In Israel, this week’s parashah is Naso, Numbers 4:21–7:89.* Among the various issues covered in Naso are the regulations concerning the Nazarite vow, which could be taken by either a male or female. 

Speak to Bnei-Yisrael and say to them: Any man or woman who desires to vow a Nazirite vow to be separate for ADONAI, is to abstain from wine and any other fermented drink. He is not to drink any vinegar made from wine or any fermented drink, or any grape juice, or eat grapes or raisins. (Numbers 6:2–3)

Notice that nothing is said about the reason a person might choose to undertake this vow. We are only told that 

All the days of his separation, he (or she) is to be consecrated to ADONAI. (Numbers 6:8)

Another thing we are not told about the Nazarite vow is the duration of the vow. According to rabbinic tradition, the vow is only for thirty days, but this is only tradition. The vow depends upon the one entering it (Numbers 6:2). The choice is solely upon the one desiring to take the vow. The aspect of choice is important to recognize as there were at least two, possibly three individuals in the Tanakh who were under a Nazarite vow not by their own choice but by others. 

We encounter the first two in the haftarah for Naso, Judges 13:2–25, the angelic calling of Samson, 

For behold, you will conceive and bear a son. Let no razor come upon his head, for the boy will be a Nazirite to God from the womb. He will begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines. (Judges 13:5)

In our familiarity with the calling of Samson, we often miss the calling of his soon-to-be no longer barren mother to this special vow, at least during her pregnancy. 

Then the angel of ADONAI appeared to the woman and said to her, “Behold now, you are barren and have not borne children, but you will conceive and bear a son. Now, therefore, be careful not to drink wine or strong drink or eat any unclean thing.” … The angel of ADONAI said to Manoah, “Let the woman abstain from all that I mentioned to her. She should not eat anything that comes from the grapevine or drink wine or strong drink or eat any unclean thing. She must observe all that I commanded her.” (Judges 13:3–4 & 13–14)

Apparently, neither Samson nor his mother had a choice; the choice was made for them by the angelic visitor. The difference lies in the length of the vow; Samson’s mother was only under the vow until Samson’s birth, while Samson’s Nazarite vow was to be “from the womb to the day of his death” (Judges 13:7). Also, the reason for the mother’s vow is not stated while Samson’s Nazarite vow is clear —“He will begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines” (Judges 13:5). It can be said that Samson’s mother was not under a Nazarite vow as nothing is said about her hair or her avoidance of contact with a corpse. But then again, nothing was said about Samson’s avoidance of corpse contact – but he was specifically called a Nazarite from the womb.

Another well-known individual who had no choice in taking a Nazarite vow is Samuel. Hannah, a wife of Elkanah, was another barren woman who desperately desired a child. 

While her soul was bitter, she prayed to ADONAI and wept. So she made a vow and said, “ADONAI-Tzva’ot, if You will indeed look upon the affliction of Your handmaid, remember me and not forget Your handmaid, but grant Your handmaid a son, then I will give him to ADONAI all the days of his life and no razor will ever touch his head.” (1 Samuel 1:10-11)

Once again, nothing is said about the child’s abstinence from wine or any other fermented drink or product made from grapes. Nor was there any mention of the need to abstain from contact with a corpse. However, the “no razor” verbiage and then the total dedication to the service of HaShem (1 Samuel 1:22), makes it clear that Samuel would be a Nazarite from birth.

John the Baptizer is one more notable individual in Scripture who was considered a Nazarite from birth. This time it was not the soon-to-be no longer barren mother who received an angelic visitation but her husband, Zechariah, a kohen who entered the Holy Place to offer incense on the altar.

Zechariah was in turmoil when he saw the angel, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give birth to your son, and you will name him John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. He will be great before ADONAI, and he should not drink wine and intoxicating beverages, but he will be filled with the Ruach ha-Kodesh just out of his mother’s womb. Many of Bnei-Yisrael will turn to ADONAI their God. (Luke 1:12-16)

This time nothing is said about the child’s avoidance of the razor or the need to avoid contact with a corpse, but Zechariah is told emphatically that his son, John, “should not drink wine and intoxicating beverages” and that John would be set apart for the service of HaShem as “he would be filled with the Ruach ha-Kodesh just out of his mother’s womb.”

