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. (   

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.

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.”

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.”

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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There are three deaths spoken of in this week’s parasha, Shemini, Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47. The first two are Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, who had just been anointed with their father for service in the Mishkan. 

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

We are not told what caused the fire offered by Nadab and Abihu to be unauthorized. It would appear the major difference between what Aaron had already offered and what Nadab and Abihu did is captured by the phrase “which He had not commanded them.” As we have seen so far, every aspect of the Mishkan was accompanied by detailed instructions. From its design and construction to the numerous items as well as requirements for various rituals, all were minutely detailed according to HaShem’s command. The the priestly duties were also set out in meticulous detail. Nadab and Abihu had been trained in their duties as priests, first to assist their father Aaron and then eventually to step into the role of High Priest when it was time for Aaron to step down. They not only saw the manifestation of the glory of HaShem, more than likely, they too fell on their faces before his glory.

Moses and Aaron then went into the Tent of Meeting. When they came back out and blessed the people, the glory of ADONAI appeared to all the people. Fire came out from the presence of ADONAI, and devoured the burnt offering and the fat on the altar. When all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces.

Leviticus 9:23-24

Nevertheless, instead of following the pattern and instructions they had learned, they were apparently caught up in the moment. Instead of following HaShem’s instructions, their zeal motivated them to an action that he had not commanded. I need to stress, at this point, that personally, I do not believe that Nadab and Abihu were bad priests, that they evil or malicious intent, nor do I believe they even considered that they were doing something that HaShem had not required of them. I firmly believe that they allowed their zeal to outrun their knowledge of how things were to be done and in doing so they abused the office of priest in which they had just been sanctified to perform. Their zeal caused them to display a flagrant act of disrespect not only to HaShem but to his commands as well. The, considering their position s anointed priests, their disobedience no matter how well intended it might have been, brought immediate and decisive consequences – their deaths. And it was those consequences that should serve as a warning to others not to follow in their footsteps, whether they be in positions of leadership or the common rank and file individuals.

I said there were two deaths in this week’s parasha. The second was in the Haftarah, 2 Samuel 6:1 – 7:17. This time however, the person did not die solely because of his disobedience. King David following the word of HaShem had just soundly defeated the Philistines and was returning to Jerusalem. He then decided to bring the Ark of God up to Jerusalem from Baale-judah (possibly modern day Kiryat Yearim), a journey of some 18 to 20 kilometers (or 11-12.5 miles). Unfortunately, though well intentioned, David did not take the time to plan the move following the requirements set forth in the Torah, specifically that it must be carried by the Levitical clan of Kohath (Numbers 4:15) in a specific manner (Exodus 25:13-14). 

Meanwhile David and the whole house of Israel were celebrating before ADONAI with all kinds of instruments made of cypress wood, with harps, lyres, tambourines, three-stringed instruments and cymbals. But when they reached the threshing floor of Nahon, Uzzah reached out to the ark of God and grasped it, for the oxen had stumbled. Then the anger of ADONAI was kindled against Uzzah. God struck him down there for his irreverence, so that he died there beside the ark of God. David was upset because of ADONAI’s outburst against Uzzah. That place is called Perez-uzzah to this day.

2 Samuel 6:5-8

Due to his haste and inattention to detail, Uzzah, one of the attendants accompanying the Ark, died. It appears that Uzzah was well intentioned as well, not wanting the Ark to fall. But he was not a Levitical clan of Kohath, it was not his place even to be involved in the transportation of the Ark. Ultimately, while it was HaShem who struck him down, it was David who had orchestrated the situation placing Uzzah in the position he found himself. I am not denying the statement that his death was due to “his irreverence” however I have walked the hills in Kiryat Yearim, they are uneven often step at times, and it is not hard to imagine that the oxen might stumble. Uzzah’s irreverence may well have been the very fact that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Therefore, I suggest that David, instead of being angry with HaShem for Uzzah’s punishment, should have been angry with himself for putting Uzzah in that position to begin with. 

As these thoughts come to an end, there are a couple of conclusions I believe we can draw. First, whether we be leaders or not, we must never allow our zeal to serve HaShem to cause us to do things that either HaShem has not commanded or more specifically to do things he has specifically forbidden. Second, and this is for those of us who may be in some type or position of authority, we have an even greater responsibility not to do things that would inadvertently cause those whom we are responsible for to stumble. Remember Ya’acov’s words when he wrote,

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

James 3:1

Whether teachers or leaders, we have people listening to what we say and more importantly watching what we do. We have the responsibility not to lead them astray rather to help them walk in the paths of righteousness.

