Sanctuary

For the week of February 13, 2016 / 4 Adar 5776

Mishkan (Tabernacle) Holy Place replica

Within the full-scale replica of the Mishkan at Hotel Eshel Hashomron, Ariel, Samaria. Photo: Alan Gilman

Terumah
Torah reading: Shemot/Exodus 25:1 – 27:19
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/Kings 5:26 – 6:13

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And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it. (Shemot/Exodus 35:8-9)

This week’s reading begins the instructions for the building of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle). Mishkan means dwelling place, for this centrally located mobile complex was to signify the presence of God among the people of Israel. That it is described as a sanctuary in the selection I just read is probably not a surprise to most readers, since it is common even today to refer to a place of worship as such. But what does sanctuary mean?

I think when most people hear the word sanctuary, they immediately think of what Merriam-Webster’s dictionary lists as a common definition: “a place where someone or something is protected or given shelter.” A safe place in other words. Perhaps that is rooted in the custom of people finding protection from accusations and revenge by running to the Mishkan or later the Temple and holding the horns of the alter located there (see 1 Kings 1:50; 2:28). But shelter and protection were not central to the Mishkan’s purpose.

The Hebrew word for sanctuary here is “mikdash” which is derived from “kadash,” meaning to set apart or make holy. The Mishkan was to be a holy place, a structure designed to be set apart for God. Whatever might result from the Mishkan’s being a sanctuary, it is first and foremost God’s place. This is where God would be encountered, served, and from where his ways would be taught. It would be so, because God himself would be present. Therefore, a mikdash, a sanctuary, is where God’s presence dwells.

Where do we find sanctuary today? The Mishkan and Temple have long been destroyed. Millions of people gather at the Western Wall in Jerusalem to get as close as possible to the Temple’s location. For many this expresses a desire to be near to God’s presence. Synagogues and churches refer to their main meeting and prayer halls as sanctuaries, for it is in these locals that the community gathers to meet God in a special way, similar to the Mishkan and Temple. But he is in none of these places, at least not in the manifest way he was in ancient times.

That doesn’t mean that true sanctuary no longer exists. Far from it! Because of the coming of the Messiah, that which at one time dwelt within the confines of the Mishkan or the Temple is now present within his people both individually (see 1 Corinthians 3:17) and corporately (see 1 Corinthians 3:17).

If you truly know God through Yeshua the Messiah, you are God’s sanctuary. He who dwelt in the Mishkan of old now dwells in you. And if you are God’s sanctuary, his mikdash, then you are his holy place, set apart by him and for him. It is in and through you and others like you that he desires to manifest his presence and make himself known by his word and his power. The so-called sanctuaries of our houses of worship can be nothing of the kind unless filled with God’s faithful people. But when they are, they too become God’s true sanctuary.

It is time for Yeshua’s followers to realize our special function in the world. We don’t simply represent a far-off, detached Supreme Being that people need to know about. He has taken up residence in us, so that when people encounter us they should be encountering their Creator, Lord, Judge, and would-be Savior. We are the bridge through which God seeks to access a lost and confused world. We therefore must be diligent to prevent any barriers to form preventing people from seeing him in us. But please don’t ask God to take you out of the way, for it is you he has chosen through whom to make himself known.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Practical Torah

For the week of February 6, 2016 / 27 Shevat 5776

Practical Torah

Mishpatim
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 21:1-24:18
Haftarah: Jeremiah 34:8-22; 33:25-26

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Now these are the rules that you shall set before them (Shemot/Exodus 21:1)

Last week we looked at how the Ten Words (commonly known as the Ten Commandments) function as representative of the covenant God established with the people of Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai. Accepting them as eternal principles simply because they are the Ten Commandments or rejecting them as Old Testament relics fails to regard their covenantal function. With the coming of Yeshua and the inauguration of the New Covenant as promised by the prophet Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 31:31-33; compare Luke 22:20), the constitution of God’s people underwent a major transformation. That which was given on tablets of stone has been internalized as Jeremiah said (see 2 Corinthians 3:3). The life that God had called Israel to live was no longer something outside and out of reach, so to speak, but instead to be lived from the inside out. The alienation from God which had prevented Israel from living up to the Sinai covenantal demands was resolved once and for all by the forgiveness of sin brought about through Yeshua’s sacrificial death.