One of the reasons I share this history lesson about three men, seemingly Nazarites, is to show that just because one was called from birth to serve HaShem, the individual has the choice whether or not to walk in obedience to that calling. Of the three men, Samson’s life choices were less than honorable – though interestingly HaShem’s power continued to flow through him, even returning to him after all seemed lost due to his shearing by Delilah (Judges 16:16-17). In the end, HaShem honored Samson’s prayer and brought judgment on the Philistines and their false god Dagon through Samson’s last act that brought down Dagon’s temple and killed over three hundred Philistine lords as well as Samson (Judges 16:28-30). Another thing to notice is that while John lived a somewhat ascetic lifestyle, there is no indication that this was Samuel’s practice, and it certainly was not Samson’s. Both of these men remained an active part of their community—separated to the service of HaShem but not set apart from the people. 

Intriguingly, there are two other men, who while not called Nazarites, were called to serve HaShem before they were even born. First is Jeremiah, whom HaShem called when he was yet a boy,

“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born, I set you apart—I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5).

Then there is Sha’ul who described his situation thusly,

But when He (HaShem) who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by His grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me… (Galatians 1.15-16)

Both Jeremiah and Sha’ul had to choose whether or not to walk in their calling, separated to the service of HaShem, or not. Some people have specific callings upon their lives from Hashem, some from the womb others later in life. For some, like Samson, Samuel, and John, their life paths were laid out for them from the very beginning. Others like Jeremiah and Sha’ul may have been “set apart” in the womb but did not “receive the call that required a choice until later in their lives. And then there are still others, probably many of us, who for whatever reason, make a choice to be separated for service later in life. 

Today, the choice to become a Nazarite according to Numbers 6 is no longer an option since there is no longer a priesthood or Temple to bring the vow to its conclusion. However, it is still possible to be like Jeremiah or Sha’ul and choose to serve HaShem when one recognizes the call. Equally, like the Nazarite vow in Numbers 6, one could choose to separate themselves to HaShem’s service. The key today, whether called from birth or a personal choice to serve HaShem, is to complete the work that one has begun. Sha’ul told the Yeshua followers in Corinth,

“But now finish doing it, so that just as there was an eagerness to be willing, so also to finish it, out of what you have.” (2 Corinthians 8:11)

In other words, if we desire to set ourselves apart for service or ministry unto HaShem, we need to follow through with it, completing the work or calling that was started. Sha’ul followed his exhortation to the Corinthians with these words to the Philippians,

He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the Day of Messiah Yeshua. (Philippians 1:6)

In other words, when we choose to serve ADONAI, he will work with us to perform that which we started to do in service to him and to others.

Shabbat shalom u’mevorach!

* 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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Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of the Fathers, begins with the following affirmation,

Moses received the Torah at Sinai and handed it on to Yehoshua (Joshua); Yehoshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets to the men of the Great Assembly. They (the men of the Great Assembly) said three things: Be careful in judgment; raise up many disciples; and make a fence for the Torah.1

Pirkei Avot 1:1

The first two of the three things stated by the men of the Great Assembly are fairly easy to accept. The idea of being careful in judgment is exemplified in Yeshua’s words,         

Stop judging, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Matthew 7:1-2)2

In John, the aspect of judging is clarified further, as Yeshua plainly states,

Do not judge by appearance, but judge righteously. (John 7:24)

But surely there are times when we are required to make a judgment concerning another’s actions or blatant attitudes. HaShem, through the prophet Zechariah, gives these words of guidance.

These are the things that you are to do: Speak the truth one to another; administer the judgment of truth and shalomin your gates; do not let any of you devise evil in your hearts against your neighbor; and do not love false oaths, for I hate all these things,”—it is a declaration of ADONAI. (Zechariah 8:16-17)

Or as stated in Pirkei Avot, we need to be careful in our judgments.

