Thoughts on Shabbat Nachamu

Last week (Saturday evening through Sunday evening) was Tisha b’Av, one of the saddest times on the Jewish calendar. This is the day that traditionally both Temples were destroyed, and historically numerous other atrocities have befallen the Jews throughout the centuries.

Less than a week later, we are celebrating Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort, which takes its name from the opening verses of this week’s haftarah, Isaiah 40:1-26. Shabbat Nachamu is the first in a series of seven haftaroth leading up to Rosh Hashanah that speak of Hashem’s consolation for His people.

“Comfort, comfort My people,” says your God. “Speak kindly to the heart of Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her warfare has ended, that her iniquity has been removed. For she has received from ADONAI’s hand double for all her sins.”

Isaiah 40:1-2, (TLV)

How is it possible to move from intense mourning to joyous comfort and consolation in less than a week? The atrocities have not gone away, they still sit on the display cases of our collective memory. Occasionally new items are added to the display as anti-Semitism rises its ugly head as in Charlottesville or the Squirrel Hillneighborhood of Pittsburgh. Plus there are other atrocities that, while not anti-Semitic, still crash like a tsunami on the beaches of our hearts, such as the double shooting in El Paso and Dayton last Shabbat. The world is literally going crazy, mourning is not limited to an annual memorial but often a part of daily life. Where is the comfort?

Traditionally Tisha b’Av is a time sadness and mourning, remembering what has been lost. There is fasting, sitting on low stools or the floor while reading the plaintive cry of the book of Lamentations. The continual discomfort is a reminder of exile and persecution. Then there is a subtle shift in focus. During Mincha (afternoon prayer), while still in mourning and fasting continues, instead of looking backwards considering what has been lost, we get up off the floor as if hearing the faint calling of Shabbat Nachamu. Instead of focusing on what has been lost, there is a quiet pull to a future hope, a coming consolation that the author briefly touched upon in the middle of Lamentations when he proclaimed 

This I recall to my heart—therefore I have hope: Because of the mercies of ADONAI we will not be consumed, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning! Great is Your faithfulness. “ADONAI is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in Him.”

Lamentations 3:21-24

The past hasn’t changed, echoes of the heartache and pain remain on the shelves, but now we begin to turn looking toward a desired future. 

Look, ADONAI Elohim comes with might, with His arm ruling for Him. Behold, His reward is with Him, and His recompense before Him. Like a shepherd, He tends His flock. He gathers the lambs in His arms carries them in His bosom, and gently guides nursing ewes.

Isaiah 40:10-11

There was discipline, judgement and desolation, but future redemption and hope are promised. There is a Talmudic story that suggests this change of focus. Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva look south over the valley from Mt. Scopus and seeing the rubble that remained of the 2nd Temple, they tear their garments in mourning. When they arrive at the Temple Mount, a fox scampers out of the rubble where the Holy of Holies used to stand. Three of the sages break down in tears while Rabbi Akiva laughs. The three rabbis are shocked to say the least, “why are you laughing” they demand. Akiva questions them, “why are you crying?” The three speak of the destruction and loss. Akiva agrees, but then goes on to explain,

In the prophecy of Uriah, it is written: “Therefore, for your sake Zion shall be plowed as a field, and Jerusalem shall become rubble, and the Temple Mount as the high places of a forest” (Micah 3:12), where foxes are found. There is a rabbinic tradition that this was prophesied by Uriah. In the prophecy of Zechariah, it is written: “There shall yet be elderly men and elderly women sitting in the streets of Jerusalem” (Zechariah 8:4). Until the prophecy of Uriah with regard to the destruction of the city was fulfilled, I was afraid that the prophecy of Zechariah would not be fulfilled, as the two prophecies are linked. Now that the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled, it is evident that the prophecy of Zechariah remains valid.

b. Makkot 24b

Today, some us live in the restored, rebuilt sovereign nation of Israel. While we continue to remember what was lost and the many centuries of exile, at the same time we celebrate in the consolation and restoration that began in 1948 and continues to this day. It is not yet perfect; we are not yet in the Messianic Age. However, we do see the reward and recompense of Hashem as He continues to shepherd His flock. As per the prophecy, elderly men and women are sitting in the streets of Jerusalem; a simple walk down Ben Yehuda or Jaffa street and a glance at the coffee shops and cafés bears this out. Children play in the parks and the sounds of joy and laughter can be heard through the land.