The main contrast between the Sinai and New Covenants, therefore, is found not primarily in their practical details, but in the constitutional arrangements within which the details are given. The older covenant provides for the organization of a national entity; the newer one enables for the inclusion of all nations without requiring specific membership in Israel. The great change in the sacrificial system from ongoing and temporal to final and permanent makes the older priestly function obsolete and thus allows believers to approach God directly.

But just because the covenantal foundations have changed, that doesn’t mean that every God-given directive through Moses is no longer relevant. For it is in the Torah thatwe encounter almost every aspect of life from God’s perspective. Discerning which elements of God’s teaching (for that’s what “torah” means) were for ancient Israel alone and which ones are for all people for all times can be a challenge, but a worthwhile and enriching one.

Through Torah we are reminded that relationship with God is not something detached from life’s practicalities. While abstract notions of love and forgiveness are essential, it is through the directives of Torah that the core of our faith is expressed in very practical ways. When reading the first section of this week’s Torah portion you might wonder if that is really true, however. The subject of slaves in the Bible is often used to demonstrate how backwards it is. But what we actually have here is God’s speaking into a world where slavery was taken for granted. The boundaries and regulations God established through Moses emphasizes the value of all human beings. This would have been radical for those days and sets the stage for its eventual abolishment. How’s that for being practical?

Our portion continues by addressing the subject of personal liability. We are privileged to be given God’s mind regarding common issues like these that people have faced throughout history. We neglect God’s word on these matters to our peril.

In another section in this week’s reading we see the consequences for certain types of social behavior, including premarital sex, bestiality, sorcery, as well as dealing with the vulnerable members of society: foreigners, widows, and orphans. As with the slavery section, modern readers might too quickly react to the prescribed consequences for certain behaviors rather than glean from God’s perspective. The determining of consequences is subject to the jurisdiction of civil leaders, which while regulated under Sinai for ancient Israel, is not expanded to the nations under the New Covenant. What we can derive from this is the destructive nature of the things addressed, so that they can be avoided among believers and discouraged within the cultures in which we find ourselves.

This is what Yeshua meant when he told his followers that they are “salt and light” (see Matthew 5:13-16). As the great Master Rabbi he expounded the teachings of Moses, so that they (and us!) can learn the practical details of Torah within a New Covenant framework.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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The Ten Words

For the week of January 30, 2016 / 20 Shevat 5776

TheTenWords01_480

Yitro
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 18:1 – 20:23
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-7:6, 9:5

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And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Shemot/Exodus 20:1-3)

The Ten Commandments function in a most special way within holy scripture. You may not be aware that they are never actually called the “ten commandments,” but rather, eseret ha-devarim, “the Ten Words” (see Shemot/Exodus 34:28). Obviously the Hebrew is indicating that this is much more than a list of ten individual words. Rather they are ten unique divine utterances; unique in several ways.

First, the Ten Words were the only part of God’s revelation to Moses that was given in the direct hearing of the people (see Shemot/Exodus 20:18-21). It isn’t clear if they heard the actual words, but whatever they heard, they were so terrified, they never want to experience it again.

Second, of all that Moses received from God, only these Ten Words were written by God’s own finger. In fact, he did so twice, due to Moses destroying the first set in reaction to Israel’s rebellious activities while he was with God on the mountain (see Shemot/Exodus 31:18; 34:1).

The third and perhaps most important way the Ten Words are unique is that they, in particular, are called “the covenant” (see Shemot/Exodus 34:28). This would be why they were among the items that were placed inside the “aron ha-berit,” the Ark of the Covenant.

There was of course more to the covenant given at Mount Sinai than just the Ten Words. The Ten served to point the people to the details of the entire covenant. They weren’t necessarily more important than any other of God’s directives, but what they do is capture the essence of the whole covenant, while the rest of Torah elaborates on them. The ten, then, especially as a collection, have an essential symbolic function in that they represent the whole Sinai covenant.

It is not biblically sound, therefore, to isolate or detach the Ten Words from the rest of Torah as if God gave these directives as universal principles, while everything else he revealed through Moses was for Israel alone. This is not to say that the Ten Words or anything else in Torah aren’t necessarily universal. It’s that it is not right to automatically consider them as universal just because they are the Ten Words.

