A Message of Thanks to You

I made a serious, yearlong vow a year ago.

God-willing, I committed to exploring each week the nexus between the Torah portion and its companion in the Prophets, the Haftarah, and writing a blog on what I found. My goal was threefold: to be true to the texts and traditions, to be fresh in my own analysis, and to deduce and suggest lessons that might help guide us in our own times to better ways of living.

So, 50 blogs ago, I began on this WordPress website with a commentary on the parasha, Matot-Massei, and its related text in Jeremiah. And, here we are this week, returning to that very place in the cycle.

It has been a labor of love, and a labor of challenge and hard effort. I am very grateful for the journey – for all I have learned, for the inspiration from God to see important truths I had not understood as profoundly before, and for the opportunity to share all this with others.

I am grateful, too, for the time and conversation with my wife, Camille Kress, whose brilliance and extraordinary editing added greatly to my own knowledge and the quality of my writing. Finally, I am grateful to the many friends and followers who have responded to these pieces both with warm encouragement and profound insights of their own.

This matter of what links the Torah and Haftarah texts has long interested me. My curiosity was kindled back in my youth when I heard wise rabbis exploring this territory in sermons. Later, I turned to research to learn more from great sages and rabbis throughout time. Now, after having begun to devote my own time largely to the study and teaching of Jewish sacred texts, I concluded it was my turn to try, and to do so thoroughly.

Each week I spent Thursdays pretty fully immersed in study and writing, and Friday mornings in sharing the essays through emails and social media.

I will always have special memories of my “Thursday work” this past year, perhaps especially when the work was done on trips to California, New York, and elsewhere. There never was an excuse to avoid the commitment, and the reward is memories of those trips that are now richer for my having done this work.

I feel another “study and write” vow coming on. But, though I have a few ideas about possible topics, I want to rest a bit and think more about it. After all, vows should be made carefully!

Praised are You, O Lord our God, who has blessed us with knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, and the work of sharing and growing in Your words and ways.

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Each of Us Has a Special Voice

 

For this week’s Torah portion, a special reading from Prophets has been assigned. This is so because we are in a period of the year in which we reflect upon the loss of the First Temple, and there are verses from Jeremiah that are apt. But, there’s also a gem of a life lesson in the text. Let’s look for it.

We read at the outset that Jeremiah lived at a time when the people of Judah had strayed so badly they were in great peril. God commissioned the prophet to warn the people of the painful consequences of their behavior.

Told of his role, Jeremiah protested, “Alas, O Lord God! Behold, I know not to speak for I am a youth.” God responded by assuring him that “whatever I command you, you shall speak…for I am with you to save you.” Further, God reached out to the prophet, saying, “Behold, I have placed My words in your mouth.”

Of what experience in the Bible does this story powerfully resonate? I think of Moses’ reaction when he was first called to prophetic service. Don’t you?

Recall when God spoke from the burning bush, directing Moses to take God’s people out of Egypt.

Moses, too, protested. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh? …They will not believe me, and they will not heed my voice…I am not a man of words, …I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” God assured Moses, “So now, go! I will be with your mouth, and I will instruct you what you shall speak.”

What are we to make of these similar, stunning experiences?

I think they teach us what it means, and how important it is, to use our own voices and lives to serve God and others.

Our instinct, like that of the prophets, is that we are not up to the task. We are too young (or too old). We stutter in our speech, and are, in so many ways, unready and inadequate. “Please don’t ask me to do that. I can’t.”

Yet, the truth is: we can. With all their weaknesses and doubts, both Moses and Jeremiah served God and the people for 40 years, the rest of their adult lives. They were imperfect, but their service was dutiful, sustaining, and memorable. Here we are, centuries later, reading and learning from them.

Moses was the prophet of redemption, the one who led us to God’s Word and ways, and to the land of promise. Jeremiah was the prophet who taught us to turn back from waywardness, warning of exile from that land, if we failed to do so. Even with the imminence of devastation, he foresaw the hope and promise of ultimate return.

What are you called to do? What service can you give to God and community? What remarkable difference can you make in the world, especially if you overcome your own insecurities, and act?

A good part of the Torah portion relates to the taking of a census. It is long and detailed, as if to say all people (then and now) count. We are all needed for service. And we all have a stake in the Promised Land, the bountiful place that God has established for those who serve in covenant.

How poignant it is that the portion ends with a vision of the end of Moses’s service. What mainly does it portray? We see the next person stepping up – a person with his own doubts and uncertainties as well as his own special potential to make a splendid contribution. It is, of course, Joshua.

We are not expected to be Moses, Joshua or Jeremiah. But, in being our true selves, we, like they, are expected to hear the call, overcome our doubts, and serve. God has given each of us a special voice and guidance on how to use it. “So now, go!”

What Makes for Blessing

The great prophet, Micah, had Balaam’s words on his mind.

As we know and will soon discuss, Micah delivered one of the most profound messages of all time to us, and really to the whole world. What I didn’t realize, though, until this week’s study, was that in formulating that message, the prophet placed real importance on Balaam’s blessings of Israel. “My people,” he says, “remember what Balak king of Moab planned, and how Balaam son of Be’or answered him.”

What did Balaam, the diviner, say that mattered so much to Micah? And what does all this mean to us?

Recall in the book of Numbers that Balak wanted Balaam to curse Israel. Instead, pressed by God to do the opposite, Balaam blessed Israel.

In our reading of the text, we have a tendency to focus on the last part of the blessing, which is plenty beautiful: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.” We’ll look at this observation in a moment. But I want to be sure we pay attention to the earlier parts of the blessing that we often miss.

Balaam shows Balak a people who are numberless, upright, and separate. He shows a strong people who eschew divination and sorcery, and refrain from evil and perversity. He sees a people it pleases God to bless because the people bear the spirit of God upon itself.

And, yes, as a result of being this way, Israel (at least its ideal) is a community characterized by fair tents, with admirable order and modesty. It’s fruitful and bountiful, with access to all that nourishes, both physically and spiritually. Its people and its leaders follow in the ways of God, and its community is thus blessed.

Sadly, though, this picture of the ideal is capable of being distorted and muddied in the tugs and pulls of the world. We know from the end of this very portion that the people so glowingly described earlier would soon stray into the idolatrous ways of Moab.

Micah sees the same proclivity in his own day, in the form of the people’s deviating from their blessed ways to the practice of idolatry and terrible social injustice.

“The Eternal,” Micah warns, “has a case against our people, and will contend with Israel.”

Yet, Micah sees beyond the mess we sometimes make of things. He, too, sees what Balaam saw – the ideal – and, if realized, its potential gift to the world. This blessed way of life “shall be among the many nations like dewdrops from the Eternal, like showers on the grass…”

Micah then wonders: How do we get there? What must we do to make the ideal real? How do we stay on the right path and avoid straying down appealing, but destructive paths? How is our blessing sustained and merited?

Is it by sacrifices? Is it by religious zeal, or by ritual acts? No, Micah says.

God has taught us what is good. The Divine has shown us what creates the lovely ways of living that Balaam saw. God has given us the prescription for what nourishes us and brings harmony to our lives. From that teaching, Micah describes eloquently what makes for blessing.

It is “Only this – to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”