However, there remains another prophecy, another source of consolation for which we continue to wait. Yeshua spoke these words over Jerusalem,

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! Look, your house is left to you desolate! For I tell you, you will never see Me again until you say, ‘Baruch ha-ba b’shem ADONAI. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’”

Matthew 23:37-39

Israel has been restored and, in many ways, comforted, but there is still a further, more complete consolation coming. On Shabbat Nachamu when we proclaim, “Prepare the way ofAdonai,make straight in the deserta highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3), we recognize that part of that preparation is assisting all of Israel to say “Baruch ha-ba b’shem ADONAI. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!” At that time, Messiah Yeshua will be able to fulfill his words to Jerusalem bringing true comfort and consolation to his people.

In a later passage of consolation, Isaiah proclaims,

It is too trifling a thing that You should be My servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the preserved ones of Israel. So, I will give You as a light for the nations, that You should be My salvation to the end of the earth.

Isaiah 49:6

The ultimate consolation and restoration of all things will be realized when both Israel and the nations proclaim together, Baruch ha-ba b’shem ADONAI

Shabbat Shalom

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Thoughts on Tisha b’Av

Almost three weeks ago, on the 17th of Tammuz, many Jews in Israel and around the world began the countdown to the most devastating time in Jewish history, Tisha b’Av. Traditionally, on the 17th of Tammuz 587 BCE, the armies of Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to the city of Jerusalem. Fourteen days later, on the Rosh Chodesh Av, Nebuchadnezzar’s siege engines breached the walls of Jerusalem and the invaders worked their way to Solomon’s Temple. On Tisha b’Av they razed the Temple to the ground. 

Through the centuries, Tisha b’Av has become a time of mournful remembrance not only of the destruction of the 1st Temple in Jerusalem but also the 2nd at the hands of the Roman war machinery in 70 CE. Along with these two destructions, various other atrocities are recalled, including Crusades from the Medieval Period and the “final solution” of the Holocaust. 

Aside from special prayers and piyyutim (medieval Jewish poetry) and the reading of Eicah (Lamentations), Tisha b’Av is also commemorated by a complete 25-hour fast similar to that of Yom Kippur. The primary difference in the two fasts is that there is no celebratory festive meal before the fast of Tisha b’Av, as we are already in a time of contemplative mourning. Do all Jews, everywhere, fast on Tisha b’Av? Unfortunately, no, and for many, though the day is noted on the calendar, life goes on as normal with little thought to the history and the reason for the observance. I see this as another unraveling tether to our past, that serves as an identity marker to who we are and from whence we’ve come. I recently quoted a line from Fiddler on the Roof, a bit of wisdom from Tevye the milkman, “Because of our traditions, we have kept our balance for many, many years. … And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is, and what God expects him to do.” Our traditions, our practices, serve to identify the people of Israel as the “am segula,” the chosen people of Hashem – those who were set apart to be holy as He is holy (Deuteronomy 14:2). The atrocities that have befallen Israel have not eradicated that chosenness, rather they have reinforced it. HaShem expressed this concept to the prophet Jeremiah while Judah was anticipating Nebuchadnezzar’s arrival and Jerusalem’s destruction,

Thus says ADONAI, who gives the sun as a light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars as a light by night, who stirs up the sea so its waves roar, ADONAITzva’ot is His Name: “Only if this fixed order departs from before Me”—it is a declaration of ADONAI—“then also might Israel’s offspring cease from being a nation before Me—for all time.” Thus says ADONAI: “Only if heaven above can be measured and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, then also I will cast off the offspring of Israel—for all they have done.” It is a declaration of ADONAI.

Jeremiah 31:34-36, TLV

One more thought to ponder as we approach Tisha b’Av is the loving-kindness and compassion of HaShem. This morning, during Shacharit, I was overwhelmed by one of the preparatory prayers that are said before Pesukei d’Zimra (Verses of Praise).

לעולם A person should always be God-fearing, privately and publicly, acknowledging the truth and speaking it in his heart. He should say:

Master of all worlds, not because of our righteousness do we lay our pleas before You, but because of Your great compassion.

Koren Siddur, Nusah Askenaz, p 34

Later in the service, the prayer Avinu Malkenu ends with the following,

אבינו מלכנו Our Father, our King, be gracious to us and answer us, though we have no worthy deeds; act with us in charity and loving-kindness and save us.