Biblically speaking, the Ten Words first and foremost function as covenant, not moral principles. They (as much of the rest of Torah) are full of morality, but primarily they establish the basis and parameters of God’s relationship with ancient Israel. That is why the Ten Words begin with “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Shemot/Exodus 20:2). Israel was to obey God’s commands on the basis of their having been rescued from Egypt, something which no other nation can claim. Note that Israel’s salvation and relationship to God were established by God first before he gave them directions to live by. Biblical morality was never intended to be a pathway to God, but rather a response of God’s people to his love and faithfulness.

Living God’s way under the New Covenant is similar in that it too is a response to God’s salvation. This time not only as the nation of Israel who were in physical bondage to Egypt, but people of all nations who have been released from the greater bondage to sin and death through faith in the Messiah.

But as those who have a relationship with God through Yeshua, how do we live? While many have adopted the Ten Words as their moral code, others have rejected most, if not all, the commands given through Moses as being relevant today. Some claim that Yeshua replaced an older notion of hundreds of commands with only two (love God and love your neighbor) as if God is now lenient instead of strict. But that’s not what is going on here at all. Yeshua’s answer to the question concerning the greatest commandment (see Matthew 22:36-40) provides perspective and priority in relating to God. These two commands therefore serve as a summary of everything God calls us to.

But what does he call us to? Under the New Covenant, Torah, which was at one time written on tablets of stone, is now engraved upon our hearts (see Jeremiah 31:31-34; 2 Corinthians 3:3). That which was external has been internalized. This transformational change brought about by Yeshua’s death and resurrection allows us to live out the essential elements of God’s revelation through Moses including the Ten Words, but within a new covenantal arrangement. We will look at how this works out practically next week.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Go Forward

For the week of January 23, 2016 / 13 Shevat 5776

GoForward01_600
Be-Shallah
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 4:4 – 5:31

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The LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward.” (Shemot/Exodus 14:15)

This week’s message is not for everyone. I guess that’s always true, but there’s something about this one in particular that probably should be ignored altogether if it doesn’t apply to you. But if it does, you don’t want to miss it! So, here we go…

The people of Israel were between a rock and a hard place, metaphorically speaking. They were actually between an impassible body of water and the Egyptian army keen on dragging them back to Egypt. An interesting interchange ensues between Moses and God. Well, actually, it’s not an interchange. The people freak out, thinking that they are about to be slaughtered, Moses reassures them, but then God tells Moses what to do, contradicting him in the process. Let’s look at this more closely.

Moses said to the people: “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent” (Shemot/Exodus 14:13-14). Based on everything Moses knew about God up to that moment – his character, his power, and his methodology – this sounds so right. Moses knew how fundamentally incorrect the people’s freak-out was. God didn’t bring them to this point only to abandon them now. Moses knew that he was leading them to Sinai and on to the Promised Land. So this couldn’t be the end. How God would rescue them he didn’t know, but after all that had happened with the ten plagues and a reasonable analysis of the situation, Moses assumed that all Israel had to do was to do nothing, except stand. God would take care of the situation all by himself.

But with all due respect to Moses, he was wrong. They were not just to stand there; they were to “go forward.” I know Moses was also told: “Lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go through the sea on dry ground” (Shemot/Exodus 14:16), but the people were not to wait for the sea to part first, but rather begin to march toward the sea.

God was calling the people to readjust their orientation to the situation. He had called them to journey in a certain direction, which required getting to the other side of the water. But instead they were frozen by their fears. They needed to refocus and get with God’s program again.

Note that God was not calling them into the water before it parted. He might call people to do that from time to time, but not in this case. They simply had to move in its direction. He also didn’t order them to turn around and confront the enemy nipping at their heels. The day would come when Israel would engage in battle, but not now. In this situation they had to go forward.

