In Israel, this week’s parashah is Bechukotai, Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34.1 Bechukotai (in my statutes) opens with a discourse on the benefits of keeping or observing HaShem’s statutes (mitzvot) followed by the natural consequences of disobedience to HaShem’s mitzvot. The ultimate consequence is exile from the land promised to the patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchak & Yaakov.

 However, the exile was never to be a permanent situation.

“Yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, nor will I hate them into utter destruction, and break My covenant with them, for I am ADONAI their God. But for their sake, I will remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God. I am ADONAI.” (Leviticus 26:44-45)

Disobedience to the mitzvot of HaShem has consequences, for sure, but also has good results just as with HaShem’s discipline described in Hebrews,

“Now all discipline seems painful at the moment—not joyful. But later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11)

However, a tricky phrase appears here, “at the moment” Discipline is not permanent or forever. It addresses a specific issue. While it may seem like forever to us while we are experiencing HaShem’s discipline or the consequences of disobedience to the mitzvoth, we need to remember Peter’s words to the Yeshua-believing communities in the Diaspora,

But don’t forget this one thing, loved ones, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some consider slowness. Rather, He is being patient toward you—not wanting anyone to perish, but for all to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:8-9)

Just as surely as disobedience will bring discipline, so too restoration and blessing will eventually follow. 

This week’s Haftarah, Jeremiah 16:19 – 17:14 begins with the declaration that even in exile, “Adonai, my strength, my stronghold, my refuge in the day of affliction…” (16:19) and ends with Jeremiah’s impassioned plea on behalf of himself and all of Israel, “Heal me, ADONAI, and I will be healed. Save me, and I will be saved. For You are my praise”(17:14). Discipline will surely come for the chosen of HaShem, just as a loving father chastises his children (Hebrews 12:6), but in the said discipline, there is always hope, comfort, and healing – even if it is difficult to experience at times. 

One of the suggested readings from the Apostolic Writings, John 14:15-21, stresses the positive aspects of obedience without nullifying the natural consequences that come from disobedience. Yeshua told His disciples, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (14:15). In the closing verse of this passage, we hear Yeshua repeat the obedience imperative, “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me” (14:21a). This reminds us of the beginning of Bechukotai as HaShem declared, “If you walk in My statutes, keep My mitzvot and carry them out…” (Leviticus 26:3) which is followed by ten verses of blessings that come as a result of obedience. It stands to reason then, that if obedience brings the blessings of HaShem, then disobedience brings consequences but not abandonment. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l reminds us, “The choice – God is saying – is in your hands. You are free to do what you choose. But actions have consequences.”2 The idea of choice leads us to Deuteronomy and then a passage in Romans that indicates that the ability to obey HaShem’s commands is quite doable.

...this mitzvah that I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it far off. … No, the word is very near to you—in your mouth and in your heart, to do it. (Deuteronomy 30:11 & 14)
“But the righteousness based on faith speaks in this way … “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” – that is, the word of faith that we are proclaiming” (Romans 10:6 & 8).

Just in case the need to obey the commands of HaShem is not clear, consider this statement from James,

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. (James 1:22, NIV3)

Obedience is not hard, but it is a choice and with practice, it can become habitual. When being faithful in obedience the blessings will flow as promised by HaShem. Therefore, just as the old Nike commercial says, Just Do It and thereby walk in the blessings of Hashem.

Shabbat shalom u’mevorach!

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

2 http://rabbisacks.org/the-politics-of-responsibility-bechukotai-5775/

3 New International Version, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.

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Parashat Behar, Leviticus 25:1-26:2, deals with the requirements for the seven-year Sabbatical cycle as well as the year of Jubilee, which is the fiftieth year after the competition of seven Sabbatical cycles. Among the various requirements of the year of Jubilee is the redemption of ancestral property. It is this requirement that connects the Torah portion to the Haftarah (readings from the Prophets), Jeremiah 32:6-27.