Koren Siddur, Nusah Askenaz, p 42

These two prayers, as well as many others in the Siddur, teach us that we do not depend upon our own righteousness or good works, because in comparison to His, ours are nothing. So what is it that we do depend upon? In good times and bad times, in times of discipline and even in heart-wrenching times of atrocity, we depend on the loving-kindness and compassion of the One who has called us to Himself.

Some would ask, “This is all fine and good, but now that I am a follower of Messiah Yeshua, why should all this history affect me today? Doesn’t Paul say that the ‘old things have passed away and all things have become new’?” Besides taking Paul’s statement out of context, this train of thought ignores HaShem’s words expressed in Jeremiah 31 as quoted above. If Hashem is never going to cast off or forsake His chosen people, then His chosen people have a responsibility to remain faithful to Him as His covenant people. Jewish believers in Yeshua each have a responsibility to stand with all of Israel as they are part and parcel of Israel. Jewish Yeshua believers have a communal responsibility to the traditions and practices of Israel, even if others let those traditions and practices fall by the wayside either by choice or by a lack of understanding.  

Zechariah says, that one day this time of fasting will be turned into a time of joy, but that time has not yet arrived (cf. Zechariah 8:19). I adjure you, whether you choose to fast on Tisha b’Av or not, to set some time aside to mourn with those who mourn (cf. Romans 12:15) and to intercede on their behalf and on behalf of all Israel that the Messianic Age would come upon us all soon and all of our mourning turned to rejoicing.

Shabbat Shalom

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Thoughts on Masei

The journey or its conclusion, which is most important? There is not an either-or answer but, as with many other questions in life, it is gam v’gam, this and also this– as both the journey and the destination (or goal) are important, both are necessary, and to overly focus on one or the other leads to potential harm. 

A number of years ago, I remember my wife being told that she should say she was younger that she actually was, as if growing older were something one could avoid with mere words. Her response, however, was quite thought provoking. She asked the person, which year or years of her life she should deny? In reality she could not deny any year, as each year was a part of the journey that brought her to the place she was and who she was at that time. To deny even a day, or a month, or a year because it wasn’t the most enjoyable or because it was most undesirable, would put a tear in the tapestry of her life. Each step of the journey, the high points and the low points, the times of obedience and the times of disobedience and its consequences, work together making us the individuals we are today. 

We see this concept of recognizing and including each step of the journey in this week’s Torah portion, Masei or Journeys, Numbers 31:1 – 36:13, * Rashi conveys to us a comment by Rabbi Moshe HaDarshan: 

Of the forty-two journeys recorded in this register, fourteen – from Rameses to Ritmah – precede the sending of the spies, and eight from Mount Hor to the wastelands of Mo’av – were [undertaken] during the fortieth year, after the death of Aharon. This means that there were only twenty journeys during the thirty-eight years of wandering. Thus, God in His mercy mitigated the decree of wandering in the wilderness. They were not forced to wander interminably, without resting, for the average duration of their stay at each stopover was nearly two years.

Hirsch, Samson Raphael. The Hirsch Chumash, The Five Books of the Torah: Sefer Bemidbar. Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers, 2007, p. 657

The thirty-eight years of wandering were a consequence of Israel’s unfaithfulness in regard to the spies’ bad report, (Numbers 14:20-23), but even in the wandering, Hashem took care of His people, (Deuteronomy 29:4). And in the wandering, a time of divine discipline, there were times of rest and of respite. Hashem never ceased to care and provide for His chosen ones, even when He had to correct them.

It is said that another reason for marking the journey and the individual stops is that each stop was to serve as mnemonic device, reminding Israel both of their victories as well as the times when their disobedience or unfaithfulness brought about disciplinary actions. Rav Shaul wrote to the believers in Corinth, 

Now these things happened as examples for us, so we wouldn’t crave evil things, just as they did.Do not be idolaters, as some of them were. As it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.”And let’s not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day 23,000 fell.And let’s not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were destroyed by serpents.And let’s not grumble, as some of them did—and were destroyed by the destroying angel. (1 Corinthians 10:6-10)

George Santayana, philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In looking for Santayana’s quotation, I discovered another gem, this one by Vironika Tugaleva, from The Art of Talking to Yourself

“One thing is for sure—you will make mistakes. Learn to learn from them. Learn to forgive yourself. Learn to laugh when everything falls apart because, sometimes, it will.”

In this, I am not sure which is the more difficult, to learn from our mistakes, to learn to laugh at our mistakes or to learn to forgive ourselves for making the mistake in the first place. 