I remember a situation I was in where I was called to go forward. It was nothing as drastic as what the Israelites were facing here, but for me at the time the dynamic was similar. I was at a large leaders’ conference, a pretty intense time of seeking God for wisdom and blessing. I was privileged to be part of the core group tasked with discerning the direction for the various meetings. I was new to such things and probably a little too excited about it all. In one of the core group meetings, I felt a real burden over something, but once I finally had a chance to speak out, I got the impression (right or wrong) that I was really out of line. I felt absolutely terrible and embarrassed. I went to my room, not wanting to show my face in public again (I am being only a little overdramatic!). As I called out to the Lord in my fear and confusion, I had the clear sense that I needed to go forward. That meant joining the others to face whatever might happen, whatever others might think of me, whatever reprimand I might receive, whatever. I had no guaranty of how God would deal with the scary elements ahead of me. I simply had to face them. And as I did, nothing I feared came to pass. My sea had parted.

Some of you reading this need to go forward. You need to walk right towards the very thing that you think will be your complete undoing. But as you do, God will enable you to walk right through it as if it is not really there, just like the Israelites walked through on dry ground. Perhaps he will even obliterate the threat at your back at the same time, just like the Egyptians who drowned when the waters receded.

But as I mentioned at the start, this is only for those for whom it is for. God may have a different tactic for you to follow. Maybe you are to stand, to fight, or something else. Only don’t be surprised if God is telling you to go forward.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Blessed Rejection

For the week of January 16, 2016 / 6 Shevat 5776

Isolated man pushing copy space

Bo
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13-28

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The Egyptians were urgent with the people to send them out of the land in haste. For they said, “We shall all be dead.” (Shemot/Exodus 12:33)

Last week we looked at how God used drastic measures to secure his people’s freedom in Egypt (Love in Action). Because of his love for his people he did what was necessary to break the power of oppression. When the story of the exodus is recounted, we normally hear about God’s sending of Moses, Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to let the people go, and the ten plagues. We remember how Pharaoh finally gives in to God’s demands, but later changes his mind again. However, when his army catches up to the Israelites at the Red Sea, God causes it to part, allowing the people to cross, then drowns the Egyptians. Once on the other side, the people of Israel are finally free to begin the next chapter in their history.

There is an essential aspect of the process of Israel’s deliverance that is often overlooked. It’s a part played by the Egyptian people in reaction to the tenth plague, the killing of the firstborn. We don’t read much up to that point about the common Egyptian. The focus is on God, Moses, his brother Aaron, and Pharaoh. We also read a bit about Egyptian and Jewish leadership. But something crucial happens with the Egyptian people themselves after the tenth plague that may have made all the difference in Israel’s departure. The final plague freaked them out. I don’t blame them. After witnessing the death of the firstborn, if Israel didn’t leave, what could be next other than complete national extermination!

We might wonder why it took the common folks until now to urge the Israelites to leave. Hadn’t they already greatly suffered under the other plagues? Yet it’s reasonable to assume that to have said or done anything with regard to Israel’s liberation would have been illegal until Pharaoh gave his permission. Once he did, and death had visited every Egyptian home, the people pushed them out of the land in haste. Every year we eat matza (English: unleavened bread) to commemorate this very aspect of the story (Shemot/Exodus 12:34,39).

But why was the Egyptians’ urging of the people essential? Didn’t Pharaoh possess supreme power over Egypt? Once the Israelites were told they could go, that should have been it, right? While I am aware we can’t know what would have happened, we do know that after they left, Pharaoh changed his mind again, sending his army to bring them back. Is it not possible that if the Israelites would have hesitated, they may not have been able to leave after all? Also, it’s no small thing for two million people to get up and go after being so entrenched in a society. Individual Egyptians may have wanted to retain their slaves. And the Israelites, once certain that their freedom was secured, may not have felt the need to rush. It may not have occurred to them that Pharaoh would have reneged again on his word and prevented them from leaving. In addition, life in Egypt was not bad in every way. Later, during their travels in the wilderness, they pined after Egypt, saying “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic” (Bemidbar/Numbers 11:5). Egypt was difficult, but it was not as if the wilderness was easy. Both experiences had their positives and negatives. People will put up with a lot if their basic needs are met, even giving up personal freedom and comfort for a sense of security. So without the Egyptians urging them to leave quickly, the Israelites may have stayed.