Before getting to the haftarah, one needs to review the situation that Jeremiah and Judea find themselves facing. To do so, one needs to back up and read the beginning of Jeremiah 32. 

The word that came to Jeremiah from ADONAI, in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar. Now at the time the king of Babylon’s army was besieging Jerusalem, and Jeremiah the prophet was shut up in the court of the guard, which was in the palace of the king of Judah. For King Zedekiah of Judah had shut him up, saying: “Why do you prophesy and say, thus says ADONAI: ‘I will soon give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he will take it, and King Zedekiah of Judah will not escape out of the hand of the Chaldeans, but will surely be given into the hand of the king of Babylon. (Jeremiah 32:1-4)

It can’t get much worse than this! Jerusalem will soon fall to the armies of Nebuchadnezzar; Judah will go into exile and the Jewish people will be cut off from their land and Temple. Plus to top things off, King Zedekiah is in total denial.

The haftarah begins with HaShem directing Jeremiah to purchase a parcel of family property (32:6-14) even though the populace is about to go into an extended exile. Why in the world would the HaShem require Jeremiah to do this, to seemingly waste money that could be used to assist his survival in exile? The answer to this quandary is found in verse 15

For thus says ADONAI-Tzva’ot, the God of Israel: “Houses and fields and vineyards will yet again be bought in this land.”

Although the coming judgment was on the horizon, exile from the land is not the end of the story. At some point in the future, Jeremiah or a descendant will be able to redeem that parcel during the year of Jubilee. And though the haftarah ends with HaShem’s judgment on Judah’s disobedience, the passage continues with a promise, that there will come a day when the corrective action of HaShem will cease, and he will once again return his people to their land.

“See, I will gather them out of all the countries, where I have driven them in My anger, My fury, and great wrath, and I will bring them back to this place and cause them to dwell securely. They will be My people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, so they may fear Me forever: for their good and for their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never turn away from doing good for them. I will put My fear in their hearts so that they will not depart from Me. Yes, I will delight in doing good for them, and with all My heart and all My soul I will in truth plant them in this land.” (Jeremiah 32:37-41)

Judgment will surely come, but restoration is promised. The last line of the haftarah, HaShem affirms, “Behold, I am ADONAI, the God of all flesh; is there anything too hard for Me?” (Jeremiah 32:27). Neither disciplinary judgment nor eventual restoration from exile are too difficult “for the God of all flesh.” Neither is HaShem’s care for his people even throughout the period of exile. In Lamentations, we read these words of comfort.

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.” ADONAI is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul that seeks Him. (Lamentations 3:21-25)

The psalmist proclaims similar assurances as he wrote,

Sing praise to ADONAI, His faithful ones, and praise His holy name. For His anger lasts for only a moment, His favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may stay for the night, but joy comes in the morning. (Psalm 30:5-6)

Even in the weeping and lamenting, during discipline, there is hope. Earlier in Jeremiah, again speaking of the coming judgment, Jeremiah related these words from HaShem,

For thus says ADONAI: “After 70 years for Babylon are complete, I will visit you, and fulfill My good word toward you—to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans that I have in mind for you,” declares ADONAI, “plans for shalom and not calamity—to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call on Me, and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me, when you will search for Me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:10-13)

For us, the message is clear, even in judgment or discipline, the Lord has a plan for our good. This may be why Sha’ul wrote, “Now we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose,” (Romans 8:28). It is important to note, Sha’ul does not say, “all the good things” or “all the comfortable things” but “all things” the good and the bad. Therefore in “all things,” let us proclaim with the psalmist,

Praise ADONAI, for He is good, for His lovingkindness endures forever. (Psalm 136:1)

Shabbat shalom u’mevorach!

* All Scripture citations are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society. Accordance edition, hypertexted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc.