Finally, think about the need to remember the past and learn from it. Abraham J. Twerski, Hasidic rabbi and psychiatrist, commented on Masei, 

Many tzaddikim did an accounting every night to see what they had accomplished during that day, and to correct wherever deficiencies they discovered. 

So it was with Moses at the end of the forty years in the desert. The Israelites were about to enter the Holy Land, and he was about to turn over leadership to Joshua. The period of his stewardship had come to a close. It was time to see what he and the Israelites had achieved during the past forty years, hence the meticulous review of the journeys and encampments and what had transpired in each.

If we are serious about achieving a goal in our lives, we must periodically take inventory. Each night, each week, at the beginning of a new year, and perhaps on our birthdays as well. A segment of time has passed. What do we have to show for it? How can we make the next segment more productive?

Twerski, Abraham J. Twerski on Chumash. Brooklyn: Shaar Press, 2003, p. 349.

As Israel journeyed to the Promised Land, we too are on a journey to a promised goal. Like Israel we need to keep our eyes not only on where we are going but also on where we have been and how we got to where we are today, remembering that each victory as well as each detour has been used by the Creator to bring us to where we are today and to lead us on to our eventual goal in the Olam Haba, the World to Come. 

As we journey together, Shabbat Shalom!

* Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures 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 on Pinchas

Have you ever looked back on some of your prayers and then immediately went into ecstatic praise because Hashem chose not to answer them? Do you remember Moshe’s prayer during one of the numerous episodes of Bnei Yisrael’s grumbling over their perceived lot in life?

“…I am not able to carry all these people by myself! The load is too heavy for me!If this is how You are treating me, kill me now! If I have found favor in Your eyes, kill me please—don’t let me see my own misery!”

Numbers 11:14-15

In this week’s haftarah, it appears that Elijah took a page out of Moshe’s prayer book after he fled from Jezebel’s ranting against him.

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom bush. He prayed that he might die. “It’s too much!” he said. “Now, ADONAI, take my life! For I’m no better than my fathers.”

1 Kings 19:4

Interesting enough, to this day Moshe Rabbeinu, is still considered by many, the greatest prophet and teacher, second only to Yeshua. What’s more, Elijah is prophesized to be the forerunner of the Messiah and the Messianic Age to come. Had the prayers of these two men been answered according to their words, the story today would be quite different.

There are other prayers or vows before Hashem that were made in haste and had unexpected and unwanted repercussions by the one who spoke them. Two immediately come to mind. First is Yiftach’s (Jephthah’s) vow to ADONAI before he went out to battle the Ammonites.

“If You will indeed give the children of Ammon into my hand,then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return safely from the children of Ammon, it will be ADONAI’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.”

Judges 11:30-31

In and of itself this vow, at least in Yiftach’s mind, was a safe vow, seeking protection and deliverance from Hashem over his enemies. Unfortunately, the first thing out of Yiftach’s dwelling was not a lamb, goat, or even a chicken but his only child, his unwed daughter. Human sacrifice was an anathema in ancient Israel (cf. Deuteronomy 12:31), but Yiftach was in a dilemma due to the words of his mouth. One can imagine that Yiftach felt even more convicted by his rash vow due to his daughter’s response,

“My father, you have opened your mouth toAdonai,” she said to him. “Do to me what proceeded from your mouth… .”

Judges 11:36

Did Yiftach sacrifice his daughter? In reality, we do not know as she disappears from the story. However, it is safe to assume that Yiftach’s family was never the same again. 

There was another man whose family was almost destroyed by a rash vow. During his reign, King Saul had many border disputes with the Philistines. At one point, the situation wasn’t going well for Israel’s first king and it appears that some of his people, possibly even his army, switched sides and joined the Philistines. In response, King Saul called for a daytime fast with repercussions for disobedience.

Now the men of Israel were hard-pressed that day, for Saul put the people under oath saying, “Cursed be the man that eats any food before evening, until I have avenged myself on my enemies!” So none of the people tasted food.

1 Samuel 14:24

Jonathan, King Saul’s son did not hear of his father’s decree and on the way to battle ate some honey and even denounced his father’s words claiming that Israel, energized by the honey, would be assured of victory (cf. 1 Samuel 14:29-30). Israel won the battle and Jonathan was brought before his father for judgment. King Saul declared that his son would have to die. Unlike Yiftach’s daughter, the people rose up against the king’s decision because Jonathan was the hero of the day. King Saul relented and Jonathan lived, but one has to wonder if the relationship was ever the same again.