The theme of liberty that emerges from the story of the exodus is easily romanticized: visions of people singing and dancing with big smiles on their faces as they journey into the horizon. But the exodus is no fairy tale. True freedom is an adventure into the unknown, often fraught with great danger. Freedom in God is a journey of trusting the Unseen One, where we must give up relying on those things we have grown accustomed to, including ourselves and others. That is why God knows that without a push we often prefer whatever oppression we may be in bondage to. That push may arise from within us, as the struggles of life take us to the end of ourselves, but it may also come from elsewhere as it did for the Israelites in Egypt.

When the push comes from others, it can be painful and confusing. It can take years to realize the blessing of rejection. Doors slammed in our faces, friends turning us away, opportunities that never materialized. It would be easy if we could simply get directions from God and follow them. But God knows that we are easily fooled by the false security of our oppressive situations and our natural fear of the great unknown. So he gives us a push, because he loves us too much to leave us where we are.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Love in Action

For the week of January 9, 2016 / 28 Tevet 5776

LoveInAction01_480

Va-Era
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25 – 29:21

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Say therefore to the people of Israel, “I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.” (Shemot/Exodus 6:6)

Love is core to Holy Scripture. The Torah commands the people of Israel to love God with everything they’ve got (see Devarim/Deuteronomy 6:5) and others like oneself (see Vayikra/Leviticus 19:18). Messiah was clear that these particular commandments are the greatest of them all (see Matthew 22:36-40). Love is so key that God himself is defined by it (see 1 John 4:8).

But none of this means anything unless we know what love actually is. Most commonly the term love is used as code for having romantic feelings. “I love you” means “I want you.” It’s not exclusively used that way, of course. Parents, children, and siblings may love one another, but it would be an interesting exercise to see if people could tell you what love really means to them in those contexts.

Irrespective of what people mean by it, the biblical call to love is a call to give of oneself to another. To love within a marriage, or any other sort of relationship, should be about giving not getting. What is given, if it is true sincere love, is to be based on what is best for the other person. Once we understand that, then it’s easier to understand the concept of tough love, doing what is necessary for another, not perhaps what they would prefer. Disciplining a child or refusing to fuel a spouse’s addiction are examples of that. Similarly, in our relationship with God, we shouldn’t misinterpret hardships as something other than his love, for it is through difficulties we become better people (see Hebrews 12:7-11).

Sometimes true love within a relationship is expressed through actions outside that relationship. Loving the poor and the oppressed can and should include direct relief to such persons, but may also require confronting the societal structures causing the oppression. One of the greatest examples of God’s love, therefore, was the plagues of Egypt. The story of Israel’s rescue would have been a much nicer one, had God’s love been expressed solely through Moses’s word to Pharaoh to let the people go. However, Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal called for harsher action.

To grasp the fullness of the meaning of love, whether it be divine or human, we need to come to grips with the need for the kind of extreme measures that God himself utilized in order to alleviate his people’s suffering. Bullies – whether they be a ten-year-old child in the school yard, or oppressive regimes like ancient Egypt – cannot be effectively dealt with by niceness. After being given a reasonable amount of time to cease their destructive behavior, harsh action may be necessary. It is one thing to endure injustice ourselves for God’s sake, but to expect others, be it our own children or people groups, to suffer when we have the means to put an end to it, is to hate, not love, them.

How might you put love in action today?

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Something To Celebrate

For the week of January 2, 2016 / 21 Tevet 5776

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Shemot
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-23

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Then the LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians.” (Shemot/Exodus 3:7-8)

Every year around this time a misguided notion about God is reinforced. Don’t get me wrong. I am not “bah humbug” about Christmas. As Jewish believers my wife and I avoid filling our home with the trappings of this season (Hanukkah notwithstanding), but we like the lights and celebrations, festive food, and some of the songs and other associated cultural expressions. I am also aware that for many, if not most, in the Western world at least, Christmas is highly commercialized, and devoid of any spiritual or biblical significance. The hijacking of this holiday by business and entertainment is certainly an issue to address, as well as an opportunity for those who know better to remind the population at large of the day’s true meaning.

What is most concerning is how that “true meaning” is expressed. As the day to mark the Messiah’s birth, regardless of what the actual timing of that is, the biblical power of the event has been drained away and replaced by sentimentality as if throwing a birthday party for the Messiah is a legitimate way to celebrate God’s subversive rescue plan.

