete healing and imminent redemption, and let us say: Amen.
(The Koren Siddur, with Introduction, Translation and Commentary by Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks ז״ל, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2009, p 526)

Rosh Chodesh Sivan holds a special place within Judaism; in truth, it should also hold a special place for all Yeshua-believers, whether Jewish or non-Jewish. During the month of Sivan we finish the counting of the omer, culminating with the festival of Shavuot (Exodus 34:22; Leviticus 23:15-21; Deuteronomy 16:9-11). Tradition holds that the Torah was given to Bnei Israel on Shavuot. The Babylonian Talmud teaches that both the New Moon and Shavuot are linked together with the Exodus from Egypt.

The Sages taught: On the sixth day of the month of Sivan, the Ten Commandments were given to the Jewish people. Rabbi Yosei says: On the seventh day of the month. Rava said: Everyone agrees that the Jews came to the Sinai desert on the New Moon, as it is written here: “In the third month after the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai” (Exodus 19:1), without elaborating what day it was. And it is written there: “This month shall be to you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you” (Exodus 12:2). Just as there, the term “this” is referring to the New Moon, so too, here the term is referring to the New Moon.

Shabbat 86a, Sefaria

At this time, we are reminded of the miracles that led to the redemption of Bnei Israel from Egyptian oppression and the giving and reception of the Torah at Sinai. 

A hope for an ultimate restoration and redemption both with HaShem and with one another is expressed in the final recitation of the Shabbat Mevarchim bracha. But another miracle is linked to Shavuot. This miracle provides the power to truly work toward and experience the desired restoration and redemption, the miracle of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Ruach haKodesh)

When the day of Shavuot had come, they were all together in one place. Suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And tongues like fire spreading out appeared to them and settled on each one of them. They were all filled with the Ruach ha-Kodesh and began to speak in other tongues as the Ruach enabled them to speak out.

Acts 2:1-4

This outpouring of the Ruach haKodesh is a fulfillment of Yeshua’s words to his talmidim as he prepared to return to his Father.

I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper so He may be with you forever… But the Helper, the Ruach ha-Kodesh whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you everything and remind you of everything that I said to you. … you will receive power when the Ruach ha-Kodesh has come upon you; and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and through all Judah, and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

John 14:16, 26 & Acts 1:8

If I may be allowed a little license, Shavuot links the Torah given to Bnei Israel at Sinai to the Ruach haKodesh given to the Yeshua-believers in Jerusalem. John in the beginning of his Besorah (Gospel) states, “Torah was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Yeshua the Messiah” (John 1:17). This affirmation typically serves to contrast “law” and “grace.” I suggest that instead of contrast, the occurrence of both on Shavuot indelibly links the guidance of the law (Torah) to the enabling grace and truth of the Ruach haKodesh. Without law, there is anarchy, without grace the law becomes a ridged, unbending behavioral code. But when, like strands of DNA, law and grace are intertwined, held together by the truth revealed by the Creator along with Yeshua, who is the author and perfector of our common faith (see Hebrews 12:2) then we have the ability and the power to live life and that more abundantly (se John 10:10).

* 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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“Holiness, Leviticus tells from chapter 19 onward, is not only the special preserve of an elite, the priests. It belongs to the people as a whole, for they are “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks ז״ל, Covenant a & Conversation: Leviticus: The Book of Holiness, New Milford: Maggid Press, 2015, p 355).

Leviticus 19 begins with HaShem’s command to Moses, “Speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy’” (Leviticus 19:2). This saying is the heart of what is known as the Holiness Code (Lev. 17-26), while Leviticus itself has been described as a handbook for the Kohanim (priests) and Levites, summarizing their duties in service to HaShem and as mediators between Bnei Israel and HaShem. While this seems to be the main focus of the book, it also serves as a guidebook, defining the parameters of what it means to be a holy, set-apart people. Interestingly, the word holiness appears more than one hundred and fifty times in Leviticus, more than in any other book in the Tanakh or Apostolic Writings. 