The rashness of both men caused irreparable damage to their families. It would have been good had they heard and internalized the words the writer of Kohelet penned years later,

Don’t let your mouth lead your flesh to sin,and don’t say before the messenger,“It was a mistake!”Why should God be angry at your voiceand destroy the work of your hands?

Ecclesiastes 5:5

In the Apostolic Writings we read another prayer that teaches us about the use of the words we speak as well as the motivation behind those words, which can cause harm, specifically to ourselves. Once, while Yeshua was teaching on various aspects of prayer, he focused on trusting in one’s own righteousness.

The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: “O God, I thank You that I am not like other people—thieving, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.I fast twice a week and tithe on all that I get.”

Luke 18:11-12

Rav Shaul, after outlining his religious pedigree, made the following affirmation,

But whatever things were gain to me, these I have considered as loss for the sake of the Messiah. More than that, I consider all things to be loss in comparison to the surpassing value of the knowledge of Messiah Yeshua my Lord.

Philippians 3:7-8

The Pharisee in Yeshua’s parable trusted in his own righteousness, his obedience to the Torah, Rav Shaul did not discount what he had done but instead focused upon his faith in Yeshua his Messiah. This is not an either/or situation, obedience and good works or faith in Yeshua, rather it is a gam v’gam, this and also this, situation. Remember Yeshua’s words 

“Woe to you, Torah scholars and Pharisees, hypocrites! You tithe mint and dill and cumin, yet you have neglected the weightier matters of Torah—justice and mercy and faithfulness. It is necessary to do these things without neglecting the others.

Matthew 23:23

In closing, I believe what we, myself most of all, need to take from this week’s thoughts is that we need to watch tenaciously over the words of our mouths and also the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts. Let’s remember the words from Kohelet, “Don’t let your mouth lead your flesh to sin….” Abba, may our thoughts and our words this week be pleasing to You and uplifting to all those around us. 

The readings for this week are
Parashat Pinchas ~ Numbers 25:10 – 30:1
Haftarah ~ I Kings 18:46 – 19:21
Apostolic Writings ~ John 17:1–26

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Thoughts on Balak

The weekly Torah reading is Balak, Numbers 22:1 – 25:9.* The haftarah is Micah 5:6 – 6:8 and the reading from the Apostolic Writings is John 16:29–33.

Parashat Balak has always intrigued me. It begins with Balak, the Moabite king who is more than a bit concerned about the great multitude of illegal aliens that are about to descend upon his country. He had seen the devastation left behind in the land of the Amorites and did not wish the same to happen to his country. So he did what any self-respecting ruler in the Ancient Near East would do. First, he entered in an allegiance with Midian, then he checked his records and discovered there was a seer of some renown, who had been proficient in cursing one’s enemies to the point that a military victory would be assured. (This is good enough to be made into a Netflix Original series.)

Enter now Balaam, Seer Supreme (sort of like Stephen Strange), the go-to man when you need someone or multiple someones cursed – for the right price. Balaam’s identity is shrouded in obscurity, in that all we know is that he was a seer or diviner. He was the son of Beor and that he was either from or chose to make his home in Pethor on the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia. For a well-known seer, back in the day, not much information has remained. An online search however did produce one interesting notation.

Balaam was a wicked prophet in the Bible and is noteworthy because, although he was a wicked prophet, he was not a false prophet. That is, Balaam did hear from God, and God did give him some true prophecies to speak. However, Balaam’s heart was not right with God, and eventually he showed his true colors by betraying Israel and leading them astray, (cf. Deuteronomy 23:3-6).

This observation, while true, is often either overlooked or ignored by many. How can a seer, a diviner, a dabbler in dark arts, hear from ADONAI? But apparently, he did and was familiar with doing so. 

First visitation of Balak’s emissaries, “…I will give you an answer just as ADONAI speaks to me” (Numbers 22:8), and HaShem responds, “Do not go with them! Do not curse them, for they are blessed!” (22:12)

Second visit, “…you may spend the night here, too. Then I may find out anything else ADONAI may say to me” (22:19). Again, HaShem responds, “arise and go with them. However, only the word I tell you are you to do!” (22:20)

Over the next two-and-a-half chapters, Balaam interacted with or spoke directly for HaShem no less than five times. At one point, he proclaimed to Balak,

No misfortune is to be seen in Jacob, and no misery in Israel! Adonaitheir God is with them—the King’s shout is among them!

