Audio teaching on Behar / Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34)

Join with me as we study the last two parashot of the book of Leviticus, parashot Behar / Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34). I was invited to speak at a Messianic congregation this past weekend and presented a message of love, redemption, unity and the restoration of the Kingdom I see woven into the text of these two parashot. I pull not only from the text of our Torah portions, but from the Apostolic Scriptures, the Mishnah and Midrash to weave a pattern of restoration that can only come when we take our responsibilities seriously. Join with me as we learn parashot Behar and Bechukotai together.

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The Search for Chametz

The Search for Chametz

This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall remove leaven out of your houses, for if anyone eats what is leavened, from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel … For seven days no leaven is to be found in your houses. If anyone eats what is leavened, that person will be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a sojourner or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your dwelling places you shall eat unleavened bread. (Exodus 12:14-15, 19-20)

An Eternal Tradition

Every year just before Passover Jewish families all across the world turn their homes inside out in search of the dreaded chametz, or food items containing leavening. Many go to great lengths to assure the search for chametz is complete. Couches are pulled out, beds are broken down, ovens are pulled out, shelf-paper is replaced — all due to the search for chametz that might be hiding in any crack or cranny. And the reason for this is a good one. The Scriptures state quite clearly, “On the first day you shall remove leaven out of your houses” (Exodus 12:15), and then again, “For seven days no leaven is to be found in your houses” (Exodus 12:19). Hashem makes it pretty clear that He’s serious about this leavening thing, and even makes a contingency that if a person actually eats of anything that is leavened during this time, “that person will be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a sojourner or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your dwelling places you shall eat unleavened bread” (Exodus 12:19-20).

For most Christians, removing leaven and leavened products from one’s home may seem a superficial or even legalistic endeavor. But for the Children of Israel, this is serious business. It’s not just an ancient ritual of bygone years. It is a spiritual reality that exists to this day, as it is written, “you shall observe this day, throughout your generations, as a statute forever” (Exodus 12:17, emphasis added). God not only expected those fleeing from Egypt to keep this decree during their lifetime, but emphasized that this tradition be kept “forever” — dor l’dor — from one generation to the next. According to the instructions of the One who redeemed Israel from Egypt — Who calls Himself by this very title — every person of Jewish decent is to painstakingly remove all traces of chametz from their dwelling year after year at this season. It is a yearly reminder of the redemption from Egypt, as well as a time to use the search for chametz to drive home the spiritual reality of hidden sin and its ramifications. Let me explain …

Leaven as Sin

The Talmud asks the question, “And who prevents us from performing Your will?” It answers its own question by responding, “The yeast in the dough” (b.Berachot 17a). At first, the answer doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. But if we think about it, we can make the connection. In Jewish and biblical tradition leaven is the quintessential analogy for sin. It represents that which is impure, corrupt, infected and arrogant. The “yeast” (in this context) which prohibits man from properly and whole-heartedly serving his Creator is his yetzer hara, or “evil inclination,” a term used frequently in Judaism equivalent to what Paul calls “the flesh” (cf. Romans 7, Galatians 5). Frequently, the Talmud uses this phrase, “the yeast in the dough,” to refer to man’s propensity towards evil.

James, the brother of Yeshua, affirms this concept when he says, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:14-15). We don’t need to blame haSatan for our sinful behavior. It is the desire within us and our submission to our sin nature which make us fall into sin.

Yeshua uses the yeast/leaven metaphor in a fashion similar to the Talmud. We hear this when he instructs his disciples saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod” (Mark 8:15). His disciples, being educated in the basics of Scripture but not yet as familiar with the rabbinic jargon, begin to scratch their heads trying to grasp the meaning of Yeshua’s instruction. Contextually, they had just witnessed the feeding of the five thousand a day or two previously and the feeding of the four thousand just moments beforehand. They began to wonder about the meaning of Yeshua’s reprimand. Maybe they thought he was criticizing them for not saving some of the miraculous bread to take with them on their voyage across Lake Galilee and sustain them during their travels there? Maybe Yeshua thought they had some starter dough that had somehow become contaminated with their encounter with the Pharisees? Maybe he didn’t want them relying on the food from the now-critical Pharisees and the Herodian traitors? But Yeshua heard their discussion and their erroneous conclusions and interrupted, “Do you not yet understand?” (Mark 8:21). After realizing that his disciples really had no clue, Yeshua sets the record straight and tells them plainly that the yeast for which they must be on their guard is hypocrisy (Luke 12:1).1