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While preparing a few Thoughts on this week’s parashah, Emor, Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23, two items seemed to take root while meandering through various sources. The first item was a poem entitled Let Me Give from an anonymous collection of sermon illustrations.

I don’t know how long I have to live
But while I do, Lord, let me give
Some comfort to someone in need
By smile or nod-kind word or deed.
And let me do what e’er I can
To ease things for my fellowman.
I only want to do my part,
To “lift” a tired and weary heart.
To change folks’ frowns to smiles again
So, I will not have lived in vain.
I do not care how long I live
If I can give-and-give-and-give!”

The other is from Mishnah Pe’ah 1:1 that is recited during the preparatory prayers and readings before the Daily Shacharit service,

“These are the things for which there is no fixed measure: the corner of the field, first fruits, appearances before the Lord [on festivals, with offerings], acts of kindness (gemilut hasadim) and Torah study.”

The Koren Siddur, Nusah Ashkenaz, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2009, p 10

For those not familiar with the phrase, gemilut hasadim or acts of kindness it is a fundamental social value in the everyday lives of Jews. It is a mitzvah that an individual performs without the anticipation of receiving something in return. There is no fixed measure of gemilut hasadim, which is one reason why the sages articulated the importance of doing it all the time. Some examples of gemilut hasadim include clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, burying the dead, and visiting the sick. (Gleaned from https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/gemilut-hasadim)

So, what do an anonymous poem and the Mishnah passage have to do with this week’s parashah? The answer is found in this verse,

When you reap the harvest of your land, moreover, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field nor gather the gleaning of your harvest; you are to leave them for the needy (poor or afflicted) and the alien (ger, newcomer i.e. someone with no inherited rights or a temporary resident). I am the LORD your God.’” (Leviticus 23:22)

It is often said that when something is repeated multiple times in Scripture, we should pay attention to it. With that in mind, remember this passage from last week’s parashah, Kedoshim, 

Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger. I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:9-10)

Then a third repetition of this command in Moses’ reiteration of the Torah as Bnei Israel was preparing to enter the land of Canaan,

When you reap your harvest in your field and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow, in order that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive tree, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not go over it again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow. (Deuteronomy 24:19-21)

Although most of us no longer live in an agricultural society or setting, the practical application of these three passages should ensure that the neediest individuals among us would always have food, shelter, and a community where they would be treated with honor and dignity. Equally, in today’s current economic situation, some might say, “I have barely enough to meet my own needs, how can I possibly consider helping others?” I believe one answer to this quandary is found in these words from the psalmist,

How blessed is he who considers the helpless (the poor); the LORD will deliver him in a day of trouble. The LORD will protect him and keep him alive, and he shall be called blessed upon the earth; and do not give him over to the desire of his enemies. The LORD will sustain him upon his sickbed; in his illness, You restore him to health. (Psalm 41:1-3)

The psalmist does not say “how blessed is he who gives to the helpless” rather “how blessed is he who considers to the helpless.” The one who keeps the plight of the needy in the forefront of their heart and mind, find themselves receiving comfort and protection from HaShem, as well I believe, finding ways to assist others, whether “by smile or nod-kind word or deed.”

The prophet Micah admonishes us all when he wrote,

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Doing justice and loving kindness are directed to our fellow humans, and interestingly mentioned before walking humbly with our God. Might Micah be inferring that if we are not doing the first two, we probably won’t be doing the last? Remember there is always something we can do, a cup of cold water, a visit to the sick or grieving, even an offering regardless of the size – the poor widow showed that it was the size of the heart not the amount of the coinage (see Luke 21:1-4). 

Finally, some might say, but there is so much to do, the need is too great. Consider these words from Rabbi Tarfon, 

He used to say: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it;  

https://www.sefaria.org.il/Pirkei_Avot.2.16

Consider Yeshua’s teaching on end time judgment, (Matthew 25:31-46). It appears that the difference between those who heard “come you who are blessed” and “depart from me, accursed ones” had everything to do with gemilut hasadim; visiting the sick or imprisoned, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, providing for those in need. This was not a matter of righteous merited by ones works, rather it was expressing a reality that James would later proclaim, that true faith will produce works, acts of loving kindness. 

Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2:17-18)

This week’s Thoughts are not meant to pressure anyone into doing acts of kindness, rather they are simply to remind each of us that we have a responsibility to care for and to assist one another as we are able to do so and as we are led by the Ruach. Remember the passage from Micah, it’s after we do justice and acts of loving kindness that we can then “walk humbly with our God.”

Shabbat shalom u’mevorach!

* Scripture references are from New American Standard Bible, Copyright ©1995 by The Lockman Foundation

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This week’s parasha, Kedoshim, Leviticus 19:1–20:27,1 starts with, “Speak to all the congregation of Bnei-Yisrael and tell them: You shall be kedoshim (holy), for I,  ADONAI your God, am holy” (19:2) and as it to a conclusion, “So consecrate yourselves and be holy, for I am ADONAI your God. You are to keep My statutes and do them. I am ADONAI who sanctifies you” (20:7-8).

In a quick overview of the statutes included in this section that carries the expectation to “be holy” includes multiple aspects of interpersonal relationships. These aspects include giving honor and respect to one’s parents and the elderly, providing for the poor and destitute, and avoiding theft, deceit, lying, false oaths, slander, and gossip. Also included is not showing favoritism in judicial matters whether the plaintiff is poor or wealthy. Then there are various aspects of improper sexual conduct, within and without the bonds of family. At the center of them all, is the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).

Rabbi Akiva has been accredited as saying, “This is a great principle of the Torah: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”. It is said that Hillel once responded to a potential convert, “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation.” Then we are all familiar with Yeshua’s response to a possible antagonist, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:31). The first, of course, was “Shema Yisrael, ADONAI Eloheinu, ADONAI echad. Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is One. And you shall love ADONAI your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29-30). 

There appears to be at least thirty-two aspects of interpersonal relationships addressed, and surprisingly just five or possibly seven aspects dealing with one’s relationship with HaShem in this week’s parasha. This disparity may have been at the heart of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s strong affirmation that “…divinity (or being holy) is not to be found in abstract theological concepts but in everyday holy acts among human beings in the ordinary pursuit of their lives.”If I may paraphrase Rabbi Kaplan, the key to “being holy” is performing acts of practical holiness in relating to one another, and not just friends and family members but to all that HaShem brings across our paths. 

While, to this point, most of these thoughts have been from the parasha, I believe that James would have agreed whole-heartedly with Rabbi Kaplan’s understanding of what it means to be holy. The second chapter of James’ letter begins by reminding his readers of the folly of showing favoritism based upon wealth or position. He ended this section with 

If, however, you fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well. But if you show favoritism, you are committing sin and are convicted by the Torah as transgressors. (James 2:8-9)

After further discussion concerning other aspects of interpersonal relationships, he asks the following,

If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in shalom, keep warm and well fed,” but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is that? (James 2:15-16)

James then infers that if one, as an act of faith, blesses those in need, without attempting to actually assist in alleviating their needs, their faith is worthless, or in his words, “So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead by itself” (James 2:17). Then, in the very next verse, he makes a bold statement, one of which may well sum up what it means to “be holy.” 

Show me your faith without works and I will show you faith by my works. (James 2:18b)

I do not believe that James is making a soteriological statement here, rather he is speaking of working out practical holiness in everyday life. If one really studies the letter of James, one soon discovers what he considered to be the working out of the royal law. It was and remains to be meeting the needs of others when one is able, of not showing favoritism, of abstaining from murder, adultery, gossip, and slander. It was and still is being straight with one another, not haughty, prideful, or envious. 