This week’s parasha, Emor, Leviticus 21:1-24:23, first continues its ongoing discourse to the Kohanim by addressing additional situations that could call their holiness into question into question, then discusses the acceptable conditions of various offerings that can be presented to HaShem and then in chapters 23 and 24 returns to addressing all the congregation of Israel to be holy as the LORD our God is holy. In chapter 23, Bnei Israel is given a glance at HaShem’s yearly Day-Timer in which he sets forth weekly as well as seasonal moadim or specific times which he has purposefully set aside to meet with his covenantal people.

This Day-Timer is especially important as the designated times are not set apart just for the kohanim and Levites, not for the elders and leaders of the community, rather they set apart for all of Bnei Israel. At the very outset, HaShem defines the purpose of these special times; they are to be his holy convocations—”My moadim” (Leviticus 23:2). Four times in the chapter’s forty-four verses, Moses is commanded to speak to Bnei Israel (Leviticus 23:2, 10, 24, & 34), describing the individual meeting times that HaShem determined to meet with all of his people. Likewise, four times HaShem reiterates that these moadim are statutes forever, throughout all of Israel’s generations in all of Israel’s dwelling (Leviticus 23:14, 21, 31, & 41). 

In meeting with Hashem during his designated moadim, we “keep the mitzvot and do them” (Leviticus 22:32). In keeping the moadim, we not only proclaim but exemplify the holiness of HaShem as one experiences his presence within the holy community. As Rabbi Sacks noted, holiness is not just a state or condition of the kohanim and Levites but a condition that we all should strive to attain. 

In the Second Temple Period, one of the goals of the Pharisees was to bring the holiness of the Temple down to the common person. According to Jacob Neusner ז״ל, the Pharisees held that “the commandment, ‘You shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy people,’ was taken literally: Everyone is a priest, everyone stands in the same relationship to God, and everyone must keep the priestly laws.” (Jacob Neusner, From Politics to Piety: The Emergence of Pharisaic Judaism, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1972, p 83) In other words, the Pharisees felt that when HaShem told Moses to, “Speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy’” (Leviticus 19:2), HaShem meant every one of the children of Israel, in every place and aspect of their lives. While the Pharisees’ methods may have left much to be desired, their goal was admirable. If this were not accurate, then Yeshua’s words to his followers would be meaningless, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees and Torah scholars, you shall never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). The Pharisees have often been accused of being more concerned with outward appearances, not giving proper attention to the heart, and doing the letter of the Law without cultivating a change of heart. It may be said that in their zeal to “do holy” actions”, they lost sight of “being holy.”

In closing, I suggest that both the holiness code as set forth in Leviticus and the fundamental teaching of the Pharisees sought to establish the same purpose: All the people of God should take the responsibility to be holy as HaShem is holy. Holiness has never been simply doing or not doing something; it has always included the proper heart relationship with HaShem in our doing or not doing. Peter, in writing to his communities, affirmed this when he wrote,

So, brace your minds for action. Keep your balance. And set your hope completely on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Yeshua the Messiah. Like obedient children, do not be shaped by the cravings you had formerly in your ignorance. Instead, just like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in everything you do. For it is written, “Kedoshim you shall be, for I am kadosh.” 

1 Peter 1:13-16

So, to put Peter’s final statement, from Leviticus 19:2, in more of the vernacular, “All of you, from the least to the greatest, shall be holy, because I, your God, am holy.”

* 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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There are two things that I want to focus on this week as we consider the double portion of Tazria -Metzora, (Leviticus 12:1-15:33). First briefly of what tzara’at (13:2) is and probably is not. Then second, is the rabbinic understanding of what causes tzara’at. I consider this second aspect which is most important for us today. 

First, to definitions. Most English editions of the Scriptures translate tzara’at as leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, which is a long-term bacterial infection. It is translated thus not because of the Hebrew but because of the Greek of the Septuagint lepra which moved into English as leprosy. However, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh suggested that because tzara’at was treated by priests, rather than doctors, it shouldn’t be interpreted as a medical problem at all, but rather as an exclusively spiritual ailment. (https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/tzaraat-a-biblical-affliction/)   

The idea that tzara’at is the sign of a spiritual condition rather than exclusively a physical one is suggested in Dr. Abigail Uhrman’s introduction to this week’s parasha. 

