Nizzavim & Va-Yelekh
For the week of September 12, 2009 / 23 Elul 5769
Torah: Devarim / Deuteronomy 29:9 - 31:30
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 - 63:9

Bitter Roots

Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, "I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart." This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 29:18,19; ESV)

It appears that the writer of the New Covenant book of "Hebrews" had this week's Torah portion in mind when he wrote:

See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no "root of bitterness" springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. (Hebrews 12:15,16; ESV)

These passages are encouraging God's people to make sure that there doesn't arise among them what in one place is called "a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit" and in the other a "root of bitterness." The Torah portion refers to a person who on one hand claims to be part of the covenant community yet stubbornly follows his own way. Similarly, in Hebrews, there is concern over people in their midst who are immoral and self-seeking.

In the Torah we learn that tolerating such behavior will "lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike" or, in other words, destructive behavior is destructive not only for the individual doing it, but for the community at large. Similarly in Hebrews, such behavior, "causes trouble, and by it many become defiled." In both cases it seems that the issue being addressed is not so much that this kind of behavior is unacceptable, but that the community needs to understand that such behavior has a profound negative affect on the whole community.

It can be difficult for us to comprehend the truth expressed in these passages. Many of us have been brought up to think of ourselves in strict individualistic terms. We don't readily see the implications of how our lives strongly affect the communities we are a part of, including family, neighborhood, school, congregation, company, and so on. Sometimes our unwillingness to accept this truth leads us to say things such as, "if someone has an issue with what I am doing, that's their problem". While that attitude may be appropriate on the occasions when we need to take a stand for what is right, it is inappropriate when we insist on doing what is wrong.

That someone hearing or reading this might get right with God out of a realization that their misbehavior affects those around them would be wonderful, but this is not whom is being address by these passages. Rather it is the communities that these people are a part of that need to take this message seriously. It is the communities, both the leaders and the other members, who need to make sure that this kind of misbehavior does not have a place among them.

The need for communities to address misbehavior challenges the concept of individuality. Many of us hesitate to speak into the lives of others, even those closest to us. Because we value individuality over community, we think that to address misbehavior is worse than the attempt to correct it. It's not as if the Bible places community over individuality, it is that it provides us with a truly balanced approach to each.

The reality is that failing to address misbehavior in our communities leads to the disastrous results mentioned in these passages. Failing to deal with sin in individuals will result in great trouble for the wider community. On the other hand if we would confront the emergence of bitter roots in our midst, then not only will our communities be far better off, but we will also give these troubling individuals the opportunity they need to get themselves right with God.

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