Instead of going further, I conclude with two passages, both of which I believe capture not only James’ teaching on practical holiness but the very heart of the interpersonal requirements of this week’s parasha. First from James,

Who among you is wise and understanding? By his good conduct let him show his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. …the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, not hypocritical. (James 3:13 & 17)

And then from Sha’ul in his letter to the Galatians,

Therefore, whenever we have an opportunity, let us do good toward all—especially those who belong to the household of faith. (Galatians 6:10)

Shabbat shalom u’mevorach!

Footnotes:

1 All Scripture citations are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society. Accordance edition, hypertexted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc.

2 Steven Carr Reuben, A Year with Mordecai Kaplan: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion, (Philadelphia, The Jewish Publication Society, 2019) p 119.

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For we all stumble in many ways. If someone does not stumble in speech, he is a perfect man (or woman), able to bridle the whole body as well. … For every species of beasts and birds, reptiles, and sea creatures are tamed and have been tamed by mankind. But no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  (James 3:2 and 7-8)1

The quotation from Yaacov (James) may seem to be an odd way of beginning this week’s thoughts on the Torah portion, Tazria, Leviticus 12:1 – 13:59. Hang in there; it will make sense shortly. Tazria continues where Shemini left off, dealing with things that cause an individual to be ritually unclean. Parashat Tazria gets its name from the description of the ritual impurity and purification process of a woman who has just given birth (tazria), (Leviticus 12).

Chapter 13 moves on to the plague of tzara’at and the regulations concerning the disease and the afflicted individual. Tzara’at is primarily but not solely a skin affliction that is typically translated as leprosy. However, according to The JPS Rashi Discussion Torah Commentary,

While both tzara’at and leprosy (commonly known as Hansen’s disease) are characterized by skin lesions, otherwise there is little commonality between the two conditions. Tzara’at, unlike leprosy, afflicts clothing and buildings in addition to people. Leprosy is caused by a bacterial infection, while tzara’at is a spiritual malady with physical manifestations that can be caused by one’s involvement in slander, murder, false oaths, incest, arrogance, robbery, or greed (see Bavli Arakhin 16a).2

At this point, the relationship with Yaacov’s (James’) writings becomes clear. According to our sages, a primary cause of tzara’at is centered on lashon hara or derogatory speech. This understanding is drawn from Numbers 12:10 when Miriam was stricken with tzara’at for her involvement in slandering Moses. Later this connection was reaffirmed as Moses wrote,

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)

Since tzara’at is recognized as the physical manifestation of a spiritual malady, one understands why the priests’ actions toward tzara’at and the metzorah (the one afflicted with tzara’at) were commanded. The priests were to examine and pronounce the tzara’at or metzorah as clean or unclean; if unclean, the metzorah was to be separate from the community so as not to spread the contamination. The priests then monitored the progression of the disease. If the metzorah was healed, no longer having any signs of tzara’at, the priest pronounced the individual clean and able to return to the community after they underwent the proper purification rites. During this process, from unclean to clean, the priest does not offer or even suggest any medical treatment or recovery program—just isolation from the community and periodic checkups (every seven days). 

Interestingly, as stated earlier, tzara’at, unlike leprosy or other skin diseases, can also affect one’s clothes and even one’s dwelling. Understanding tzara’at as lashon hara, it can be inferred that none of human existence is immune to the repercussions of slanderous or derogatory speech. The lack of treatment indicates that the recovery would not be realized by external actions but rather by the individual recognizing and admitting the error of their way and then determining to change their pattern of behavior. James offered this solution to combat lashon hara, 

Humble yourselves in the sight of ADONAI, and He shall lift you up. Do not speak evil against one another, brethren. (James 4:10-11)

Sha’ul (Paul) offered these words of guidance,

Let no harmful word come out of your mouth, but only what is beneficial for building others up according to the need so that it gives grace to those who hear it. (Ephesians 4:29)

Not offering treatment for the disease does not make sense; even in ancient times, there were salves, ointments, and oils that could be prescribed as treatments. However, if tzara’at is due to lashon hara, derogatory speech, isolating the afflicted one from the community makes perfect sense, as James reminds us.