The Search

There is a pre-Passover tradition that on the evening before Passover begins one final search for chametz takes place. It is more of a token of finality and time to engage the children than to actually do a final, house-wide search, but it represents something very important. The major search and cleaning has already been done. This search represents a final inspection to remove any traces of chametz that may be hiding or have somehow slipped by without our knowledge.

The interesting component of this ritual is that the search is traditionally done with a candle, even in an age where we have the convenience of flashlights. The search is done together by the father and the children. As they come across a piece of chametz (conveniently placed by the mother), they brush it onto a wooden spoon with a feather and place it into a paper bag which will be ritually burned the following morning.

King David said, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23-24). This ritual represents this plea. Rather than being oblivious to our sins, we are to be carefully examining ourselves asking the Holy Spirit to illuminate the corners of our hearts to see if any chametz may be lurking unbeknownst to us.

The Torah sheds some light on this when it gives us instructions in regard to observing the Feast of Unleavened Bread. In Exodus 12, Hashem is giving the Children of Israel instructions for that first Passover, as well as additional instructions for future observances. In verse 17, there is an ambiguous phrase that has been subject to various translations over the years. The Hebrew of the first phrase reads:‭ ‬וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם‭ ‬אֶת–הַמַּצּוֹת‭ ‬— Ushmartem et hamatzot, which literally means “And you shall guard the matzot (plural for matzah/unleavened bread).” This is usually smoothed over in translation and rendered something to the effect of “You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread.” But literally, this is not what it’s saying. The word chag (feast) is not included as it is just three verses previously. This appears to be a slightly different context in which Hashem is instructing the Children of Israel to not allow their matzah to become leavened during the feast. It is a glimpse into the spiritual principle of rejecting apathy and being proactive in our spiritual discernment.

Guarding the Matzah

When we look at a piece of matzah and compare it with a piece of leavened bread (particularly sour dough, which was the only type of “yeast” bread known in the ancient world), what do we see? What is the difference between the two? One is flat, having been baked before giving it time to rise; and one is puffed up, having been allowed to rise before baking. They have both been made from the same basic ingredients: flour and water. The difference between the two is someone had to pay close attention to the unleavened bread to ensure that it did not rise, while the other was left alone and rose on its own accord.

It’s easy to allow sin to creep in. Just don’t do a thing. Don’t put your guard up. Don’t do regular self-examination. Don’t spend regular time in prayer and study each day. Don’t do anything that would enhance you spiritually. Just don’t do a thing. Sin will work its way into us and puff us up so that we are spiritually blind to our own undoing. Remaining pure and unblemished by sin and the world requires much more effort. It requires us to be proactively aware of our spiritual condition and to guard against the influences of the world, rather than sitting back and allowing the world and its influences to permeate us. It’s the difference between a loaf of bread and a piece of matzah.

Israel was set free for a purpose and it wasn’t to return to being slaves. We have been made free as well, but not to return to the enslavement of sin. Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). We are supposed to be guarding against “the yeast of the Pharisees” so that it does not creep into our hearts and lives to enslave us once more. Hypocrisy and arrogance follow on the heels of apathy.

Let us conclude with Paul’s admonition in this matter and heed his counsel:

“Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:6-8).

May we all be a new lump of dough, purged of the old leaven we once knew in our lives and live daily guarding against the subtle infusing of the leaven of the world as we enter into this season of redemption.