I don’t how silent a night it was, but the birth of the Messiah was nothing less than a death knell to mark the defeat of evil. Merry gentlemen may eventually rest, but not without a fight first. Immanuel had come and the powers of darkness were given notice, and they were not going to take this act of God lying down.

There was nothing sentimental about evil’s reaction to Yeshua’s birth. The power of the Roman Empire was forced upon the Jewish province of Judea in the first century by the diabolical Herod the Great. His response to the birth of the Messiah was to not only kill him, but to slaughter all the infants up to two years old living in that same vicinity just in case. Herod’s reaction demonstrates the threat of Messiah’s coming to all despots, those who usurp the rule of the God of Israel anywhere in the vast universe he created.

Joy to the world indeed! But not the tinsel joy of either “Ho, ho, ho!” or “Happy birthday!” It’s the joy of noble warriors depleted after innumerable years of desperate battle, hearing news that the true King has finally arrived. It’s the joy of renewed strength so that the battle can be reengaged with the certainty of victory filling their hearts.

Probably no statement in the Torah echoes the birth of the Messiah as much as what God told Moses at the burning bush: “I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians.” The wait is over, Israel’s slavery is doomed, Egypt’s power is broken, because God has come down.

That’s what should be marked by Christmas or any legitimate acknowledgement of Messiah’s coming: God has come down. Nothing is the same. Everything is changed. Get with his program before it’s too late, because God has come down.

It’s no wonder that for many, following Yeshua is as passive as it is. Not only is his birth regarded in sentimental terms, so much else about him is as well. Many love the image of his being meek and mild, putting children on his knee and tussling their hair, and don’t realize he shook the world in which he lived, as did his followers. They didn’t use military means, but they confronted religious and political oppression, as they, through God’s word, set the oppressed free so they too would confront evil the world over until now.

Through Yeshua God has come down to establish his world-wide rescue operation. Now that’s something to celebrate!

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Master of Change

For the week of December 26, 2015 / 14 Tevet 5776

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Va-Yehi
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
Haftarah: 1 Kings 2:1-12

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So he blessed them that day, saying, “By you Israel will pronounce blessings, saying, ‘God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh.'” Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh. (Bereshit/Genesis 48:20)

As Jacob neared the end of his life, he blessed his sons. Custom demanded that the firstborn receive a double inheritance. That even God honored this custom is seen later in the Torah whereby a man was not to divert the rights of the firstborn based on relational preferences (see Devarim/Deuteronomy 21:15-17). It’s possible that this is what might be happening in the case of Jacob and Joseph, though it is more probable that Jacob broke with convention due to other reasons. Reuben his firstborn had betrayed his father by having relations with one of his wives, while Joseph proved himself to be the true leader from among his brothers. Regardless, it was unconventional to give Joseph the double portion normally given to the firstborn.

Jacob himself was the beneficiary of this same unconventionality, being the younger brother to Esau. Unlike his own bestowal of double blessing upon Joseph, in Jacob’s case, it was clearly ordained by God. Perhaps this prompted him to place Joseph’s younger son Ephraim ahead of the older Manasseh. Also, one might reasonably assume that if the firstborn blessing was given to Joseph’s sons, Ephraim in particular, then the responsibility of carrying the legacy of the Abrahamic promise would be especially his and would result in preeminence in the nation, including the kingship. But apart from a larger land allotment, the kingship was first given to the tribe of Benjamin before it was permanently established in Judah.

Why is this important? Because through this we see that God is not a radical conservative. While he acknowledges cultural norms and even establishes directives based on them, demonstrating that he values convention, he is not stuck inside the status quo for its own sake. There is a time to keep convention – we don’t reject it due to personal preferences – but convention itself is not what should control us. So while some may reject the notion that change itself is not necessarily better – what is new and different is not always best – the way things are isn’t necessarily the way they should be.

The God of the Bible is the Master of Change. Initiating a creation from nothing is perhaps the greatest example of that. Not only is creation a demonstration of radical change – breaking with the convention of eternal nothingness – that which he created itself is a progressive entity. Adam and Eve weren’t to be conservationists, but change agents, taking the Planet Earth from its infant stage to maturity over time. Their failure had to do with from whom they took their orders.