And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is a world of evil placed among our body parts. It pollutes the whole body and sets on fire the course of life—and is set on fire by Gehenna. (James 3:6)

If left unchecked, lashon hara can damage or even destroy the lives of individuals, families, and whole communities. Isolation from the community protects others and allows the perpetrator the time to consider their ways and hopefully repent, thus beginning the path to becoming entirely accepted back into the community.

May the plague of tzara’at stay far from our lives and dwellings, and may we seek to live our lives according to this exhortation from Kefa (Peter),

For, “The one who loves life, wanting to see good days, must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit. He must turn away from evil and do good. He must seek shalom and pursue it. (1 Peter 3:10-11)

Shabbat shalom u’mevorach!

Footnotes:
1 All Scripture citations are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society. Accordance edition, hypertexted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc.
2 Sarah Levy and Steven Levy, The JPS Rashi Discussion Torah Commentary, JPS Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2017), 86.

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In the last chapter of this week’s parashah, Bnei-Israel was instructed concerning the animals permitted and prohibited to eat that form the basis of kashrut, kosher food laws.2 Specifically mentioned are land and sea creatures, birds of the air, and insects that are ritually clean and acceptable as food and those which are unclean and unacceptable as food. Intriguingly, no explanation is given as to why some animals are clean and others are not, but the passage simply states that HaShem determined which animals are clean and unclean. Israel is told the reason for obeying the command; to be holy as he is holy. 

Nonetheless, Moses concluded the presentation of dietary laws with a strict warning as to why the treff or unclean animals should not be consumed and the expected outcome of obeying the commandments of HaShem.

You are not to contaminate yourselves with any creeping thing that crawls nor make yourselves unclean with them or defiled by them. For I am ADONAI your God. Therefore, sanctify yourselves, and be holy, for I am holy. You are not to defile yourselves with any kind of creeping thing that moves on the earth. For I am ADONAI who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God. Therefore, you shall be holy, for I am holy. This is the Torah of the animal, the bird, every living creature that moves in the waters, and every creature that creeps on the earth, to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean, and between the living thing that may be eaten and the living thing that may not be eaten. (Leviticus 11:43-47)

Later, in Leviticus, the distinction between clean and unclean will be summarized and reiterated – with the same expected outcome, 

Also, you are to make a distinction between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean. And you are not to make your souls detestable by an animal or by a bird, or by anything with which the ground teems, which I have set apart as unclean for you. You are to be holy to Me, for I, ADONAI, am holy, and have set you apart from the peoples so that you would be Mine. (Leviticus 20:25-26)

Before we proceed, it is important to note that this week’s parasha is not the first-time food restrictions are required by HaShem. Post-flood, HaShem told Noach and his family, and by extension, all humanity, that every type of flesh and vegetation may be eaten, except for those with blood in them. “Only flesh with its life—that is, its blood—you must not eat!” (Genesis 9:3-4) Hence, at least according to Scripture, all humanity must follow food restrictions given by HaShem without any explanation, the abstinence of the consumption of blood. 

Yaacov (James) and the elders in Jerusalem expanded the Noahic restrictions for Gentiles in their decree that Gentile Yeshua followers did not need to convert to Judaism and follow all of the Torah regulations to be part of the Body of Messiah. 

Therefore, I judge not to trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God—but writing to them to abstain from the contamination of idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what is strangled, and from what is strangled, and from blood. (Acts 15:19-20)

Two of the four regulations directly relate to food, abstaining from strangled animals and blood, which relates to HaShem’s command to Noach because strangled animals still have blood in them. Likewise, abstaining from idol worship indirectly refers to food such as meat and wine which were offered to idols before being sold at the market. Sha’ul addresses the issue of meat offered to idols in his letter to the believers in Corinth (1 Corinthians 8:7-13 and 10:19-22). 