This week’s parashah discusses tzara’at, a skin disease understood in rabbinic tradition as punishment for lashon hara, evil speech. The public castigation that the metzora (the individual plagued by tzara’at) suffers is a powerful warning for us to “guard our tongues.” It was with words that God created the world, and our words have potential to build, create, and sustain life and human dignity, or to be a source of pain and destruction.

http://www.jtsa.edu/guarding-our-tongues

While there is nothing in this week’s parasha which clearly states that tzara’at is a result of lashon hara, there is a hint of this correlation in the treatment of the individual so inflicted. 

All the days during which the plague is on him he will be unclean. He is unclean. He is to dwell alone. Outside of the camp will be his dwelling.

Leviticus 13:46

This hint is reenforced by the apparent linkage of the two in Deuteronomy as Moses reminds the Children of Israel of Miriam’s lashon hara against Moses in connection with his Cushite wife resulting in Miriam be placed outside the camp (see Numbers 12:1ff).

“Take care in the plague of tzara’at—be very careful to do all that the Levitical kohanim instruct you, just as I commanded them, so you are to take care to do. Remember what ADONAI your God did to Miriam, along the way when you were coming out from Egypt.

Deuteronomy 24:8-9

Although lashon hara is a common term in Judaism it may be foreign to many non-Jews. Simply put, 

Lashon Hara is any derogatory or damaging statement against an individual. In Hilchot Deot 7:5, Maimonides supplies a litmus test for determining whether something is or isn’t Lashon Hara: “Anything which, if it would be publicized, would cause the subject physical or monetary damage, or would cause him anguish or fear, is Lashon Hara.”

https://torah.org/learning/halashon-review1/

The Chofetz Chaim takes this definition a bit further when he taught that,

“Lashon hara is forbidden not only when one’s intention is to condemn another or out of one’s hatred for another, but even when said in jest.”

https://2halachot.org/en/english-halacha/laws-of-lashon-hara-3-3-4-38/

This warning from the Chofetz Chaim hit me between the eyes when I read it and then went straight to my heart. I have often used humor as a defense in tense situations and occasionally as a weapon when I wanted to strike back at someone who hurt or offended me. In such cases humor, most often sarcasm, was lashon hara. At one time, the sign “Sarcasm Spoken Here” would have been at home on my wall. Now I am consciously attempting to avoid such speech most vigorously. 

Recall the words that Ya’acov wrote to his community, “From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, these things should not be. A spring doesn’t pour out fresh and bitter water from the same opening, does it” (James 3:10-11)? Therefore, the choice is ours; with the words we speak we can build up or tear down, bring comfort and healing or death and destruction. Rav Shaul reminded the Yeshua-believers in Corinth, Your boasting is no good. Don’t you know that a little hametz leavens the whole batch of dough?” (1 Corinthians 5:6) Continuing with the idea that little things can cause big problems, Ya’acov wrote that while the tongue is such a small thing it can cause great trouble, (James 3:5, my paraphrase). 

The Psalmist wrote

Who can discern his errors? Cleanse me of hidden faults. Also keep Your servant from willful sins. May they not have dominion over me. Then I will be blameless, free from great transgression. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before You, ADONAI, my Rock and my Redeemer.

Psalm 19:13-14, (12-13)

I think it is important to note that errors, hidden faults, and willful sins are all interconnected to “the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart.” Maybe this is why later he would say “Set a guard, ADONAI, over my mouth.Keep watch over the door of my lips.” (Psalm 141:3)

Returning to Dr. Uhrman whom I referenced at the beginning, she closed her teaching with these words of warning from psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck, “Even when we have good intentions, we need to be wary of our linguistic choices. Our words can be limiting and damaging; they can reinforce our beliefs in fixed abilities and hinder our creative, intellectual, and human potential. Or, instead, our words can affirm our capacity to change, improve, and meet life’s challenges with honesty, ingenuity, and strength.” With these words in mind, I will close with the Peter’s words to his community,

“The one who loves life, wanting to see good days, must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit.”

1 Peter 3:10

May we all see “good days” this week and keep lashon hara far from our thoughts and lips.

* 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.
** This article has been reworked from one which I wrote in April 2019.

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