Numbers 23:21

This was a very important revelation, and one that set Israel apart from the other nations. The gods of the other nations were locality gods. Chemosh, the god of the Moabites ruled and reigned in the territory of Moab. The Midianites whom Balak hoped to ally with against Israel (cf. 22:4), worshipped a collection of gods, Baal of Peor, Ashteroth, and even HaShem after a fashion—probably due to being related to Abraham through his wife Keturah. But again, these were all local to the territory of Midian. Israel’s God however was different. He had Israel build a Mishkan, a dwelling place for His glory which was placed in the center of the Israeli camp. Israel’s God, lived in the midst of Israel—He traveled with them, He camped with them—His presence was always with them. We know that Israel grumbled and rebelled numerous times and were disciplined by HaShem. But they were still, in their covenantal state, holy as HaShem was holy and no misfortune, no אָ֙וֶן֙, or iniquitywas found in the camp because “Adonaitheir God is with them.”

Finally, Balak was so frustrated with Balaam’s words, he proclaimed, “Do not curse them or bless them at all” (Numbers 23:25). It would seem that Balak finally got to the point where he realized that regardless of what he asked Balaam to proclaim over Israel, the result would be a blessing. 

So, in the end, should we consider Balaam a true prophet or a false prophet? While his words all seemed to be correct and uplifting, Israel soon discovered that he was anything but a true prophet. As this parasha comes to a close, we read of the children of Israel engaging in “immoral sexual relations with women from Moab” (Numbers 25:1) and in turn “joining themselves to Baal of Peor” (25:5). In the end, Balaam did not curse Israel with the words spoken over them, instead he provided Balak a “workaround” or a temporary fix that had the potential of destroying Israel and her relationship with the God in her midst. While Balaam could not, or would not curse Israel, he apparently told Balak how to get HaShem to curse Israel, which He did as a plague brought about the death of 24,000 individuals (25:9). 

In Jude’s letter, Yeshua’s followers are admonished to avoid the wrong doings of three figures from the Tanakh,

Woe to them! For they went the way of Cain; they were consumed for pay in Balaam’s error; and in Korah’s rebellion they have been destroyed.

Jude 11

Peter goes on to describe Balaam’s error when he speaks of those who

They have abandoned the straight way. They have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of wickedness.

2 Peter 2:15

Even though Balaam spoke the true word of HaShem and blessed Israel at least three time, he still erred because “…whoever knows the right thing to do and does not do it—for him it is sin” (James 4:17). Balaam thought he could have his cake and eat it too—bless Israel with the proclamations of HaShem and then show Balak how to get God to curse Israel, supposedly leaving himself in the clear. 

Balaam learned the hard way the truth of Rav Shaul’s words to the Galatians, “Do not be deceived—God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows, that he also shall reap” (Galatians 6:7). Balaam’s schemes did not fool HaShem. There may have been times when we have found ourselves pulling a Balaam, knowing what we ought to do, what HaShem desires for us to do, but choosing to do what we want anyway. Seeking instant gratification in place of struggling with living holy and righteous. Israel had a choice, HaShem was in their midst, and they still chose fleshly gratification. Quoting Deuteronomy 31:6, the writer of Hebrews both challenges and assures us, through the ages, that we should 

Keep your lifestyle free from the love of money and be content with what you have. For God Himself has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you….”

Hebrews 13:5

As I closed last week’s Thoughts, I remind us all once again, that we all have choices to make each and every day. As we dwell in the presence of HaShem along with His Son our Messiah and through the power of the Ruach, we can make the correct choices, if we only will.

* 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 on Chukat

This week’s Torah reading is Chukat, Numbers 19:1–22:1.* The haftarah is Judges 11:1–33 and the Apostolic Writings is from John 16:12–28.

During last week’s discussion of Korach, it was brought up that the punishments and the sheer number of deaths attributed to the anger of HaShem in metering out discipline was, to say the least, beyond the pale. This week, though not numerically the same, another situation appears to have been judged much harsher than it should have been—at least according to our modern standards of justice. 

Setting the stage we read, 

In the first month,the entire community of Bnei Yisrael arrived at the wilderness of Zin. The people stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried.

Numbers 20:1

It is the first of Nissan in the fortieth year of the wilderness wandering. Bnei Yisrael is winding down their travels looking expectantly to soon enter the land promised to the patriarchs. Then there is an apparent scene change.

Now there was no water for the community, so they assembled against Moses and Aaron.

Numbers 20:2

What does the fact that there was “no water” have to do with the death of Miriam? The Sages attempt to explain the connection of Miriam’s death and no water in the camp.

Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Yehuda, says: Three good sustainers rose up for the Jewish people during the exodus from Egypt, and they are: Moses, Aaron and Miriam. And three good gifts were given from Heaven through their agency, and these are they: The well of water, the pillar of cloud, and the manna. He elaborates: The well was given to the Jewish people in the merit of Miriam; the pillar of cloud was in the merit of Aaron; and the manna in the merit of Moses. When Miriam died the well disappeared, as it is stated: “And Miriam died there” (Numbers 20:1), and it says thereafter in the next verse: “And there was no water for the congregation” (Numbers 20:2).
(English translation from

b. Ta’anit 9a

Far-fetched, maybe, but the fact of the matter is that the cloud and the manna did surely appear–so why not a travelling rock that provided water. Interestingly, there are three episodes of Israel grumbling about no drinking water. The first two occur at the very beginning of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness (Exodus 15:22-25 and 17:1–7) and the third is just after Miriam’s death (Numbers 20:1-5). The above Talmudic interpretation holds that while Miriam was still living, Bnei Yisrael always had drinking water they needed, but after her death, the well dried up. 

Now the stage is set for the divine discipline that seems a bit harsh. Look again at the end of verse 2 and the first of verse 3. Water is no longer readily available so Bnei Yisrael come together and quarrel with Moshe. One might have thought that by now Moshe would have grown used to the grumbling and complaining of those that Hashem had left in his charge. Nonetheless, this time Moshe and Aaron are not in top form as their beloved sister had just died. Again the people complain, 

…why have you brought the community of ADONAI into this wilderness, for us and our livestock to die here? Why have you brought us from Egypt to bring us to this evil place—a place without grain, fig, grapevine or pomegranate—and there’s no water to drink!”

Numbers 20:4-5

As with Korach’s rebellion, Moshe and Aaron go straight to the Tent of Meeting and fall on their faces before HaShem. HaShem instructs them to go and

…speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will give out its water. You will bring out water from the rock, and you will give the community something to drink, along with their livestock.

Numbers 20:8

Two things to note at this point. First, HaShem tells Moshe and Aaron to go together, and for Moshe to speak to the rock. He does not say to strike the rock as earlier at Rephidim (Exodus 17). Second, Moshe’s speaking to the “rock” both reinforces the idea that this is the rock that had accompanied Miriam and with her death ceased to provide water but now it would respond to Moshe. 

Unexpectedly, Moshe and Aaron seemed to lose control. Instead of speaking to the rock, Moshe struck the rock, not once but twice. Then Moshe’s words to the assembly were not “wait and see how HaShem is going to provide for you” but an emphatic 

Listen now, you rebels! Must we bring you water from this rock?

Numbers 20:10

It appears that Moshe, with Aaron standing alongside, at least verbally assumed the responsibility for the water that Bnei Yisrael would receive. HaShem graciously provided the water that Bnei Yisrael needed, this time without punishment for their grumbling and complaining. However, for Moshe and Aaron it was a different story. Consider Yaacov’s warning in the Apostolic Writings, 

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, since you know that we will receive a stricter judgment.

James 3:1

The word for teacher, in the Greek is didaskalos, which most often means teacher, but also carries the understanding of rabbi and master or in other words a leader either in word or by example. Instead of revealing the glory and presence of HaShem, Moshe and by inference Aaron responded in anger. The story concludes with the divine discipline prohibiting both Moshe nor Aaron from leading, or even joining, Bnei Yisrael into the land which had been promised. They had run the race, only to be disqualified before crossing the finish line.

In conclusion, while Miriam’s death may well have been a factor in Moshe’s slip of the tongue, but it was that slip of the tongue and then the striking out in disobedience to the specific revealed word that brought about Moshe and Aaron’s discipline. We can clearly understand the importance of David’s prayer when he prays, 

Set a guard, ADONAI, over my mouth. Keep watch over the door of my lips.

Psalm 141:3

It is important to note Yaacov’s affirmation the warning mentioned earlier, 

For we all stumble in many ways. If someone does not stumble in speech, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.

James 3:2

It is inevitable, some would say even unavoidable, that we are going to slip sometimes. But with this in mind, let us do all that we can to ensure that we do not stumble through the words of our mouths. The Irish nobleman poet, Wentworth Dillon once wrote, “Words once spoken, can never be recalled.” May we not regret the words of our mouth as I am sure Moshe and Aaron did.