Returning to this week’s parashah, how is it that the consumption of unclean foods contaminates the individual. In Mesilat Yesharim / Path of the Just, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato zt’l suggests the following,

This is because the forbidden foods bring in Tuma (spiritual contamination) in a person’s heart and soul so that the holiness of G-d, blessed be He, departs and withdraws from him.3

It is suggested that HaShem withdraws from the individual who consumes forbidden food because when such food enters the body, it is digested and then becomes a part of the body, contaminating the whole.

As followers of Yeshua, we seem to be at a paradoxical crossroad. In the Torah and the book of Acts quoted above, it appears that one can be somehow contaminated by food that is eaten. However, Yeshua seems to proclaim the exact opposite at least twice in the Besorah (Gospels).

Then Yeshua called the crowd and said to them, “Hear and understand. It’s not what goes into the mouth that makes the man unholy; but what comes out of the mouth, this makes the man unholy.” (Matthew 15:10-11 and Mark 7:14-15)

How can this paradox be resolved? Jeffrey K. Salkin, in The JPS B’nai Mitzvah Torah Commentary, suggests that “Avoiding pork (or any other forbidden food) helps establish controls and boundaries in life. Not every appetite is worthy of being satiated.”4 In Mishlei (Proverbs), it is written twice,

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. (Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25)

The inference is that what seems right to a person is contrary to HaShem. It could be understood that operating outside the controls and boundaries established by HaShem leads to separation from him and ultimately to death. With this in mind, I suggest it becomes a matter of kavanah, of the intent of the heart. As noted earlier, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, HaShem has set down certain food laws, some of which were reiterated for the non-Jewish followers of Yeshua. This raised the question of whether these forbidden foods are intrinsically unclean or bad for one to consume? As Yeshua states, it is not the food that goes into our mouths but what comes out that defiles. So why are forbidden foods unclean or bad for us to consume? Why is a person unclean by consuming them? The answer is straightforward – because HaShem said it. These regulations reflect his desire for us to be holy as he is holy and provide a way to help us walk out of this desire. It is not doing them that makes us holy, but the intent of our heart to serve him that leads to our submission to his commands. Some commands are quite rational, and upheld by most societies, even ungodly ones, don’t steal, don’t murder, love your neighbor as yourself, etc. Others, however, have little, if any, rationale. Later in the year, we will read in Parashat Chukat about the ritual cleansing properties of the ashes of the red heifer, which makes no sense at all. The clean and unclean designation of animals, fowl, fish, and other creatures equally makes no sense, at least to our limited human understanding. We follow such regulations and commandments simply because they are the expressed will of HaShem, our Creator, and our God. 

The kavanah or intent of our heart is the cause of the things we eat, making us unholy, separating us from Hashem, and if unchecked, eventually death. It is not the porkchop, blutwurst, or boudin (two types of blood sausage) that are problematic; it is the intentional choice to disobey the commands of HaShem.

In closing, I offer these two passages of exhortation, first from Sha’ul’s letter to the Romans and second from Peter’s first letter to the community scattered throughout the Diaspora. Both include exhortations that we should live holy and obedient lives.

I urge you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice—holy, acceptable to God—which is your spiritual service. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom. 12:1-2)
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 (holy) you shall be, for I (the Lord) am kadosh (holy).” (1 Peter 1:13-16)

Readings for Parashat Shemini – Torah: Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47
and Apostolic Writings: Mark 7:14-23

Footnotes:

1 All Scripture citations are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society. Accordance edition, hypertexted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc.

2 In speaking of the kashrut or the kosher laws, I am referring only to what is written in the Scriptures, not the rabbinic fences that have been built over the years. 

3 http://dafyomireview.com/mesilat.php?d=14

4 Jeffrey K. Salkin, The JPS B’nai Mitzvah Torah Commentary, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press/JPS, 2017, Apple Books.