  1. Although Matthew records the interpretation of the “yeast of the Pharisees” as being, “the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” this is surely a scribal addition which attempts to explain Yeshua’s teaching since it is not a direct quote from Yeshua and does not appear to agree with either the context of the passage, nor his other teachings in this regard. For instance, his discourse against the Pharisees in Matthew 23 which begins with “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Matthew 23:2-3) is in agreement with their teaching, but not their application. This statement is immediately followed (verses 4-36) by a litany of accusations which are centered around his condemnation of their hypocrisy and lack of integrity, rather than false teachings. His overarching accusation was that they “outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (vs. 28).

Binding & Loosing: From Torah to Yeshua

keys

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־רָאשֵׁי הַמַּטּוֹת לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יהוה׃ אִישׁ כִּי־יִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַיהוה אוֹ־הִשָּׁבַע שְׁבֻעָה לֶאְסֹר אִסָּר עַל־נַפְשׁוֹ לֹא יַחֵל דְּבָרוֹ כְּכָל־הַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיו יַעֲשֶׂה׃

(Numbers 30:2-3)

Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the people of Israel, saying, “This is what the LORD has commanded. If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.
(Numbers 30:1–2, ESV)

Vows & Oaths

The above passage comes from last week’s Toah portion, Matot, and contains a key by which we can better understand a teach of the Master found in the Apostolic Scriptures. In this passage we find the Scriptural rule for vows, oaths and self-induced prohibitions.

The first thing we note in this passage is that whatever proceeds from our lips is binding. In fact, it becomes as binding as Scripture. In a sense, when we make a vow or pledge an oath, we have created a new restriction upon ourselves that is above and beyond the obligations of the Scriptures. We have, in a sense, “added to Scripture.” This is one reason why both the sages, and our Master are so critical of vows and pledges.

A person should take care not to make any vows. It is even preferable not to vow to give charity. Rather, if one possesses something to [give to] charity, he should give it immediately; if one does not possess the means at present, he should wait until he does, and then give without taking a vow. 1

The above quote is a typical quote from a Jewish source. The general consensus in regard to taking upon oneself vows or pledges is not a favorable one. The master agrees:

Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. (Matthew 5:33-37, ESV)

Hebrew Word Play

There is, however, something deeper which I would like us to notice. In the Hebrew, there is a play on words that  we do not completely catch in the English. Three times it uses a combination of words which play upon one another.

  1. yidor neder (to “vow a vow”) – the root being נדר
  2. hishava shavua (to “oath an oath”) – the root being שבע
  3. le’sor issar (to “bind a binding”) – the root being אסר

Two of these are somewhat obvious in our English. The last one, however, is not so obvious. The KJV actually brings this out a little more by translating this as “to bind his soul with a bond.”

Binding & Loosing

In this passage, we clearly see how “binding” is associated with a restriction. This is the precedent by which the rabbis use the term to “bind” or loose” in regard to things which are questionable in their use. For instance, a rabbi would “bind” (restrict/forbid) the use of a certain type of crock pot for use on Shabbat. Or they might “loose” (permit) an activity which might be questionable.

It is in this very context that we should understand the words of Jesus in Matthew 18 in regard to “binding” and “loosing”.

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 18:18, ESV)

In this passage, the context is dealing with church discipline. Jesus is telling them that the decisions they make in this regard will be upheld by his authority in heaven. They have the power to both restrict and permit anything that is not clearly spelled out in the Scriptures. This is even more apparent in the DHE, as the Hebrew uses the same terminology as the passage in Numbers.

אָמֵן אֹמֵר אֲנִי לָכֶם כֹּל אֲשֶׁר־תַּאַסְרוּ עַל־הָאָרֶץ אָסוּר יִהְיֶה בַּשָׁמָיִם וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר־תַּתִּירוּ עַל־הָאָרֶץ מֻתָּר יִהְיֶה בַּשָׁמָיִם

(Matthew 18:18)

In this passage, he says, “kol asher ta’asru al ha’aretz asur yihyeh bashamayim” – “everything that you bind on earth will be bound in the heavens.”