Then there is the admonition to “raise up many disciples.” Once again Yeshua openly spoke similarly to his followers,

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, immersing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Ruach ha-Kodesh, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you. And remember! I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)

So now we can all agree that we need to be careful in judgment and to make disciples. But what about the aspect of “making a fence for the Torah?” There are two passages that many followers of Yeshua turn to as proof texts against “fences,” both from Deuteronomy,

You must not add to the word that I am commanding you or take away from it—in order to keep the mitzvot of ADONAI your God that I am commanding you. (Deuteronomy 4:2)
Whatever I command you, you must take care to do—you are not to add to it or take away from it. (Deuteronomy 13:1)

Both verses are quite clear that we are not to add to or take away from the words of the Torah. The thing is, the fences are NOT additions to the Torah but protections for each of us, to aid us in not violating the words of the Torah. A fence, no matter how high it might be or what it may be made of, is not the house it encircles. Picture a long driveway, lined with stately oak trees. Around the base of each oak tree is a small picket fence. No one expects the picket fence to totally protect the oak tree, but the fence does draw attention to the fact that there is something there to protect it. Equally no one would ever consider the picket fence an oak tree. A careless or out-of-control driver might well crash through the picket fence but hopefully, the damage to the tree would be minimal. Likewise, the fences created over the years by our sages are an attempt to protect the Torah while at the same time protecting the one who is trying to observe the requirements of the Torah as it is written,

So now, O Israel, what does ADONAI your God require of you, but to fear ADONAI your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve ADONAI your God with all your heart and with all your soul, to keep the mitzvotof ADONAI and His statutes that I am commanding you today, for your own good? (Deuteronomy 10:12-13)

Interestingly, we see the picture of this protection in this week’s parashah, B’midbar, Numbers 1:1-4:20. In Numbers 1:52 we read, “Bnei-Yisrael will encamp, each man with his own camp, each with his own standard, according to their own divisions.” With this, the picture begins to develop. In the very center of the camp is the Mishkan (Tabernacle) the visible representation of the presence of HaShem among his people (Number 2:17). Then the Levites are to arrange themselves around the Mishkan as a buffer between HaShem and the people (Numbers 1:53). Next is the arrangement of the rest of the tribes of Israel. Surrounding the Levites are the tribes of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun on the east side (Numbers 2:3-7), of Reuben, Simeon, and Gad on the south side (Numbers 2:10-14), of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin on the west side (Numbers 2:18-22) and of Dan, Asher, and Naphtali on the north side (Numbers 2:25-30). Thus, the Mishkan and, by inference, the Presence of HaShem was protected by two sets of fences, the Levites and the rest of the tribes of Israel. The fences were not the Mishkan or the Presence of HaShem, and no one would mistake them as such.

While it is true that for followers of Yeshua, we can “draw near to the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace for help in time of need,” (Hebrews 4:16) we still need to come before him with clean hands and a pure heart (Psalms 24:3-4). We must not suppose we can enter his presence in an unseemly manner. In Galatians, Sha’ul lays this out rather plainly as he wrote,

But I say, walk by the Ruach, and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Ruach, but the Ruach sets its desire against the flesh—for these are in opposition to one another so that you cannot do what you want. But if you are led by the Ruach, you are not under the law. Now the deeds of the flesh are clear: sexual immorality, impurity, indecency, idolatry, witchcraft, hostility, strife, jealousy, rage, selfish ambition, dissension, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, just as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit God’s kingdom. But the fruit of the Ruach is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—against such things, there is no law. (Galatians 5:16-23)

In essence, the way we walk and what we surround ourselves with become the fences around each of us. They can either enable each of us to walk with our God (fruit of the Ruach) or separate us from the Father (fruit of the flesh). To be sure, walking in the Ruach is not an easy activity; it takes making a conscious choice to do so. Loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself is a choice that has to be made each and every day, often multiple times each day. As we approach the Sabbath, let’s look forward to being in his presence. Then as the new week begins, let’s commit within ourselves to “be careful in judgment; raise up many disciples; and make a fence for the (Living) Torah” by walking in the fruit of the Ruach.

Shabbat shalom u’mevorach!

Footnotes:
1 The Koren Siddur, Introduction, Translation, and Commentary by Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, Koren Publishers Jerusalem, 2009, p 641.

2 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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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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