Torah Portion for 31st January - 6th February
Torah portion Exodus 21 : 1 to 24 : 18
Haftarah portion Jeremiah 34 : 8-22 and 33: 25-26
Last week, although we did NOT ‘reflect’ upon it, we had the occasion of God giving Moses “THE TEN WORDS” (The ten commandments).
Immediately following this, as we begin to read this week’s parashah, we get into a lot of legal detail affecting the lifestyle choices faced by this ancient people. It is a very practical summary of behavioural issues surrounding the acquisition and treatment of slaves, loss of property, damage and loss caused by animals, murder, theft, bribery, perjury, and infidelity, before moving into the regulations regarding the “shemitta year”. Please note that the real purpose (see Exodus 23:11) of the ‘shemittah’ was to afford the opportunity for the poor amongst them, those who did not own land, to harvest whatever God provided from the residue of self seeded produce in the otherwise normally cultivated fields. This is also consistent with the purpose of the “tithe” described in Deuteronomy 14, so that the poor and the Levites were cared for in a natural way by the diligence of those who owned the land and its produce.
(This week is our first real encounter with what Christian teaching describes as “law”, which is then usually counter positioned against “grace”. In truth, it makes for difficult understanding in our culture 3,500 years later. For that reason it is not easy to draw practical lessons which are applicable to modern society. However, having said that, it is also true that the context falls precisely into the correct understanding of the meaning of the word “Torah”. These are God’s instructions (teaching) regarding righteously living together.)
There is more written about these legal issues in Leviticus, as they apply to the priestly class, and in Deuteronomy as they apply to the ‘laity”. Significantly, after laying down the ground rules regarding the weekly Shabbat, God gave Moses instructions regarding other remembrance festivals.
The Feast of Unleavened Bread in Exodus 12, was, of course in the context of Passover. In our parashah today, we have the first indication of the other festivals (called Pilgrimage Festivals) , which were to be remembered by annual attendance of the male members of each Tribe. Each of these remembrance festivals was to be celebrated in a place (later designated as Jerusalem) which God would specify. Take careful note that each of these annual festivals was to be celebrated, in part, by presenting gifts before the Lord. (How did the early ‘church leaders’ manage to miss that opportunity for a ‘gift day’? .. and that THREE times every year !!).
From Exodus 23:20, the tone changes. God’s promises contained here are spectacular. Take a moment to read from verse 20 to the end of chapter 23. There is very little comment required of me if you read it for yourself. An Angel of the Lord empowered by God. An Angel with lots of authority, but no discretion. Sent ONLY to do that which God had already commissioned. Amazing insight for me here. But look. There is a condition attached to those promises. It is undeniable, but there are people who, because of serious damage inflicted by abusive churches, cannot countenance the thought of being under such authority. Wasn’t it Samuel who later would say “obedience is better than sacrifice”? God says “Trust Me”. It is a truism, even today, that most of us seem to think we know better than a Holy God.
Chapter 24 concludes our parashah this week. On a previous occasion the people, as a group, had affirmed their allegiance to God’s instructions. Twice more in this chapter we read of their affirmation (verses 3 and 7) of acceptance of the instructions in “The Book of the Covenant”, which Moses read out to them. But in verse 7 they appear to go one step more with the addition of the words “and be obedient”. That word, translated “obedient” is the Hebrew word “Shema”. I conclude my ‘reflection’ this week by quoting, again, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who provided this insightful meaning of “Shema”.
“Shema Yisrael does not mean “Hear, O Israel”. It means something like:
Listen. Concentrate. Give the word of G-d your most focused attention. Strive to understand. Engage all your faculties, intellectual and emotional. Make His will your own. For what He commands you to do is not irrational or arbitrary but for your welfare, the welfare of your people, and ultimately for the benefit of all humanity.”
That, dear friends, is what these Israelites promised.
What is our promise to YHWH Elohim?