Rather than giving his disciples authority to “bind” demons, or “loose” finances (as I was taught growing up, and contrary to much contemporary teaching), this teaching of the Master is associated with apostolic authority. Yes, Jesus gave his disciples authority over demons. However, this teaching is in no way associated with demons or spiritual warfare. It is, however, a clear case in which both Jesus and the rabbis are using their clear understanding of the Torah to allow the creation of legislation within their communities.

  1.  http://www.torah.org/learning/halacha/classes/class250.html

Dying In My Tent

“Resh Lakish said: Whence do we learn that words of Torah are firmly held by one who kills himself for it? Because it says, This is the Torah, when a man shall die in the tent.”
(Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 63b)

While studying this week’s Torah Portion (Chukat/Chukas), I came to the this passage:

זֹאת הַתּוֹרָה אָדָם כִּי־יָמוּת בְּאֹהֶל

This is the law when someone dies in a tent (Numbers 19:14a)

It reminded me of the lessons I had learned from Artscroll’s A Daily Dose of Torah (ADDT) regarding this passage. Although this passage is literally about the law regarding the transfer of corpse impurity to anyone under the roof the same roof as a corpse, it is understood midrashically from the Hebrew to be a lesson about one who would “kill himself for the sake of Torah.” As the passage in Berachot 63b says, “the words of Torah are firmly held by one who kills himself for it.” Or as ADDT phrases it, “Torah remains only with one who kills himself for it.” And, as a reminder for the literal-minded, they clarify that it is not that one is to endanger one’s life for the sake of Torah. It is rather that we must restrict our personal pleasures, and sacrifice of our time in order to make the time for study so that the lessons of Torah will be impressed upon us with a lasting impression.

From the moment I learned this a few years back, this has spoken to me. However, this week it speaks even louder. Due to some undisclosed circumstances, over the last year or more, my guiding philosophy has been:

“For in much wisdom is much vexation,and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” (Ecclesiastes 1:18)

I have kept up with my studies just enough to give my family some direction, but nothing more. I have not “died in my tent.” I’ve only been in survival mode. However, during Shavuot of this year Hashem spoke to my heart and said that I must get back on course and “die in my tent” for His sake. I must put aside all of the coping mechanisms (distractions) with which I have been filling my life. I must “die to myself” in order to truly live, and become who He has intended for me to become.

“When I die and face the heavenly court,” the Hassidic Rabbi Zusha famously said, “if they ask me why I was not more like Abraham, I will say that I didn’t have Abraham’s intellectual abilities. If they say, ‘Why weren’t you more like Moses?’ then I will explain that I did not have Moses’ talent for leadership. For every such question I will have an answer, but if they say, ‘Zusha, why were you not Zusha?’ for that I will have no answer.”

Since Shavuot, I have been studying with renewed fervor. I have been a lot more consistent in my studying, and more engaged with the Holy Text. I’ve also been gleaning from other sources, and studying them more carefully as well. Although I still have a nagging trepidation, I am looking forward with anticipation to what Hashem is going to do in my life as I surrender to Him.

Will I ever become who I was intended to become? Will you? Maybe it is time for both of us to “die in our tents” together.

Israel Rolls the Stone Away

As many of you know, one of my favorite daily studies (outside of Torah Club) is A Daily Dose of Torah from Artscroll. In the Torah Thought for the Day section this past Tuesday there was an interesting concept. It relates the story of when Jacob (although weary from his travels and lack of rest) met Rachel at the well, he was easily able to roll the stone off of the well single-handedly (where it was implied that it took many men to do this). This is interpreted midrashically as a portent of a future event in which the “great stone, symbolic of our sins, which prevents the exile from coming to an end, until Yaakov himself will come and remove it, like one removing a cork from a bottle.

I can easily see this representation in the rolling away of the stone of Yeshua’s burial site. When the stone was rolled away, Yeshua’s resurrection & his work of redemption & triumph over sin and death are realized, as Paul speaks about in 1 Corinthians 15:50-58:

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
(1 Corinthians 15:50-58 ESV)