Bringing about change became even more necessary after our first parents’ disobedience and the resulting curse upon the whole creation. From the earliest days God determined to rectify creation’s plight. That necessitated a confrontation with the way things were in order to transform them into the way they should be. In working that out God inspired countless individuals, from the Prophets to the Apostles, to confront the status quo both inside and outside communities of the faithful.

While conventionalists are correct to assert that God’s ancient revelation of Truth is fundamentally unchangeable and nonnegotiable, there is a tendency to confuse our conventions with God’s will. So while it is irresponsible to ignore convention, to insist upon it for its own sake is idolatry. It is idolatry because it replaces God’s Truth with our own version of it.

Non-conventionalists fall into this same trap as they find meaning, not in the way life should be, but in change for its own sake. Under the guise of being progressive their only goal is not the betterment of life, but their personal preferences, thus making themselves gods. This is exactly what got the human race in trouble in the first place.

Discerning when change is necessary is not straightforward; walking with God never is. While we should not be quick to embrace change for its own sake, if our dependency is on him rather than self, we have a much greater opportunity to keep in step with him.

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The Egyptian Phase

For the week of December 19, 2015 / 7 Tevet 5776

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Va-Yiggash
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 44:18-47:27
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15-28

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And God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.” (Bereshit/Genesis 46:2-4)

The Egyptian phase was crucial in the history of the nation of Israel. Far from being simply an interesting happening in Bible history, there are so many essential aspects to it for Israel’s development and for God’s revelation to both them and the world of the true meaning and purpose of life.

If you have been following the Torah readings from the past few weeks, you know about the circumstances that led up to the migration of Jacob’s growing clan to Egypt. Joseph ends up in Egypt after his brothers sold him into slavery due to their extreme jealously of him. God is with Joseph throughout his years of difficulty there, culminating in his interpreting dreams for Pharaoh, which resulted in his being made second in command in Egypt. His main responsibility was the administration of produce, first to gather it during the years of bountiful harvests, and then to distribute it during the subsequent years of famine, the conditions of which he had predicted. It was his divinely arranged position in Egypt that made the preservation of his family possible.

As far as we can tell, however, it wasn’t necessary to move the family to Egypt. In their desperate need for famine relief, their hope was that the Egyptians would be willing to trade with them. When Joseph shockingly appeared as central to the resolution of their predicament, there was no reason to assume that he would arrange their moving there. In fact, Jacob was afraid to go, but God assured him that they should do this.

There may be a few reasons for Jacob’s hestitancy. He was aware that Canaan was the land of promise. The reasons he left years before were not good ones, as he ran away from his brother’s murderous wrath. His return to Canaan was a positive turning point in his relationship with God. He may have known the stories of his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham in their journeys to other nearby regions, and that doing so was never quite the right thing to do. In addition, going to Egypt may have been even more intimidating. While through Jacob and his many children the development of the nation significantly expanded, a seventy-person clan could be easily overrun or assimilated in a country like Egypt. We don’t know if Jacob was aware of the prophesy God gave Abraham years before that his descendants would live as strangers in a foreign land for four hundred years (see Bereshit/Genesis 15:3). Even if he did, he didn’t know which land that would be.

So not only did God alleviate his fears, he made it clear that Egypt would be the place where the clan would become a great nation. We tend to remember the Egyptian stage as only negative. It eventually became so, but not at first. Far from it. We read, “Thus Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen. And they gained possessions in it, and were fruitful and multiplied greatly.” (Bereshit/Genesis 47:27). “Fruitful and multiplied greatly” echoes the creation mandate of Eden, possibly suggesting that for an unspecified period Egypt was akin to Paradise. Alas, Paradise was not to last. The harsh reality of being strangers in a strange land would bear down upon them until their cries reached heaven and God began the process of rescuing them from slavery. However, whether in prosperous comfort or the pain of oppression, a people was being forged into a nation ready to emerge to take possession of its God-ordained destiny. Jacob knew that Canaan was the goal, the inheritance of his people, but it could not be acquired by staying there. They had to venture out and away for a long time, until his descendants would be ready.