* 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 on Korach

This week’s reading is Korach, Numbers 16:1–18:32. The haftarah is 1 Samuel 11:14–12:22, and the Apostolic Writings is John 15:1–17. *

The three readings this week contain a series of choices, each with long term repercussions. The Torah portion begins with Korach and company choosing to reinterpret HaShem’s declaration to Bnei Yisrael “as for you, you will be to Me a kingdom of kohanim (priests) and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6) to mean that Moshe and Aaron were not to be leaders but equals among all (cf. Numbers 16:1-3). Korach and company soon discovered their error, the consequences of which led to the death of the ring-leaders and their families (Numbers 16:32-33). Unfortunately, an indirect result of Korach’s rebellion was that the people once again grumbled and complained against Moshe and Aaron. This time, however, they blamed Moshe and Aaron for the punishment of Korach and those who followed him, instead of recognizing that it was the rebellious ones who were solely responsible (Numbers 16:41). The end result was a plague that killed 14,700 more individuals bringing the total dead due to Korach’s choice close to 15,000 individuals.

There are two extremely important lessons we need to glean from this narrative. First, we should be very careful when questioning HaShem’s appointed authority. The Psalmist gave this stern warning from HaShem, “Touch not My anointed ones, and do My prophets no harm” (Psalm 105:15). There is no question that we have a right, as did Korach, to question our leaders, even confront them if they are in error. But we must always be cautious to do so with the proper attitude, in the proper setting and in humility, questioning their actions not their calling or position that was appointed by God. Second, we must realize that we are not the only ones affected by our choices; our families, our friends, co-workers and others often get caught in the tidepool of the repercussions of our choices.

In the haftarah, we read about Israel’s choice to exchange HaShem’s leadership as King functioning though His appointed and anointed judges to being led by an earthly king like the nations. Although HaShem acquiesced to their request for a king (1 Sam. 8), and it was foretold in Deuteronomy 17:14-20, their decision affected the following generations and even our theology. Over the subsequent centuries of Israel’s existence in both the united and divided kingdoms there were good kings, not so good ones, and really bad ones. The existence of each, however, can be traced back to the decision to have an earthly king rule over them as recorded in 1 Samuel.

Finally, in Apostolic Writings we read of another aspect of choosing. In John 15, we read Yeshua’s words, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you. I selected you so that you would go and produce fruit, and your fruit would remain. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in My name” (15:16). This same thought of being chosen yet not necessarily choosing is elaborated upon by Moshe when he stated,

For you are a holy people to ADONAI your God—from all the peoples on the face of the earth, ADONAI your God has chosen you to be His treasured people. It is not because you are more numerous than all the peoples that ADONAI set His love on you and chose you—for you are the least of all peoples.Rather, because of His love for you and His keeping the oath He swore to your fathers, ADONAI brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 7:6-8

I am not suggesting that neither we nor Israel have/had a choice in whether or not to be related to HaShem or our Messiah Yeshua. One of my favorite verses from Jeremiah should put that notion to rest. Hashem emphatically states,

“For I know the plans that I have in mind for you,” declares ADONAI, “plans for shalomand not calamity—to give you a future and a hope.” 

Jeremiah 29:11

Interestingly, He does not state, “I am going to make you or force you to follow My plans.” The choice to follow remains ours individually. The choice to be obedient to God’s call remains with us, individually and communally. Remember Joshua’s words to Israel as he was about to step down from leadership, “choose for yourselves today whom you will serve…” (Joshua 24:15). Moshe, many years earlier said something similar,

See, I set before you today life and good, death and evil … Therefore, choose life so that you and your descendants may live, by loving ADONAI your God, listening to His voice, and clinging to Him. For He is your life…. (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

A few verses earlier than the passage from John 15 mentioned above, we see that obedience is also a key factor. “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love” (15:10). We have the choice whom we will serve and whom we will obey. Our choice to obey assures us of His abiding love.

Consider this, HaShem placed the man and the woman in the Garden which apparently was very good. However, in that garden the snake was already present. Chava (Eve) may well have been deceived by the snake to disobey HaShem’s command but the man there with her choose to follow in her disobedience. From the very beginning the choice has always been present, as Moshe later proclaimed to Israel, to “choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” Had Korach obeyed the leading of HaShem, his, his family and his followers’ outcome would have been different. We each have the opportunity to choose a life of obedience to the purposes and plans of the One who has called us to Himself and provided a way though His Son Yeshua.

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

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