20190817 Parsha Vaetchanan – Guard Your soul
Va’etchanan means ‘I pleaded’. This is the story of Moses asking God one more time to rescind his judgement prohibiting Moses from entering the promised land. Midrash says that Moses asked 515 times. But there is no evidence of that. I believe that he did ask multiple time to be allowed to enter the land. That let’s us know that making multiple petitions before God is ok.
Today I want to focus on chapter 4:15-19
Deuteronomy 4:15-19 “So be very watchful over your souls since you saw no form on the day that Adonai spoke to you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire, (16) so that you do not act corruptly and make for yourselves a graven image in the likeness of any figure—the form of a male or female, (17) the form of any animal that is on the earth, the form of any winged bird that flies in the sky, (18) the form of anything that creeps on the ground, the form of any fish that is in the water under the earth— (19) and so that you do not lift up your eyes toward the heavens and see the sun and the moon and the stars—all the heavenly host—and are drawn away and bow down and worship them. Adonai your God has allotted them to all the peoples under all the heavens.
“Be watchful over your souls…”. In some translations it is rendered ‘guard’ rather than ‘be watchful’. So the name of the sermon today is “Guard Your Souls”.
Five Levels of the Soul
1. Nefesh –
The first verse of this portion makes an interesting premise. It says to guard your own soul, not the soul of your wife, daughter, or son. Your soul is yours to keep.
In Jewish thought, the soul referred to here is the nefesh. Nefesh is the most basic level of our consciousness. It is the animal level, the level which animates and gives function to the body. Every animal that breaths has a nefesh.
The second level is the Ruach. That is the ‘wind’, but could be called the emotion generator.
The next level is the Neshama. Neshama is the third level and it is what allows one to distinguish between good and evil.
The nefesh could be argued not to be a soul at all. It is the most ethereal of all physicality, like a wisp of air disappearing into a small breeze. All animals and all humans have a nefesh, each programmed with the bodily stimuli God wanted for the particular individual or species. Only humans have a neshama. If you want to see the difference, watch the animals. Anything both animals and humans do is of the nefesh, for example, eating an apple. Anything only a human does, is of the neshama. For example, saying a prayer of thanksgiving before and after eating that apple.
The last two levels of the soul as enumerated in Jewish thought are Chaya ‘Life’, and Yechidah ‘Oneness’. These two are complex and beyond the scope of time we have this morning.
In our text this morning, the level of the soul referred to is nefesh. This is the most basic level and just means ‘hey, I’m alive’.
Slide: Bible on Talit
So what is Moses trying to say here? I believe he is saying that we should start with the basics. He was reminding Israel that they needed to go back to the defining moment of all Judaism, the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai. He said to remember that in all the awesome displays of power and majesty at Sinai they never saw God in any physical form. He is a Spirit and as such must be worshipped as a spirit and not as a physical being.
John 4:24 God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
People in the days of Moses were used to having gods that could be touched, held, seen and carried with them in some cases. These deities appealed to their senses and gave them a feeling of security, confidence, happiness, basically a warm fuzzy. So Moses is warning Israel that their God is not like any of the Canaanite false gods. We look at them and think how foolish the people were to want to put their faith and trust in a rock, or stick.
Fortunately, we don’t do that today. Or do we?…….. Do we make idols out of hardware, software, Hollywood, Washington DC? Do we spend all our waking hours with our eyes glued to a computer screen? Now that might not qualify as worship. But those things certainly divert our mental and emotional and physical resources away from our calling. Does that make all those things idols? Maybe not in the traditional sense, but it is close.
It’s time to go back to basics and make God the central focus of our lives.
How else do we guard our souls? The Psalmist David tells us:
Psalms 39:2 I said: “I will guard my ways, so I will not sin with my tongue. …”
It is an interesting picture that David paints for me because of the words he uses. He says I will guard my ways, my path, my route. Couple that with the image of the tongue as a rudder of a ship. Jacob, in the book of James speaks of the tongue.
James 3:1-5 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, since you know that we will receive a stricter judgment. (2) For we all stumble in many ways. If someone does not stumble in speech, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. (3) And if we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole body as well. (4) See also the ships—though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. (5) So also the tongue is a small member—yet it boasts of great things. See how so small a fire sets a blaze so great a forest!
In my mind’s eye I see a ship pilot guiding the ship through a winding channel. So the tongue can influence or direct our lives through the winding paths that we encounter. Just as a ship has an engine room and propellers to provide the power to push the ship along it still needs that little rudder so that big hunk of floating steel doesn’t run aground. From personal experience I know that running a ship aground can ruin your day and career. You need to control that rudder.
Applied to our sometimes not so boring lives, that rudder known as the tongue can keep us away from the shoals. Hitting the shoals of life can certainly ruin your day, your marriage, your career, your personal relationships. You get the picture.
At the same time, controlling our lives via the tongue brings blessing. In fact that same little piece of flesh can bless God and curse your neighbor. Your choice. Guard your soul.
I don’t think I need to do a cost/benefit analysis for you this morning but just to point out the Biblically obvious.
Proverbs 4:23 Guard your heart diligently, for from it flow the springs of life.
Guard your heart. Guard your emotions and your spirit. You have now moved up to that third level of your soul. The neshama. That seat of emotion. You may say that you are not an emotional person. Everyone is emotional. It’s just that the right button has not been pushed hard enough. I cannot watch movies where women or children are abused. You want to see me cry like a baby, trick me into watching a movie where the little kid dies of some terrible disease. That’s one of my buttons.
We all have emotional buttons, some good, some bad. Anger can destroy a person. This last week in one of the several stories about mass shootings, the police described one of the perpetrators as being full of anger. It may be one of the toughest emotions to curb.
There are many emotions and habits that we need to curb. I’m sure all of us, if we would be honest with ourselves, could make a list of those things that we need to throttle back on. Make your own list and work on it.
But there are also emotions that we can develop that will build us up, build others up, just make the world a better place. Start with the second greatest commandment. Love your neighbor as yourself. Put others first, ahead of you. How many times do you get to the line at HEB and see that old lady or single mom with the bedraggled look clutching one item and you have a basket full? Do you invite her to go ahead of you? That one is easy. How about putting on the signal to change lanes and the driver in the rear-view mirror speeds up to get ahead of you rather than letting you change lanes? Hello? Buttons pushed anyone?
Doing the right thing at the right time for the right reasons just makes your heart feel good. Guard your heart.
And in conclusion, we have talked about what we can do to guard our souls. But did you know you have a helper?
Philippians 4:6-7 Do not be anxious about anything—but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. (7) And the shalom of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Messiah Yeshua.
We don’t have to struggle alone. We have a friend and advocate. The peace of God, that shalom, that completeness, that comes from knowing Yeshua will guard our hearts and minds.