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Reading this week’s parashah, I was impressed by the importance of what seems to be a mundane activity even though it is necessary for an activity of seemingly greater importance is to be performed. First, consider the context, which begins with the command given by HaShem, through Moses to Aaron and his descendants, 

“This is the Torah of the burnt offering. The burnt offering shall remain on the hearth atop the altar all night until the morning, while the fire of the altar is kept burning on it. … The fire on the altar is to be kept burning on it—it must not go out. Each morning the kohen is to burn wood on it, laying the burnt offering in order upon it, and burning up as smoke the fat of the fellowship offerings. Fire is to be kept burning on the altar continually—it must not go out. (Leviticus 6:2, 4-5)

The proximity of the repetition of the command to keep the altar’s fire continually burning demonstrates its importance. However, the significance of the continually burning fire is not my focus this week. Instead, I focus on the handling of the ashes left over from the burnt offering.

The kohen is to put on his linen garment, with his linen undergarments on his body. He is to remove the fat ashes from where the fire has consumed the burnt offering on the altar and put them beside the altar. Then he is to take off his garments, put on other ones, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place. (Leviticus 6:3-4)

Anyone camping and using an open fire pit knows the need to remove the old ashes in the morning before beginning to prepare the morning’s breakfast. Granted, an open fire pit cannot be compared to the altar, but the need to remove the ashes can. A quick reading makes this activity seem a rather mundane, clean-up activity that would take place every day throughout the year. Once this priest’s job is done, another priest would then perform the necessary actions to offer the daily burnt offering. But consider this, the new burnt offering could not be offered until the old ashes had been removed, the daily ministrations were stalled until the clean-up had been accomplished.

In a world that places a premium on success, on moving up the societal ladder in a quest to reach the top, how often is the custodian or groundskeeper either overlooked or dismissed as insignificant because of the mundaneness of their jobs? How often have we experienced a slowdown or even shutdown of travel due to a baggage handler or refueler strike? More recently, during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, shelf stockers suddenly became essential employees. So often, these important workers who are overlooked would be desperately missed if they suddenly disappeared. Imagine if the Empire State Building or the New York Stock Exchange suddenly has no custodial staff. Years ago, while studying David’s mighty men, I discovered the importance of behind-the-scenes workers.

Next to him was Shammah, son of Agee the Hararite. Now the Philistines were assembled in formation where there was a plot of ground full of lentils, and the people fled from the Philistines. But he took his stand in the midst of the plot and defended it and struck down the Philistines—so ADONAI brought about a great victory. (2 Samuel 23:11-12)

Shammah, son of Agee the Hararite, is one of David’s three mighty men who fought against the Philistines (2 Samuel 23:8–12). Shammah, who only appears once in Scripture, receives the honor as one of David’s mighty men for valiantly guarding and defending a lentil field. Shammah illustrates that God does not overlook essential workers.  Sha’ul uses a different illustration in his words to the Yeshua-followers in Corinth,

But now God has placed the parts—each one of them—in the body just as He desired. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But now there are many parts, yet one body. … those parts of the body that seem to be less important are indispensable. Those parts of the body that we think to be less honorable, we clothe with greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty; but our presentable parts have no such need. Rather God assembled the body, giving more honor to those who are lacking, so that there may be no division in the body but so that the parts may have the same care for one another. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer together. If one part is honored, all the parts rejoice together. (I Corinthians 12:18-20; 22-26)

In other words, whether seen or unseen, honorable or less honorable, all parts of the body are essential. We truly do need each other, regardless of our position in the body; whether senior pastor, rabbi, secretary, custodian, or a person sitting in the audience, we all have a part to play in working out the plans and purposes of HaShem. The key is two-sided, first, finding out and doing our part in the body, and second, allowing and encouraging others to find and be successful in doing their part.

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

Readings for this week are Torah: Leviticus 6:1-8:36 and 1 Peter 1:1-6 & 2:9

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