All Scripture passages are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

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One of the preparatory prayers preceding the recitation of the Shema in the Shabbat morning service, begins,

To God who rested from all works, and on the seventh day ascended and sat on His throne of glory. He robed the day of rest in glory and call the Sabbath day a delight. This is the praise of the seventh day, that on it God rested from all His work.*

The prayer flows naturally onto Psalm 92, the “song for the Sabbath day.” However, as it happens on occasion, one day my eyes drifted down to a commentary on the Sabbath at the bottom of the page. Rabbi Sacks ז״ל, noted,

Shabbat is a unique institution. The year is determined by the sun, the month by the phases of the moon, but there is no Shabbat in nature: nothing that corresponds to the seven-day cycle of work and rest, creation and cessation, doing and being.**

In this week’s reading Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11-34:25,*** HaShem affirms the importance and everlasting quality of the Sabbath when He had Moses proclaim to the children of Israel

“Surely you must keep My Shabbatot, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, so you may know that I am ADONAI who sanctifies you. Therefore, you are to keep the Shabbat, because it is holy for you. … It is a sign between Me and Bnei-Yisrael forever, for in six days ADONAI made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and rested.”

Exodus 31:13-14 & 17

Two times in these three verses the Sabbath is called a sign between HaShem and the people of Israel. In other words, Shabbat is a unique institution that has become a sign for all time for a unique people, Israel.  

While it would be easy at this point to take off on a side trail trying to determine what it means to “keep the Shabbat,” I will avoid that side trail and stick to the command itself. Consider these words of HaShem through prophet Isaiah, 

“If you turn back your foot from Shabbat, from doing your pleasure on My holy day, and call Shabbat a delight, the holy day of ADONAI honorable, if you honor it, not going your own ways,  not seeking your own pleasure, nor speaking your usual speech, then You will delight yourself in ADONAI, and I will let you ride over the heights of the earth, I will feed you with the heritage of your father Jacob.” For the mouth of ADONAI has spoken.

Isaiah 58.13-14

There are two important aspects in Isaiah’s words. First, the focus during Shabbat is to be upon the Lord and not one’s ownself-interests. Second, the result of following this admonition is the exultation and care of HaShem— “I will let you ride over the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your father Jacob.” Why is “riding over the heights” significant? The psalmist states, “ADONAI is high above all nations, His glory is above the heavens” (Psalms 113:14). So, riding the heights is synonymous with being in the presence of HaShem, and while in his presence, we are sanctified by him (Exodus 31:13).

Even though the keeping, observing or honoring, the Sabbath has become burdensome with an exorbitant number rules and regulations, it was never meant to be a chore; the “keeping” is intended to provide a doorway into the presence of the Almighty, much like the time in the Garden when HaShem walked with Adam and Chavah (Eve). Continuing with Rabbi Sack’s commentary I mentioned at the beginning, He states, 

The Sages say that the creation of the first man and woman, their sin, and their sentence to exile from the Garden of Eden all took place on the sixth day. Out of compassion, God allowed them to stay one full day in the Garden: the seventh day. Thus, the Shabbat is as close as we come to Paradise regained.

With this in mind, Yeshua’s words, “Shabbat was made for man, and not man for Shabbat” (Mark 2.27) makes much more sense. Yeshua was not doing away with Sabbath observance, rather, He was placing it back in its proper order. Sabbath observance serves to bring one from the normal six days of the workweek, into the presence and thereby rest of the Almighty. 

Yeshua told his talmidim, and by inference each of us, to “Come away by yourselves to an isolated place and rest awhile” (Mark 6.31). Sometimes, as with the talmidim, our hectic daily schedules beg for a brief time of rest apart with HaShem to be refreshed and rejuvenated. They, and we, can come into a place of rest any time there is a need. However, this does not detract from the actual 7th day Sabbath rest, that weekly time refreshing and renewal that is ours as we make a habit to “keep the Sabbath.”

Shabbat shalom u’mevorach!

* Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks. The Koren Siddur. Jerusalem, Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd., 2009. p 462.
** Ibid. p 462.
*** Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture passages are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

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