I don’t know if every God-given goal has an Egyptian phase, one where the objective seems to be in our possession, yet requires being let go for a time, even a long time. I don’t know if it is always necessary to journey far away from our dreams for reasons we know nothing about, doing things that don’t make sense before we (or our descendants!) are ready to acquire them. What I do know is that it was essential for them, as it was for many others, such as Moses and David, both of whom were within the immediate sphere of their calling. For different reasons they found themselves away from that place until they were ready and the time was right.

I don’t know if you will have to go through an Egyptian phase yourself or perhaps you’re going through one now. It’s just that I wanted to tell you that if you do or if you are, it’s okay. You’re not the first to do so.

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Wisdom People

For the week of December 12, 2015 / 30 Kislev 5776

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Mi-Kez, Rosh Hodesh, & Hanukkah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 41:1-44:17; Bemidbar/Numbers 28:9-15; & Bemidbar/Numbers 7:1-17
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14-4:7; Isaiah 66:1-24; & 1 Samuel 20:18-42

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And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” (Bereshit/Genesis 41:15-16)

As the news has been filled recently with reports about the international climate-change summit in Paris, I was thinking about this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion). The reason is both have to do with predicting catastrophes and what should be done as result. We are being told that if the countries of the world don’t make significant changes as to how we affect the environment, we will see global devastating disasters. While not global in nature but no less catastrophic for a considerable geographical location, Joseph not only told Pharaoh that a long-term famine was coming, he also provided specific instructions on what to do.

As you may be aware, there are a lot of opinions out there about climate change. It appears that there is sufficient agreement among enough world leaders today on this subject or else the Paris meetings wouldn’t be happening. Others believe climate-change science is bogus. Some are in between, acknowledging that something serious is occurring regarding climate, but believe that the predictions of dire consequences are overblown.

How are we to know the truth about climate change or any other global or regional issue of this magnitude? And once the truth is determined, how do we decide on the best course of action? We learn to address normal everyday problems because they occur regularly. We hopefully learn from the past to prevent or resolve such things the next time they arise. On the other hand, we don’t have experience as a resource with issues such as climate change and where it will supposedly lead us. Therefore our leaders are putting their faith in scientists, economists, and other experts to advise them in order to do whatever it takes to mitigate the supposed coming disaster.

That’s exactly what Joseph did for Pharaoh. For all we know there were other signs that famine was coming. Maybe it was common in those days in that part of the world to have cycles of plenty followed by want. That Joseph proposed a storage and administration plan for Egyptian grain and later engaged the surrounding nations in trade was probably not out of the ordinary. It was knowing the timing, the duration of the good and bad harvests, and knowing exactly how to prepare, that made Joseph’s advice as effective (and unusual) as it was.

It’s this kind of wisdom that we need today and not just to address climate change, but all the other major issues we are facing. We also need keen insight and practical wisdom to effectively deal with terrorism, the refugee crisis, the Israel/Palestinian issue – feel free to add to the list. Whatever it is, we don’t need guessing, educated or otherwise. I know there are a lot of smart people out there, but Joseph wasn’t just smart. His natural intelligence is evident in much of what he did, including the administering of grain during the famine. His determining of the problem and the proposed plan, however, was not the result of his intellectual abilities but due to the revelation of God.

That same wisdom is available today for the asking. We read in the New Covenant Writings, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5). Joseph was confident that in the situation in which he found himself God would do exactly what James wrote so many centuries later. God is generous with the dispensing of wisdom when we need it. Now I know that most of us will likely never be called upon to advise a leader like Pharaoh or speak into an issue on the scale of climate change. But I am convinced that there are a lot more Josephs out there than we might think. If you are not one, you probably know someone who is.

I know that there are more than enough people who think they are smarter than everyone else and have no hesitation spouting their knowledge to any and all. That wasn’t Joseph. He was aware that his understanding came from God and didn’t hesitate to tell Pharaoh that. Perhaps God has given you insight that is not your own. It’s about time you acted with confident humility and share what God has shown you.

As to when, how, and to whom, may God guide. But the Josephs among us have been silent for too long. It’s time to hear the wisdom of God from those upon whom he has bestowed it.

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